NASCAR television ratings are consistently trending downwards. Either NASCAR CEO Brian France refuses to admit that or he’s got some super-secret information that the sport is refusing to make public.
Sunday’s NASCAR finale won by Martin Truex Jr. had significantly fewer viewers than last year’s championship race.
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) November 20, 2017
The decline was even steeper when compared to 2015 — the final race of Jeff Gordon’s career. The overnight rating for Gordon’s last race was a 4.4. Yes, that’s a 40+ percent decline in just two years.
You can understand why France and other NASCAR executives are popping Pepto Bismol tablets every time they see the sport’s television ratings. Sunday’s race followed a widely-known trend of fewer people watching Cup Series races in 2017 than they have in the years prior.
Yet France, speaking before Sunday’s race, refused to admit that ratings were falling. When he was asked about the departures of drivers like Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick (partially due to a lack of sponsorship) and ratings and sponsorship struggles, France had this to say.
“Well, that isn’t quite accurate on the ratings and attendance because attendance is up at many, many events, I think it’s 20 something events, 22 or 23, and consumption is changing for everybody, so that’s not accurate, either,” France said.
Perhaps France was attempting to channel his inner Sean Spicer when the former press secretary tried to falsely claim the inauguration crowds for President Donald Trump were the biggest crowds in history.
France has previously attempted to spin any previous decline of NASCAR television ratings as part of a widespread consumption change. While it’s true that media consumption habits are changing, they aren’t changing that much for NASCAR fans. Unless that change is ignoring the sport altogether.
Take the Nov. 5 race at Texas Motor Speedway. Per Sports Media Watch, 2.7 million people watched the race on television. When those that streamed the race on NBC’s mobile app were taken into account, that number went up … to 2.72 million.
At that link in the prior paragraph, you can also see a well-laid-out chart that shows that all but one of the Cup Series races that aired on cable in 2017 suffered a year-to-year ratings decline.
If on the off-chance France is telling the truth that it’s not “quite accurate” that TV ratings haven’t gone up and there are many, many, many NASCAR fans streaming the race that only he knows about, the sport would have already shared that data by now. It would be foolish of NASCAR to not have countered all notes about how the sport keeps setting record television low ratings by now with its own data that the sport was not dealing with a ratings freefall.
France’s television ratings comment wasn’t the only curious thing said at the press conference he held with NASCAR president Brent Dewar. Here’s a sampling of some other things. You can read a full transcript of the exec-speak here.
Dewar, when asked about a possible spending cap in NASCAR and efforts to reduce costs for teams.
“So I think the first thing I’d like to clear there, we’re not on a cost‑cutting effort, we’re on medium and advanced design of where we’re going to do these vehicles. So from that, what we’ve been working on with the team owners is taking some of the waste out of the system of how we have traditionally gone to market. So it’s hard work. It’s design and engineering, it’s collaboration, it’s a lot of those elements. So I’d say we have a model, we have a contract with our team owners for‑‑ it was a nine‑year deal, so we’ve got eight more to go, and we’ve got a contract with our tracks where they all understand the economics, and that was a very important‑‑ we went from one‑year contracts to this more stable platform to allow us to come together to kind of work on that.”
The bolded parts of Dewar’s quote are our own added emphasis. A sentence after saying that the sport wasn’t in a cost-cutting effort, Dewar said the sport was collaborating with team owners about ways they can reduce costs.
Dewar’s answer to that question continued and ended with this thought.
“You go at it, you focus on racing that matters to the fans, and you start working on some of that waste out of the system that you can do that as organizations come together. You’ll hear a lot more of this in the coming months, years, down the road. What we’re trying to do is talk about racing during race season and off‑season during the off‑season. It’s been one of my biggest challenges since I’ve been here. People like to talk about the off‑season during the season, and that’s uniquely NASCAR, as well. But I’ll die trying to fix that.”
NASCAR is far from the only sport whose offseason is a topic during the season. Ask any Kansas City resident. The 2017 Royals season philosophy was dominated by the reality that the team’s core group of players would likely be leaving as free agents at the end of the season.
And it’s impossible to not talk about the offseason of a sport during the season when driver changes for the upcoming season are announced in the middle of a season.
Take Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement as a prime example. After Junior announced his retirement in April, one of NASCAR’s top storylines became who would replace him in the No. 88 in 2018. And, as Alex Bowman replaced him and William Byron took Kasey Kahne’s spot with Hendrick Motorsports in 2018 and Erik Jones replaced Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing, it became clear that replacing expensive veterans with younger, cheaper drivers was NASCAR’s new reality. That — among other things — an in-season story whether Dewar likes it or not.
Dewar, in response to a question about adding more short tracks to the Cup Series schedule.
“I don’t know how we all got to this, this cookie cutter, short track, intermediates. They’re all different; each one has its personality. In the Martinsville race where we had a lot of social media push, that was classic Martinsville, and the summer race in Bristol was a phenomenal race with Erik Jones out leading. That’s Bristol. Now, they’re both short tracks, but I would say this track was very different from the race we had in Kansas, Texas with the new banking change. One of the directions we’re going to take is we’ve kind of lost as an industry the communication of how important and unique every one of these tracks are, and we’ve gone to Goodyear, we announced the multiyear extension yesterday, and we’re working with Goodyear to try to keep working on uniqueness and matching that tire to these unique track services.”
NASCAR helped start the cookie-cutter track phenomenon when the tracks it added to the schedule in the late 1990s and early 2000s were 1.5-mile tracks. That’s when Chicago, Kansas and Texas were added to the Cup Series schedule and Kentucky Speedway broke ground in 1998. While all four of those tracks have their own characteristics, it’s undeniable that the sport had a fetish for similar tracks approximately 20 years ago.
Again, the bolded emphasis is ours in the quote above. We’re not sure what social media push has to do with the racing that happened at Martinsville in October. Perhaps people were talking about the racing at Martinsville on social media because it was dramatic short-track racing? Drivers know they can’t move each other out of the way at 1.5-mile tracks because aerodynamics are too important. The race at Martinsville was special because it’s the only short track in the playoffs.
That will change in 2018 with the addition of Richmond to the playoff schedule. But if NASCAR wants its fans to understand how diverse its tracks are, not having four or five 1.5-mile tracks in the playoffs would be a good place to start.
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