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NASCAR Top 10 Storylines 2017: Tumbling NASCAR TV Ratings

One of the NASCAR stories that attracted a lot of attention in 2017, which seems kind of ironic, is NASCAR TV ratings and viewership numbers. In particular, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series declined sharply this season. Some races dropped by as much as 20 percent while just a handful of events posted an increase.  

But those numbers don’t register with NASCAR CEO Brian France. France, at the Homestead finale offered a perspective that everything is fine with viewership. According to him, the numbers are on the rise and the sport has nothing to be concerned about.

Wait, what?

That France tried to peddle a positive spin on TV ratings is a testament to what has become known over the past couple years as “fake news.”  One might wonder where France is getting such a perspective.  Just as importantly, when does everyone else get to see that report?  The take he is offering is, well, suspicious if not an outright avoidance of the truth.  

A writer at Bleacher Report touched upon this topic toward the end of the season by noticing the intersection between the ratings and the driver’s market.

The tweet links to an article pointing at how the 2017 numbers have again followed a downward trend.  From the signing of the last major television deal, beginning in 2015 viewership has dropped 22 percent. The average actual NASCAR audience these days hovers under four million.  

The championship race, won by the affable Martin Truex Jr., was the latest victim. Despite being Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s career finale, the climax to the much-hyped bracket-style playoff revamped by NASCAR hit a snag. Truex’s title win featured the lowest ratings for the finale since the Chase and then Playoffs were first implemented in 2004.  

For the CEO to be spouting that everything’s fine, then is tantamount to putting a Neosporin on a broken bone: it’s not healing the divide. What the facts are, what fans perceive, and what NASCAR executives are touting all appear to be three separate pieces of the pie.

Now, this column isn’t to question what can be done to increase ratings. That is one that has been written a number of times. Ideas have come from a number of different people for years. They’re echoed by others either in comments sections, on Reddit, or any other number of forms of digital interaction.  While many of the proposals that have been mentioned are similar, it doesn’t seem to matter. Those in charge in Daytona Beach aren’t listening.

But a number of questions can still be gleaned from this 2017 trend.  Is there hope or reason to be optimistic?  Are the numbers what they seem?  Are the ratings as important as everyone wonders?  Have you ever been in a Turkish prison?  (Sorry, the last one is for you, Airplane fans.)

Let’s give it a closer look.

The downward spiral for NASCAR television ratings is nothing new. In fact, that’s been in place since before the new contract, in 2012.  Hm, seems like there’s cause for concern there.  

That returns us to the question of whether or not the numbers are completely what they seem.  From an empirical sense, yes, they are, as much as the numbers can be trusted from the formula that devises them.  Where the question exists regarding the numbers is whether people are catching the races via other formats, be it from the broadcast feeds on the web or through social media.  

It’s clear keeping up with sports has gotten easier with the advent of technology. The once vaunted moneymaker for TV or live sports faces new challenges all the time.  This columnist will neither confirm nor deny they may have seen the Floyd Mayweather – Conor McGregor fight through a link handed out on Twitter.  Rest assured, someone out there did.  

The same goes for NASCAR races.  Also consider that MENCS events typically win their weekends when not pitted against football – and even then, they often beat out marquee college matchups. That is to argue ratings may be down but they are still good. Other sports or games would gladly take 3+ million viewers, meaning NASCAR still has value as a commodity.  

Add in the social media mentions and the sport takes on a different feel.  NASCAR continues to be one of the higher-trafficked social media stories, be it through Facebook or Twitter.  The drivers are considered some of the most active in sports and the races themselves populate feeds with GIFs and hashtags like few sports can.  These measures are still being determined as to how they can be used for capital gains but these interactions prove an interest in stock car racing.

The answer then is that, yes, there is reason to be optimistic and yes, the numbers are what they seem. That’s confusing but it’s also reality: both sides of the looking glass have an argument.  Let’s also recognize that viewership for sports is down in total.  While Formula 1, IndyCar, and Major League Soccer have shown modest gains over the past couple years, those numbers are petite compared to the larger number of viewers leaving sports altogether.  

This trend is most likely tied to customers cutting the proverbial cord on cable.  As services like YouTube TV, Sling, or other online streaming companies figure out how to sell TV, the model changes and with it the patterns of consumption.  It’s no surprise then that ESPN just laid off another 150 employees this past week. (Happy Holiday timing from the Disney company!)  

