What FOX has labeled as NASCAR’s “Best Season Ever” started out with a record low — ratings, that is.
And while there are many factors as to why, no one should shoulder more blame than the television partners, FOX and NBC.
Sports Business Journal reported Feb. 17 that the Daytona 500 on FOX only had 4.83 million people watch and scored a 2.8 rating — both abysmal numbers for NASCAR’s biggest race.
The weather delay impacted those numbers greatly, of course. But last year’s Great American Race also had a rain delay. Weather forced that race to be ran on a Monday evening, and it scored a 4.4 rating and had 7.3 million viewers.
To put those numbers into perspective, the two previous Daytona 500s were not affected by rain. The 2019 edition scored a 5.3 and had 9.2 million viewers, and the 2018 one had a 5.3 and 9.3 million viewers.
NASCAR and FOX can’t control the weather, and the ratings would’ve been much higher had there not been the rain delay. In fact, the race might’ve ended up having more viewers than the 2019 Daytona 500 had the rain not come. 2020 had more viewers at the start than this year, but a large part of that was the bump it received by having former president Donald Trump as part of the pre-race ceremonies.
.@FoxTV earned a 2.8 average rating and 4.83 million viewers for the entire rain-delayed Daytona 500.
➖ The race started with a 4.7 rating and was trending to be slightly up from 2019, but casual viewers appear to have left the channel en masse after the five-hour rain delay. pic.twitter.com/ZZKWXiLG9h
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) February 17, 2021
So this race would’ve had good ratings and given FOX a solid boost toward its “Best Season Ever” had there not been lightning and rain. The problem is that the rain could’ve been avoided if FOX hadn’t insisted on starting the race after 3 p.m. ET. Had the race started at 12:15 p.m. ET like it traditionally used to, then there might have been a big enough window to get the whole race in without any rain delay.
In the early years of the Daytona 500, it would start at 11 a.m. ET. When ABC’s Wide World of Sports started showing segments of the race in 1962, the start time bounced around between noon, 12:30 and 1 p.m. ET (which I don’t fully understand because my understanding is the races were shown tape delayed until 1974).
When CBS broadcasted the Great American Race from 1979-2000, it always started at 12:15 p.m. ET. That wasn’t just some arbitrary number that NASCAR happened to come up with. Part of the reason is started so early was Daytona International Speedway didn’t have lights, which were eventually added in 1998.
But also, guys like Bill France Sr. and anyone else who has spent extended time in Florida, knew that it rains in the late afternoon almost every day in Daytona Beach, Fla. As I write this, I’m checking the weather forecast in Daytona, and the highest chance of rain for Feb. 18 was between 5-6 p.m. ET.
Then FOX and NBC entered NASCAR in 2001, and the start time of the Daytona 500 immediately shifted to 1 p.m. ET, then to 2:30, to finally 3:30 before it went back to 1 in 2010. Then that cycle of pushing it later and later started again until it got back to where we are now.
FOX keeps pushing the start time later because it wants it at a more convenient time for West Coast fans. I get that and don’t blame it for trying to attract more fans. The problem is it comes at the expense of current fans on the East Coast, something NASCAR President Steve Phelps said the series had been guilty of in recent years and swore not to do anymore. Because of the later start times, any sort of rain delay makes it so that many fans on the East Coast can’t watch because it’s too late on a Sunday or Monday night and they have to go to bed.
While NBC has not broadcast the Daytona 500 since 2006, I rope it into this blame as well because it did the same thing last year with several of its events. But its offense was even worse because it scheduled races at 4 p.m. ET at tracks without lights (Pocono Raceway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Michigan International Speedway and Dover International Speedway). That puts NASCAR in a situation where if there is any sort of delay in those events, they have to almost immediately be rescheduled for Monday. There’s no buffer.
Not to mention, NBC values the evening news more than NASCAR. So the second the clock struck 6 p.m. ET, coverage shifted to NBC Sports Network, even if the field was coming to take the green flag with two laps to go. Once again, NBC didn’t allow for there to be a buffer.
And that’s likely a big reason why the Daytona 500 was scheduled at noon ET for so long. Sure, rain still hit. But there was still enough time in the day for NASCAR to find a window to get the race in. From 1967-2002, every Daytona 500 went the full distance. None were moved to Monday, and none before 1998 even had the opportunity to finish under the moonlight.
Since then, two have been shortened by weather (2003, 2009), two have been delayed to Monday (2012, 2020) and two more have finished super late on Sunday night (2014, 2021). So essentially, the Daytona 500 went off smoothly for the most part for its first 40-plus years before having massive weather issues in the 20 years since the start time started getting later.
Maybe part of that issue is climate change? I won’t rule that out, but it still gives TV networks no excuse for caring more about getting a fan who might not even watch than the longtime fans and ticket buyers. The later start times haven’t caused a massive boon in the ratings. In fact, there’s less people watching now than there were after a couple years into FOX’s and NBC’s tenure. So why keep pretending that the answer is to start races even later?
Part of the problem is that NASCAR shifts around its start times so much now that if fans aren’t checking online weekly, they won’t know what time a race is going to start any given week. That’s a huge problem for older fans who aren’t tech savvy.
The NFL has the same start times every week: 1 p.m. ET for most teams, 4 p.m. ET for West Coast teams and the key matchup and a night game at 8:30 p.m. ET. Fans know if they turn on their TV at those times, they will see a game. They know that their local team is likely playing at 1 p.m. their time every week unless they have a big matchup. That consistency has helped the NFL become the No. 1 sporting league in the U.S.
You don’t see the NFL moving away from 1 p.m. ET games to try to get more West Coast fans to watch. I’ve spoken to a couple West Coast NFL fans, and they love having games at 10 a.m. Sunday morning. Then they can watch some football and then have their evening open to do whatever. You sure as hell don’t see the NFL catering to West Coast fans when it comes to the games in London. Those games start at 6 a.m. PT, and but people must be watching them, because the NFL keeps having them.
NASCAR has tried to mimic the NFL in other ways, why can’t it also try to copy the consistent start times? Start each day race at noon for whatever time zone the race is in. So East Coast races should start at noon ET, West Coast races start at 3 p.m. ET, etc.
The good news is NASCAR is noticing the issue.
.@Ourand_SBJ: "Given the number of rain delays that have hit NASCAR’s biggest race over the last two decades, it may be worth thinking about starting the race at noon again. I’d be surprised if these discussions weren’t already happening."
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) February 18, 2021
The bad news is it’s not NASCAR’s call to make. It’s the TV networks’. We’ve already seen this year how FOX forced NASCAR to sacrifice a short track race by turning Bristol Motor Speedway into a dirt track for its spring race instead of going to a real dirt track. Few wanted that, but the networks live in their own bubbles.
In the same way, I can see FOX ignoring the outcry from so many in the NASCAR industry that the Daytona 500 shouldn’t start so late. Instead, it’ll chalk the low ratings up to the race starting back up at 10 p.m. ET on Sunday night instead of 5 p.m. ET Monday night. And it’d be right — a race finishing in primetime on a Monday will always perform better than a race ending after midnight. But in that process, it would skim over the real problem: that all of this could’ve been avoided by an earlier start.
But I doubt it makes any changes to the start times anytime soon. It won’t do anything that’ll put the viewer ahead of the advertiser like that would.
Hopefully I’m wrong and the networks learn from their errors instead of doubling down on them. But if I’m not, then boy, do I hope CBS, ESPN or any other network outbid FOX and NBC in a couple years.