After a full season of NASCAR coverage in 2019, NASCAR has something to hang its hat on, as ratings for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series increased ever so slightly over 2018. The increase was very slight, but hey, every little bit helps.
It’s nowhere near where they were in 2014 (outlined here on Frontstretch‘s TV ratings page, which has data going back many years), but the hope is that with the ratings increases from last season, perhaps the worst of the erosion is over.
My biggest takeaway about the ratings in 2019 is that it was random at times which races would increase in viewership and which would drop. Ratings increased 10.7% for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. That race lasted nearly five hours and ended at 12:50 a.m. EDT. Sonoma Raceway, meanwhile, was up 5% despite having very little action for much of the race.
In other examples, New Hampshire Motor Speedway was up 11% with a slightly more competitive race than usual, while Michigan International Speedway jumped nearly 12% for a race that was won on fuel mileage.
Others are a little more obvious, like the ratings increase at the Bristol Motor Speedway night race when Matt DiBenedetto came within 15 laps of claiming his first win.
Some of the decreases, meanwhile, are easy to explain. Both Watkins Glen International and the Food City 500 at Bristol moved from over-the-air TV to cable, which always hurts ratings.
The November race at ISM Raceway was down nearly 20% over 2018. Why? Because the rule package created a terrible race to watch, and the early-season event at the track certainly didn’t help matters. That was combined with impenetrable playoff coverage that made it hard to follow the event.
I’ve found in the past that the race itself doesn’t affect ratings as much as you’d think; actual race fans don’t necessarily skip races because they think it’s going to stink. ISM’s an exception.
As you can imagine, that is very concerning for 2020 with the season ending there. During his state of the sport press conference at Homestead-Miami Speedway last month, NASCAR president Steve Phelps noted that NASCAR is looking into changes to the short track and road course rules package to improve the racing at those tracks. What those changes will look like is anyone’s guess right now.
Homestead was down in ratings, but there’s the added caveat of the HotPass broadcast being split from the ratings instead of being calculated in. That would likely account for some of the ratings drop, but I couldn’t tell you by how much because there isn’t any data on how many people watched the HotPass broadcast instead of the regular one previous to this year.
Are the the overall ratings increases sustainable? I’m not sure, but I hope so. These days, having a good-sized audience watching the races is key, not just on TV, but at the track as well.
That said, there are challenges. FOX Sports is going into unknown territory with no Darrell Waltrip for 2020 and potentially more changes in its on-air lineup down the road.
NBC Sports’ good work, meanwhile, collapsed in the last couple weeks of the season. The aforementioned 20% drop at ISM, combined with the drop at Homestead, wiped out NBC’s gains for the year (it ended up flat for the year; Cup rose overall thanks to FOX’s gains). NBC cannot run out of gas in the final three weeks of the season, lest similar issues arise in 2020.
The short track/road course package rule changes for 2020 are going to be key for how the ratings will sort out on those tracks. If whatever NASCAR comes up with results in more competitive racing, excellent. It’s especially crucial to improve ISM since the championship will be decided there. The current package on shorter tracks really only worked at Bristol.
The Xfinity Series saw every single race during the FOX portion of the season drop in ratings, some by quite a bit. The biggest drops came with Texas and Talladega in the spring, but both of those drops came due to those races being moved from FOX to FOX Sports 1.
The NBC edition of the season saw nine different races post rating increases over 2018, excluding Daytona and Indianapolis from this due to rain issues. NBC’s broadcast from Darlington was the highest rated Xfinity race of the year and the only one to break a 1.0 in the Nielsen ratings. The 22% increase had a lot to do with Dale Earnhardt Jr. being in the race.
Of the three races at Homestead, the Xfinity race was the only one of the three to increase in viewership over 2018. Then again, the Xfinity race seemed to be the best of the three races that weekend.
For 2020, FOX needs to do something to solidify its Xfinity broadcasts. Having Earnhardt race at Homestead might give it a good number in March, but it won’t result in a rating increase for the track over this year.
Racing-wise, 2020 will be wide open in the series since the Big Three (Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick) will all be in Cup. Broadcasters have to be more inclusive and show as much on-track racing as they can. Luckily, outside of Cup, ratings are not as likely to be affected by drivers graduating as Cup ratings could be by drivers retiring.
Also, FOX likes to have its guest analysts, but it needs to settle on a lineup and keep it. NBC seems to have a good thing going right now. It needs to continue to be more inclusive, yes, but in general, keep up the good work.
The Gander Outdoors Truck Series actually turned out quite a bit better than I thought it would for 2019. Eight of the 23 races saw rating increases over 2018, but 11 saw decreases.
FOX got off on the right foot with increases at Daytona and Atlanta before dropping a little at Las Vegas. Later in the year, there were some rating increases in the playoffs. Probably the most significant was 32% ratings increase at Martinsville Speedway in October for what was a pretty good race.
The big drops ratings-wise came with Bristol and Talladega later in the season. That’s because both of those races moved from FOX to FOX Sports 1 and dropped significantly.
Long term, ratings for the series will ultimately depend on the good graces of FOX. Will they give the series its proper due? Will it get the appropriate level of coverage that would be necessary to grow the series?
2019 saw nearly all practice coverage for the series curtailed after Atlanta. Qualifying coverage would often air on FOX Sports 2, limiting the reach. Pre-race coverage is always based out of Charlotte, which is quite limiting no matter what Kaitlyn Vincie’s doing with her cohorts. A number of the races saw the broadcast booth not make the trip, especially after the Cup and Xfinity races on FOX networks ended for the year.
Continued ratings growth for the Trucks is likely dependent on not doing that. I just don’t know if FOX is up to it.
About the author
Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.
Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.
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