Sunday, June 14, 2009

NASCAR TV Ratings Continue to Slip

by Micah Roberts

Last weeks Pocono race marked the seventeenth consecutive week of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing on television that saw a major decrease from the sports coverage of 2008. The final FOX figures for their fifteen races of coverage this season were down from a 5.7 share to 5.1 in 2009. The average viewers for each race during FOX telecasts dropped from 10 million in 2008 to 8.5 million in 2008.

Track attendance has fallen at tracks all across the country, but those figures are much easier explained by the country’s national unemployment rate of 9.4%. It costs money to go to the track, lots of money. After buying two tickets, taking a stroll through the haulers to buy some gear, and then buy a few beers and hot dogs for two, you’re looking at $300 easy and that’s if you don’t drink that much.

Not many are willing to part with their cash right now and are in a freeze mode with all frivolous activities until things start to get better, and quite understandably wise for all of them.

However, the television ratings are what is really puzzling. All the races on TV are free. It’s not like the other sports where there are pay-per-view packages to watch your teams. Any man and woman can sit on their couch and watch the weekly NASCAR race at their own pace. With the unemployment rate being so high, it might even be possible to expect a rise in viewership with so many sitting at home right now.

So NASCAR can blame the economy for attendance, but what do they have to say to the big Networks that paid big cash to televise a sport that was continually on the rise about why things are so down in 2009? The Networks are losing expected money because now they can’t sell an expected rating time slot to advertisers as promised.

It’s obvious that the recent big change in NASCAR with the advent of a double file restart has something to do with creating an answer to the steep declines for the Networks. Really, who makes major changes in the middle of a season, or rather a third of the way through a season, for a high profile sport on a knee jerk reaction?

Nobody, except NASCAR. They have stated they want to do it for the fans, but it’s in a roundabout way through Network pressure to get the ratings up higher. It’s not like they got a ton of fan e-mails, letters, and voice mails and were enlightened. This process went through several channels of NASCAR brass and the competition committee with the goal of gaining more viewers and helping set themselves up for the next for the next Network deal which expires in 2013.

Not surprisingly the discussions all came soon about after the spectacular crash-finish at Talladega and ratings dipped less than any track this season. So NASCAR and the Networks said, “Yes, we need more than that!”

The only facts I have of any of the above are the ratings, attendance, and unemployment rate. Everything else is speculative, but it does make some sense.

As for NASCAR fans not watching? Maybe there is a little bit of the Junior factor not doing well that has alienated a small portion. He is a big part of the sport, but I know their all still out there because I hear them complain about Kyle Busch every day.

Maybe the Car of Tomorrow and some of the mandated changes in 2005 like the single gear ratio for all cars have had something to do with the quality of racing? Pocono’s race last week was another snoozer despite Tony Stewart becoming victorious for the first time as a car owner, thanks in part because of the single gear ratio rule.

Another casualty of the change is on the two road courses, one of which is at Sonoma next week. No down-shifting on a road circuit? Blasphemous for any motor sports fan!

Or quite possibly maybe it's the coverage of NASCAR by the Network themselves. Who doesn't get tired of seeing the replay of a pass or wreck after coming back from another break. "While we were away" does get irritating when it happens after every break. The IRL could help NASCAR and the Networks out with their coverage.

Only time will how NASCAR and the ratings game unfolds. One thing I know for sure is that TNT’s coverage and rating results from Pocono has already shown us that we can’t blame the FOX mascot “Digger” for the ratings decline.

NASCAR has claimed that they are listening to the fans, yet it only seems to have responded to their wallets. The fans and NASCAR go hand and hand, but in order for the fan to feel their getting a fair shake, NASCAR may actually have to listen, and not just say it.

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