What ESPN and NASCAR are both facing, in their own ways, are regressions to the mean or market corrections.  Both enjoyed amazing, unbridled success. But now, both are finding that perhaps they had extended themselves beyond their reach and are trying to find their place in the world.  For each one, the awareness comes in the form of downsizing.

But while ESPN is a juggernaut that faces all kinds of issues, NASCAR can still look toward potential for growth.  Everyone isn’t going to be switching over to watching iRacing next year, are they?  

Are they?

That leads us to the last question: are the numbers important?  Somewhat.  They’re crucial for the sponsors and perhaps the reason some older drivers are not finding the work they want. Companies may not see the same return on their investment as they once had; demographics and money may prevent them from backing a driver like Matt Kenseth.  The ratings are also a main part of the way in which the television deals are brokered. Luckily, NASCAR is locked in for a few more years on its current deal; by the time 2024 expires, a transition to a different type of sports consumption may be well underway. (And a ratings uptick to go with it.)

The bigger realization is that Fox and NBC may be fine with the numbers because they continue to use NASCAR as a way to get people to pay attention to their secondary stations FOX Sports 1 and NBCSN.  For those channels, NASCAR serves as a lure and a way to encourage/bully people into buying that product, so the low numbers come at a cost of developing/pushing those identities. Whether or not the executives are happy with total viewership may be one for debate down the road. But they can’t be unhappy considering these races consistently become the top 10 most watched events on their channel all-time. (NASCAR still beats Olympic Curling qualifiers on NBCSN.)

The truth is, the numbers slouch isn’t good but it’s not a sign of the apocalypse just yet.  The trend may be a harbinger, like the four horsemen riding down the frontstretch at Daytona, signaling the end is nigh. But we’ve got a few more years before the hoof-falls sound off the track.  

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About Huston Ladner

Huston Ladner

Promoted to editor this season, Huston works through some of the site’s biggest columns while writing one of his own: Happiness Is… (Fridays). “Stranded” on the islands of Hawaii, the aspiring college professor also helps anchor our IndyCar and Formula One racing coverage while coordinating Pace Laps, our multi-series news update (Mondays) each week.

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9 comments

  1. All the talking heads and people on the Nascar payroll and the ones afraid of losing their hard cards can say what they want and blame it on anything under the sun. But I’ve been going to to Nascar races since the 70’s when it was an effort to go to more than a few a year living in the northeast and I’ve been to well over 200 cup races alone. The problem started as soon as Brian France took over and I heard him make the statement saying I’m not going to wait around to make a decision when I do I’ll make it quick right then I knew the sport was in trouble his Dad and Grandfather thought through all their decisions and then made them even if I did not agree as a fan it usually worked because they thought everything through. The problems started as soon as he made his first decision about racing back to the start finish line when a caution came out ( because Dale Jarrett ALMOST got hit ) he did not think it through and all the gimmicks started then the lucky dog then the wave around to make the sponsors happy then lapped cars to the back of the field then closing pit road to fix scoring problems that were caused by cars pitting as soon as the yellow came out. In the 80’s and 90’s I had 17 tickets for both races at Dover the track would not sell me more they thought I was a scalper but it was mostly the same group of guys and I did not sell them for a profit I started having them buy their own tickets as of now I’m down to 3 tickets and only one other guy who went has 2. It was pretty much every time they made a rule change someone backed out saying the sport is getting ridiculous. What you have is a sport that is hardly even close to what it was and a bunch of people who are to scared to say anything to the fearless leader because they are worried about getting fired and a leader who will not admit to his mistakes or address them because he is to proud to admit them. The only way to fix it is ask the fans and make the changes they want not by fake poles or internet surveys that get rigged. If they want to fix it listen to the fans only the sponsors and TV networks are not there because they want to be they were there because the had to be and we were the reason. There is not just one problem it has multiplied since Bill France passed away and I’m not blaming Brian France for all of it he negotiated one hell of a TV contract more than once it also is the people who work for him are just as at fault for not speaking up and letting the whole thing get out of hand.

