With this week’s Daytona 500, NASCAR begins a new era with races broken up into three stages before declaring a winner. It’s a revolutionary idea that goes back to the sport’s short track, roots but also provides more “winning moments” in the hopes of drawing more fans for longer period of time to tune into the races.

In short, NASCAR had to do something this offseason with its ratings slide showing no signs of slowing down. 22 of 29 Cup races declined in ratings, continuing a viewership freefall that stretches back for the better part of a decade. Just how bad has NASCAR’s tailspin been? They’ve lost almost half of their audience since the sport’s peak in the mid-2000s with a 45% dip since 2005.

There are many theories surrounding why NASCAR’s ratings have fallen so fast and so far compared to other sports. There’s drivers that might not connect as well as their predecessors, constant rule changes and tweaks that make the sport tough to follow, inconsistent start times for races, over-expansion to new tracks in non-traditional markets, a recession that hit traditional NASCAR fanbases with more lasting impact than others, and the fact that there’s more television options than ever before.

No matter how NASCAR got in this situation, it’s the fact that it’s been so difficult to try to get out of it that is most concerning. Every year, one thinks NASCAR ratings have bottomed out, they seem to dip lower.

With NASCAR reaching its breaking point, it’s no shock to see such a bold move in the fundamental change to how races are structured from green flag to checkered flag. In actuality, though, it could be just the beginning of sweeping changes to a sport desperately in need of positive momentum.

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating dive into NASCAR television ratings and the struggles facing the sport’s executives and television partners NBC and Fox. While the France family drama at the top level of NASCAR makes for interesting reading, there are a couple of nuggets related to the sport’s relationship with its television partners that are fascinating.

One of those insights WSJ reports is NBC executives pressing NASCAR to do something drastic to reverse the ratings decline, which led to the thinktank meeting that produced the idea to race in stages. With the networks paying hundreds of millions of dollars for NASCAR television packages and the races likely not producing the ratings anticipated, NBC and Fox are pushing hard to get a better return on their investment than they’re currently receiving.

Another even more substantial evolution proposed by NBC would be to move some NASCAR races to the middle of the week in primetime to move away from the NFL on Sundays.

Only about a third of the NASCAR season goes head-to-head with the NFL, but it is indeed a killer on the ratings. The NASCAR Chase/Playoff that takes place during the fall should be the climax of the season when more people are tuned in, but that’s not the case. NASCAR averaged 4.6 million viewers last season and yet only the final 2 races in the Chase at Phoenix and Homestead managed to crack 4 million viewers.

Were NASCAR to run their playoff races in primetime on a Tuesday or Wednesday night they could own one night of the week during the fall. (If this discussion sounds familiar it’s the same idea that’s been bouncing around MLS for quite some time in getting away from competing with the NFL) Not only could that help push more viewers to NASCAR, it could also help improve the primetime ratings of their cable partners as well.

Naturally, there is a downside to the idea of more midweek races, namely attendance. As ratings have declined for NASCAR so have butts in the seats. If races were to run on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, it would almost kill any hopes of getting sellout crowds to the track. And what about other events like practice, qualifying, and the X-Finity Series? How many fans are realistically going to show up for a Tuesday afternoon X-Finity Series race at Dover?

While NBC’s Jon Miller told the WSJ that the midweek idea isn’t on the table for now, the mere mention of it does show just how desperate all parties involved truly are to find a solution here.

You can bet everyone associated with NASCAR will watch the television ratings very closely this season. If ratings continue to slide despite the transformational changes of racing in stages and constructing more designed breaks in action to better suit television viewing habits and fan interests, NASCAR will have to go back to the drawing board and come up with something else in order to win back fans. And it might have to be something even more drastic than what we will see this season.

About Matt Yoder

Award winning sportswriter at The Comeback and Awful Announcing. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

  • David

    To improve ratings you have to gain fans – and that’s been the problem. Whenever I try to watch a race, I leave confused. If all cars are restricted to race at the exact same speed, then how are some cars faster? What should I be looking for to determine if a driver is good? Is there some special move they make, some sort of discussion I should be listening to that the driver controls? It’s hard to root for someone when you have no clue what they could do to get ahead in the race.

    • Justin_Herrick

      This. NASCAR does nothing to bring in new viewers and make them comfortable.

    • lifelong890

      I think NBCSN’s F1 coverage does a great job at this. F1 has its own problems for sure, but the NBCSN team is very good at making their coverage interesting for seasoned fans and also accessible to people who might be tuning in for the first time.

