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NASCAR gains ground in top TV markets

NASCAR gains ground in top TV markets

By Bill King, Senior Writer

Published

Not long after Fox Sports CEO David Hill arrived at Daytona International Speedway for this year's race lead-up, he was summoned to an area near Victory Lane, where Jeff Hammond, a former NASCAR crew chief who now is a Fox TV analyst, was waiting next to a race car that had been sliced in half.

This would be the visual aid to end all visual aids, Hammond told Hill, a prop that allowed him to take viewers inside a car's engine and transmission. It would help him to explain adjustments that crews made and to display what had gone wrong when a car suddenly started belching black smoke.

"David lit up like he'd just opened a Christmas present, because this is what he'd been preaching," said Paul Brooks, NASCAR's vice president of broadcasting. "He has said all along that what we needed to do was to educate the fans."

Nearing the midpoint of the third season of NASCAR's landmark, six-year TV deal with Fox, NBC and Turner Sports, the payoff from that approach is clear. Once thought to be a passion exclusive to the rural South, NASCAR has gotten its claws into a national audience.

Even after giving back some ground in seven of the nation's 10 largest TV markets thus far this season — NASCAR and Fox blame a rain-shortened Daytona 500 and three weekends of war coverage — the gains that Winston Cup ratings have made since 2000 in those citified markets are striking.

Up 35 percent in New York.

Up 34 percent in Los Angeles.

Up 109 percent in Chicago.

Through the 10 events run through April 27, Winston Cup racing on Fox was averaging a 5.6 nationally, down slightly from the 5.8 the network posted for the same races last season. Those numbers do not include the 9.8 that Fox got this year for the rain-shortened Daytona 500, which aired on NBC last year.

"As far as ratings go, I don't know if there's a healthier sport in this country," said Fox Sports President Ed Goren. "You simply cannot average a national 6 off of one region of the country. It can't happen. The national ratings week in and week out declare that this is a national sport."

This isn't to say that the stock car set has stormed Tavern on the Green or Spago. While growing by large percentages, NASCAR still does relatively small numbers in New York (2.0 thus far this season), Los Angeles (2.7) and San Francisco (2.2). Its share in each of those markets, and in Chicago, remains in the single digits.

Still, in a sports television market under siege, NASCAR's steady growth across the last three years has caught the attention of many who were skeptical at the start.

Brooks

"The fact is, it's been phenomenal," Brooks said. "We have grown in the right area and that audience is staying.

"If you look at the state of the union, we couldn't be more happy, not just because we've shot up, but because we're really positioned for long-term growth. We're holding that audience in an environment that's been challenging, with war coverage and rain."

NASCAR's greatest gains thus far this season have come in an intriguing cross section of markets. Through April, Winston Cup ratings were up 28 percent in Oklahoma City, 23 percent in Memphis, 22 percent in Buffalo and Seattle and 21 percent in Boston.

The strongest markets still are as you'd expect: Greensboro, N.C. (15.9), Greenville, S.C., (13.4), Charlotte (13.1), Indianapolis (11.8), Knoxville, Tenn. (10.6), and Dayton, Ohio (10.6).

In spite of NASCAR's growth through the 1990s, it took a surge in the larger markets to win over many ad agencies and companies that had written the sport off as low demographic, Goren said.

"One of the real misconceptions was that NASCAR draws big numbers but the demos are pretty weak," Goren said. "Nothing can be further from the truth. The demos that people are looking for are right in line with the overall national number. We're proving that year after year."

NASCAR attributes the swing in the major markets to a combination of factors.

Latching on with Fox for the first half of the season and NBC for the second gave NASCAR a consistent place on the broadcast schedule. It also gave NASCAR more chance to build relationships with affiliates of the two networks, and thus a stronger promotional vehicle in the larger markets, which it set as a priority from the outset.

Brooks and Goren both concede that while they continue to look for more growth, the sport's TV performance already has exceeded all expectations.

"If I sat back three years ago and said we'd grow our audience by 54 percent, I'm not so sure that would have been a credible forecast to make," Brooks said. "You had leagues doing backflips over being up 2 or 3 percent, so to look back at 54 percent, I'd be kidding you to say we expected that."

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