  2. Good article and a lot of truth involved in it. Ratings, we don’t need no stinking ratings right Brian? But the sponsors want to see the numbers so the smaller the numbers the smaller the sponsor commitment. NASCAR is indeed on the downhill slide and has been for a while. It was treated like a cash cow for a while and it was. $12 dollar beers, $20 bucks to park, hotel rooms tripled in price and tickets for a weekend reached figures as high as $500 to 700 dollars just for average seats. With that said, there is a lot of room for improvement and NASCAR can stabilize but not with the current leadership at the helm. Brian France is clueless and couldn’t buy a clue if he needed to. He has surrounded himself with yes men like Mike Helton and that is the perfect storm to lose the fans and the sponsors. Change is needed but as long as NASCAR is a family owned business, it won’t come for a long time if ever.

    • $12 dollar beers and $20 parking? I’ve never seen that in 10+ years going to races. Every track I’ve been to offers free parking, and most beer prices are in the $6 to $8 range (no different than any other major sport). I’m sure some tracks offer high end craft options for those prices, but not for Bud or Miller. If you pay some guy $20 to park in their front lawn that’s your decision. However, every track except Phoenix allows you to bring outside beer in. Outside of the Daytona 500, no NASCAR ticket price even approaches the $500 to $700 range (at the 500 that’s the price for 4 day tickets on the start-finish line). I’ve found at most tracks the best seats in the house range about $100 to 150 per ticket now. At Martinsville $85 will sit you right at the start-finish line high up. Hotels are an issue, but NASCAR and the tracks can’t control that, especially when many tracks are in the middle of nowhere. If you are willing to drive an hour to the track you will find hotel prices come down a lot (go to Martinsville, stay in Greensboro).

  3. Older generation NASCAR fan here. I no longer have cable so that means I don’t watch the races if they are not on FOX or NBC. Oh well, I’ve moved on. I catch the races I can, and get my updates via jayski.

  4. Its difficult to make comparisons that are valid, because Nascar is in some ways unique. To say it outdraws marque college football ways overlooks the fact that there are multiples of football games each day of the weekend. It total I’m sure that they far outdraw the single nascar race. Not to mention that nascar cup races typically goes up against the nfl on Sunday. The Xfinty series competes against the college games and that isn’t even a contest.
    But every business faces a continuing set of challenges and Nascar is no exception. The continuing shift to digital and the evolution of the automobile industry away from fossil fuels being only two of the major ones.

    One of the key issues seems to be that the average age of a nascar fan has gone up by nine years since 2007. To me that would be a huge red flag t the powers that be in Daytona. But I imagine that they like myself have no clue how to reverse that trend.

  5. Good article, certainly the TV numbers are concerning, but it isn’t all NASCAR’s fault. Media consumption is changing. When NASCAR hit its heights in the mid-2000s the smartphone didn’t even exist, streaming was in its infancy and social media platforms were just starting to take off. That being said, NASCAR is paying the price for some really boneheaded decisions. Most notably loading up the schedule with 1.5 mile tracks at a time when areodynamics were taking over more and more. Moving the Southern 500 was the worst of it. SMI deserves a bit of the blame too. It’s lawsuit forced NASCAR’s hand, got Texas its second race and put the final nail in Rockingham’s coffin. Add in the ugliness of the COT, constant changes in the championship structure and you have a recipe for problems with an older more nostalgic fan base.

    That being said, that despite Brian sounding as clueless as ever, things are slowly getting better. The Southern 500 moved back to Labor Day, the Gen-6 car put more manufacture identity back in, NASCAR appears committed to reducing areodynamic dependance and tracks are looking at innovative ways to improve the racing and the fan experience.

  6. 2018 will be a significant wake up call for the idiots in Daytona running NASCAR. I would guess the viewership, attention, and any “other” consumption will be down another 20+% with so many top driver draws not being there anymore. Heck the 88 driver leaving alone may account for 90% of drop in viewership.

    Too bad there is no longer a racer running NASCAR as it had for the first 56 years of its existence.

  7. Well, my goodness, Scraps is a boy dog, isn’t he?
    Jimmy, do you like it when Scraps holds onto your leg and rubs up and down?
    …and stop calling me Shirley!!!!

    Seriously, Brian wouldn’t tell the truth even if ratings declined to zero. He’d spin it so it sounded positive just like politicians. Instead of a “tax increase” it’s a “tax refund adjustment”. I can’t even listen to him talk anymore because he so full of shit (once again, just like a politician). After a while it becomes insulting because you feel he must think you are stupid enough to believe him or he wouldn’t be saying it. What an a-hole.

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