Let’s play through a scenario – a legend achieves arguably the greatest individual feat in his sport and you have the ability to watch it live on your television. A headline like that should draw massive television ratings and draw in casual fans from all over.
Not for NASCAR and Jimmie Johnson, though.
On Sunday Johnson won his record-tying seventh NASCAR championship, entering into the most hallowed ground of the sport alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. The victory cements his status as one of the greatest drivers there ever was, even if his reign has coincided with NASCAR’s decline in popularity.
Unfortunately for Johnson and NASCAR, viewers didn’t flock to see JJ’s crowning achievement at Homestead. According to Sports Media Watch, the race received a 3.5 rating and 6.1 million viewers, both significant declines of 20% from last year when the race went into primetime thanks to a rain delay. However, in some slightly better news, the race was up over its 2014 and 2013 versions.
The final race of the season tells only part of the story of NASCAR’s continued ratings freefall. NASCAR saw declines in 25 of 36 points-paying races this year according to Jayski’s television ratings site. Some of those drops can be attributed to rain delays and network switches, but it’s certainly an overall trend that continues to be very troubling. According to SMW, the last 11 races before the season finale at Homestead were the least watched editions in at least a decade. Considering that’s basically NASCAR’s playoffs when people should be watching, that’s hugely disappointing for the sport.
Johnson’s victory was the seventh most-watched race this year with all six above the finale occurring in the first ten weeks of the NASCAR season. Imagine Game 7 of the NBA Finals or World Series being outrated by a few regular season games.
Of course the elephant in the room of increased competition thanks to college football and the NFL is a major, major factor in this. However, they didn’t just start playing football a couple years ago and that can’t go all the way in discerning why NASCAR has had such a severe decline. We’re talking about the worst ratings its rights partners have seen in years, maybe ever at this point. Some of that has to be accounted for NASCAR races being used to bolster newbie cable sports networks like FS1 and NBCSN with 19 of 36 races taking place on those channels and audiences still being built up. Some of it could be a lack of interest in the drivers and personalities currently racing in the series. Some of it could be the way NASCAR has governed the sport over recent years.
Whatever it is behind the sport’s stunning viewership collapse in recent years, NASCAR still hasn’t quite figured it out. Year after year it seems when NASCAR is finally going to start trending back in a positive direction after hitting the bottom, but apparently we haven’t got there yet.