      Another big issue with NASCAR is the lack of technology in the cars themselves. This might be my F1-bias talking, though.

  • Grant Cole

    WTF?
    Why doesn’t anybody get it? Nascar has become boring. Let me repeat “Boring!”
    Brian France doesn’t get it and never has. Too many rules too many regulations all the cars are like robots and the team’s really can’t get an edge on each other. There is no individuality folks! If the rules and regulations were loosened up and the restrictor plate was finally removed the people would flock to the racetrack every Sunday! If the cars were really based off of the manufacture platform that would really get it in the groove! This ain’t rocket science.

    • BadgerBacker

      I agree except for the plate since it would be too dangerous. It is boring because most of the tracks have a D shape now (Atlanta, Vegas, Phoenix, Fontana, Texas, Richmond, Charlotte, Michigan, Kentucky). Plus most tracks lost their quirks (two pit roads, only two night races a year Bristol & Charlotte).

      The fans (that are left) don’t feel that they can relate to drivers, the drivers make so much money and are so segregated from the fans they come off as unapproachable.

  • BadgerBacker

    The reason the ratings are down is obvious, but nobody wants to admit it. It all started when NASCAR went to the “one network” contact with FOX start with the 2001 season (which they sublet some to NBC). You don’t intentionally limit your exposure/coverage.

    Before that you had races on CBS, ABC, NBC, ESPN, TBS & TNN, plus they were not in group blocks, so each network reminded you to watch NASCAR while promoting their next respective race in a couple weeks. Plus each network had a vested interest to have some kind of coverage even if they did not have the race that week. Currently the coverage is on FOX and NBC who do not promote NASCAR except when it is their turn for their races. The other remaining networks have no need to cover NASCAR, hence the downfall in ratings.

    The NFL has CBS, ESPN, NBC and Fox. The NBA has ESPN, TNT and about 20 regional networks. MLB has ESPN, FOX, FS1 and 20 regional networks. None of these sports limit themselves to 1 network. All NASCAR needs to do is bid out the individual races again and the people would return because they would be reminded to watch.

    • Bigbad25

      That is not a terrible idea. I think i would limit it to the major ones, but the most important one is ESPN. That is what everybody, not just sports fans, think of when you say sports on TV. I personally would make the contract say that all the Cup races had to be shown live on a major network, not cable, Xfinity and truck could be on cable. I would also move the schedule around a bit, I would race trucks on Friday night, and Xfinity and Cup on Saturday. I would move a majority of the races to Saturday night, with the exception of the Daytona 500, The Coke 600, and the Southern 500 and the two road course races. I know some tracks do not have lights, but if they wanted to keep their race; they would install them. Another thing that I would persue in the next negotiations is an agreement with a streaming service, wheather it be Amazon, Netflix, or Hulu. NASCAR has to move into the digital age and allow that content on streaming services. I would also look into launching a NASCAR streaming service, like WWE Network, and place all the classic content and even create some for the die hard fans.

  • tx_shaun

    Everytime they show highlights pretty much every grandstand is empty. I don’t see why all these company’s even sponsor the teams. People get tired of cars going around in circles. Only having 2 road track races doesn’t help.

  • Waquoit

    NASCAR killed NASCAR. The growth in NASCAR came from viewers of stick and ball sports. As NASCAR becomes even less about the competition and more about the show than ever, stick and ball fans lose interest. Stick and ball sports fans are about the competition. NASCAR’s solution? Make the sport even more gimmicky! This season will be a disaster.

    • bclautz

      agree

    • Roger Bournival

      Yup – lifelong NASCAR fan here, and I’m now down to watching four tracks for a full race – Daytona, Talladega, Sonoma and Watkins Glen. I turned off the race yesterday as soon as they started talking about the ‘three stage race’ – it is simply garbage. NASCAR and the TV networks are killing it for me with all these bullshit gimmicks. Thanks, guys!

  • Don Dee Staten

    Here I sit at 2:30 and the race still hasn’t started. Want better ratings? Start the race. I have already move to the basketball game. Too damn slow!

    • bharvey67

      I forgot about the stage thing this year. I watched the first 20 laps or so, saw “stage 1 – 25 of 60” in the top left, and was like, WTF? I immediately turned it off. It’s not like the racing in the middle changed – 2 lines of traffic going 200 MPH around a 2.5 mile banked track. I had the TV on mute and music playing. That’ll be all the NASCAR I watch all year. I feel dirty even watching that much.

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