Any discussion about NASCAR’s TV ratings first has to come with a caveat. There are plenty of other leagues not named the NFL that would crawl over hot coals on their hands and knees to reach the total audience NASCAR does. It’s not an apples to apples comparison by any means, but across the sports world NASCAR ratings are still relatively decent.
That said, compared to where the sport has been, NASCAR’s ratings are a major disappointment. And the freefall is not ending anytime soon. So far in the 2014 season, NASCAR’s ratings continue to hit multi-year lows for almost every single race.
According to Paulsen at the excellent Sports Media Watch, the NASCAR on Fox season that just ended earlier this month suffered record lows in nine races. Nine races! Sprint Cup races at Daytona, Martinsville, Las Vegas, Darlington, Talladega, Richmond, Kansas, Charlotte and Dover all drew overnight rating lows for the network that first started televising NASCAR in 2001. In fairness – a few of those races, including Daytona, had to deal with rain delays. And again, Fox’s last race of the season at Dover that registered a 3.3 overnight rating beat Game 7 of the NHL’s Western Conference Finals.
Still though, NASCAR on Fox saw its three lowest rated races ever this season in the Saturday night races at Richmond and Kansas and a Sunday afternoon race at Dover.
As the calendar has switched to TNT for their summer series of races, ratings news has been equally as depressing. The Michigan race last weekend saw its lowest viewership in 18 years. As Paulsen observes, just 2 of 13 races this season have seen viewership increases versus races last year.
The reasons for NASCAR’s falling ratings have been debated for years. Jimmie Johnson’s dominance. A divorce from the heart and soul of the sport. Constant rule and format changes and tinkering. A total lack of consistent start times. All these and more have contributed to the slide.
As NASCAR approaches its new television contract with Fox and NBC, they should prepare themselves now for further declines, especially on cable. It’s going to take fans a while to get accustomed to NASCAR races taking place on NBCSN and Fox Sports 1. As much as we talk about those channels at this website, there is still a very real lack of awareness about those channels. Any time a league switches television partners to a relatively new channel, it’s going to take a while for the audience to make the switch with them.
NASCAR is going to be a bigger draw for those cable networks than NHL or MLB regular season games. In fact, NASCAR is responsible for ratings records at FS1 in their first year. However, the sport is going to have to figure out a way to stop its ratings slide and turn the narrative around. If not, who knows where NASCAR ratings will bottom out.