NASCAR’s first-half viewership trends down

NASCAR’s first-half viewership trends down

By Adam Stern, Staff Writer


Viewership for the Las Vegas race was down 17 percent, one of the eight races that saw double-digit declines.
NASCAR’s new racing format and title sponsor weren’t enough to prevent a slip in TV ratings for the first half of the season.

Despite being up 5 percent in viewership for the Daytona 500, the sport’s biggest race, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was down 12 percent in viewership from the first half of last season, from an average of 5.6 million to 4.9 million. After Daytona, Fox Sports only saw one more race with an audience uptick, and eight of 14 races studied saw double-digit percentage declines compared to 2016.

Moreover, the sport’s two publicly traded track corporations, International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc., have both reported drops in admissions revenue thus far this season — this on the heels of years of similar incremental downticks.

Still, executives say they’ve seen enough positive storylines to keep them confident in the sport’s overall standing.

“It’s a bit of a mixed bag,” Steve Phelps, executive vice president and chief global sales and marketing officer at NASCAR, said of the ratings. “There are certainly people who would say that, ‘Hey, NASCAR is down.’ I would say that we’re actually not down; we’re down in a particular metric, but there are other metrics where we’re up and up significantly.”

First Look podcast, with NASCAR discussion beginning at the 16:50 mark:

Other first-half highlights

NASCAR’s young stars are delivering: Kyle Larson, the 24-year-old Asian-American who rose through the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, has won two Monster Energy Series races this season, been out front all year and is leading the point standings. He’s joined by other young winners in Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. That’s a significant development because of the need for new stars given the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, and the forthcoming retirement of the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Monster came aboard as the new premier series sponsor, which has brought a younger vibe to events. Despite growing pains stemming from a cluttered beverage category, Monster executive Mitch Covington has maintained that the energy drink company is benefiting from its sponsorship. Tangible results include business-to-business deals with retailers resulting in improved shelf space for Monster.

Fanatics changed its model for NASCAR from a tent-based system to one that includes haulers and also selling more merchandise inside of track’s gates as opposed to the outside midway.

NASCAR’s team sponsorship space continued to be volatile, but long-term renewals were signed by Shell with Team Penske and FedEx with Joe Gibbs Racing. Among the deals to watch in the second half of the season is the sanctioning body’s pact with tire manufacturer Goodyear, which is up for renewal.
Positive indicators included Monster Energy Series events being the Nos. 1 or 2 most-watched sport event of the weekend 13 out of 16 weekends during the Fox season, Fox Sports Go’s average minute audience for Monster Energy Series races being up 64 percent from last year, and NASCAR’s social platforms being up more than 70 percent in engagement.

Fox carried the first half of the season and NBC will broadcast the second half. Among the most prominent silver linings for Fox, its ad sales group said it saw a 5 percent uptick in ad revenue this year, despite the ratings drop.

Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of research for league operations and strategy, pointed out that ratings are ultimately used to drive ad sales, so the uptick in sales is notable. But he stressed that Nielsen ratings will remain the currency of the business for the ad sales industry for the foreseeable future, despite the rise of competing metrics, so the network still takes the reports “very seriously as a measure of how we’re doing business.”

He added that Fox is particularly proud that FS1 beat ESPN2 in total-day viewership for the months of May and June, the first time the channel had done so two months in a row. He cited NASCAR programming as helping drive that, alongside other properties like MLB.

“When you talk about why has FS1 beaten ESPN2 for two months in a row for the first time ever — why FS1 has a chance to pass them for the year to date in the next couple months, I would say the biggest contributor has been NASCAR,” Mulvihill said.

NASCAR introduced stage racing this season as a way to break up multi-hour races into segments amid shifting attention spans from today’s viewers and encourage harder racing earlier in events. Mulvihill said Fox did see average length of tune-in go up this season for Monster Energy Series races, meaning fans tuned into races for longer amounts of time, though it was not by an overly significant amount.

Viewership numbers slip

Fox and FS1 for its package of 16 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races this season averaged 4.9 million viewers, down 12 percent from 5.6 million last year and down 14 percent from 5.7 million in 2015, which was the first year under a new media rights agreement. Eight of the races saw double-digit percentage declines compared with 2016, despite later start times this season for many Sunday races.

NASCAR viewership

Date Network Track Viewers (000s) Previous Change +/-
2/26/17 Fox Daytona 11,922 11,357 5%
3/5/17 Fox Atlanta 6,597 6,800 -3%
3/12/17 Fox Las Vegas 5,973 7,228 -17%
3/19/17 Fox Phoenix 5,389 6,633 -19%
3/26/17 Fox Auto Club 5,188 6,809 -24%
4/2/17 FS1 Martinsville 3,963 4,232 -6%
4/9/17 Fox Texas 4,528 4,339 4%
4/30/17 Fox Richmond 4,579 4,700 -3%
5/7/17 Fox Talladega 5,897 6,656 -11%
5/13/17 FS1 Kansas 2,620 3,142 -17%
5/28/17 Fox Charlotte* 4,636 5,731 -19%
6/4/17 FS1 Dover 3,356 3,985 -16%
6/18/17 FS1 Michigan 3,144 3,451 -9%
6/25/17 FS1 Sonoma 3,240 3,896 -17%

* Race had a weather delay.
Note: Bristol moved to Monday this year, while Pocono was held on a Monday last year. Both of those races are excluded from the numbers. Texas moved from Saturday prime time to Sunday afternoon for 2017.
Source: SportsBusiness Daily research

A highlight of stage racing thus far came at Martinsville Speedway, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who was a lap down, bumped then-leader Kyle Busch on the final lap of an early stage in order to stay on the lead lap. That’s the sort of situation that may not have taken place if the same scenario was played out but without stage racing. Still, that came at a short track, and there have been fewer highlight-reel moments from 1.5-mile tracks, which comprise the bulk of NASCAR’s schedule. And whether the stages ultimately help reverse viewership declines remains to be seen.

Another reason NASCAR introduced stage racing was to better align commercial breaks on TV with breaks in the action, and NASCAR said Fox showed about 40 percent more green-flag coverage this season, both due to stage racing as well as Fox increasingly using its double box, where one side of the screen shows advertising while another side shows the race.

Phelps said NASCAR data showed fans were initially split on stage racing, but has shifted to more than 80 percent support.

“You get that high a number that quickly, and you know you’ve hit on something that’s going to work,” Phelps said.
While some in the NASCAR community expressed frustration by the drop in race viewership, especially the large double-digit drops, one media analyst stressed that NASCAR remains an effective audience driver.

“NASCAR ratings can’t be viewed in isolation,” Neal Pilson, president of Pilson Communications and former president of CBS Sports, wrote in an email. “We are experiencing a slow decline in television ratings for all sports and all networks (including the entertainment channels). In fact, with cord cutting, the cable universe has reduced by 9 million homes (close to 10 percent) in the past 5 years. Network coverage of NASCAR events continues to be the most effective and efficient platform for sponsors and advertisers to reach the auto racing audience.”