NASCAR Is Better Than Ever, but Why Is No One Watching?

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIApril 3, 2014

Denny Hamlin (l) with Krista Voda
Denny Hamlin (l) with Krista VodaJeff Curry/Getty Images

These headlines are all attention grabbers. 

"Martinsville Race Hits Multiple Lows on Fox."

"Fontana Continues Losing Streak for NASCAR on Fox."

Perhaps the real story lies in this headline:

"No Dale Jr. Bounce as Phoenix Race Hits Multi-Year Low."

For the average NASCAR fan, when reading headlines like these, the immediate reaction is to shake one's head as if they already know the reason why.

Most fans blame the television broadcast itself, because it's an easy target. 

For those of us who have done television, it's not an easy gig, especially when you're doing it for three or more hours. You've got producers talking to you in your ear giving you all kinds of information, (sometimes while you're talking), a director who is trying to capture what's happening on the track for the audience at home (that may or may not be what you’re watching) and several other factors that makes what looks like an easy and cool gig to be something quite different.

What Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds at Fox television try to do is be cool enough to be invited into your home every weekend and share the experience of watching a Cup race with you. 

Years ago, the NASCAR television announcer's job was different. They had much more information at their disposal than the fan did at home. 

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Today, the fans at home have the same information the announcers in the broadcast booth have and much more. In fact, a growing number of NASCAR fans see the television broadcast on race day as being a part of an overall experience that mimics what one gets while at the track. Quite possibly with all the ancillary information now available online for the NASCAR fan, the race day experience at home may actually be better.

But, back to those television numbers.

NASCAR viewership on television is down, but once you delve into the facts, its not as dire as some may have you believe. Admittedly, overnight ratings for every race this season have been down compared to last year. But the NASCAR television audience is still a tremendous asset to advertisers.

As Director, Broadcast and Entertainment Communications for NASCAR it’s Scott Warfield's job to explain what the viewership numbers mean. In an interview with Bleacher Report, he too admits they are down, but that it's important to look beyond the numbers and understand overall fan engagement with the sport.

"I know the narrative has been that the ratings are being pummeled and they're down, but that's not what were seeing," Warfield explained. "In 2010 we averaged 5.9 million viewers per race. Last year that number was 5.8."

Those are still big numbers. On any given weekend from February through July, NASCAR is the dominant regular season sport on television. It’s been that way for some time now.

After a marked decline in the middle of the previous decade, NASCAR's television numbers have been on the rebound over the past five years.

Last year, nearly 70 million unique viewers tuned in to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. 

The 5.8 million viewers that tuned in, on average, to each event in 2013, is a one percent increase over 2012. On 23 of 36 event weekends in 2013, NASCAR delivered ratings equal to or greater than the previous year.

But in order to get those strong numbers, NASCAR has always relied on a strong kick off to the season with big numbers for the Daytona 500.

"The Daytona 500 every year is our marker in the sand," said Warfield. "Its our one race that pulls the casual fans from all over the country that tune in once a year to check out the biggest race of the year." 

Daytona 500 2014
Daytona 500 2014David Graham

This year, NASCAR had the longest delay in the history of the Daytona 500. A nearly six-and-a-half hour delay caused by weather pushed the race into the Fox network’s Sunday night prime-time lineup.

Why didn't NASCAR run the race on Monday during prime time, like they did in 2012, which proved to attract tremendous viewership numbers?

"The goal is always to get the race in on the day it's scheduled to save teams and fans the money they would spend staying overnight," Warfield explained. "Besides that, many other factors came into play. If you stayed around in Daytona that following Monday night another major storm hit the area. Same thing on Tuesday."

"We ran into a buzz saw. There was no winning scenario. We ran with the best option and that was to get the track dry, using the new Air Titan technology and get the race in."

Yet despite everyone’s best efforts, NASCAR lost 44 percent of the audience. It was devastating.

NASCAR counts on a big viewership number for its first race. It counts on those millions of casual fans getting to watch a race that is exciting and has a thrilling finish. This year's Daytona 500 did just that; however, no one was watching except for the diehard fans that stuck it out all day, parked in front of the television. 

It was a good day for the pizza delivery guy. Not for NASCAR.

"We plan on that big number for the first race because there's a domino effect for people to then watch Phoenix and beyond," said Warfield.

So as NASCAR celebrates its sixth winner in as many races, the problem remains: How do you bring those casual fans, that the series was hoping to attract with the Daytona 500, into the series in some other way? 

It did help when the sport's most popular driver won the Daytona 500, which was something of a godsend for NASCAR, for it provided an attraction for those "sometimes" fans to watch a race.

Still, the television viewer numbers are down and showing a decline every week from last season. Admittedly, those numbers have been more than enough reason to write or talk about "NASCAR in decline" or "television numbers down again."

The truth is that online statistics show there's a major shift underway in how NASCAR fans, either at home or somewhere away from the race, are experiencing race day.

"Our digital numbers are through the roof," said Warfield. "NASCAR.com was redesigned because most visitors see it on a mobile device. It was meant to be a companion to the event on Sunday."

Even more revealing, says Warfield, "Over half of the visitors to NASCAR.com view it on a mobile device."

When you look at the overall picture, the television ratings may be down four percent, but that is likely because NASCAR is being consumed in a different way.

The number of ways in which the NASCAR fan can follow the sport has tripled says Warfield, compared to even two years ago, citing the NASCAR phone and tablet apps and webpages like Raceview and Race Buddy.

He points to a similar situation with Major League Baseball's "MLB At Bat" app and the NFL’s Red Zone television channel as popular alternatives being utilized by fans their respective sports.

Warfield says there is an ongoing effort to engage fans via the digital platform. He sees social media as a vital influence on television viewership, as fans are currently connecting with one another before, during and after the broadcasts. For those who are at the race, NASCAR encourages tracks to offer the kind of connectivity at their facility that the fan enjoys while at home.

Ross D. Franklin

"The benefit from our increased social media engagement won’t be felt until next year or in two years," he said. "The addition of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Twitter has been huge and brings in a whole new group of people into the sport."

NASCAR also plans a more aggressive effort to re-engage what they term as the "lapsed" fan, one that used to follow the sport, but no longer does for one reason or another.

Warfield was clear to draw attention to the importance of being able to experience a NASCAR race in person. 

"It instantly turns someone not just into a fan, but into a television viewer," he said.

NASCAR could use a few more of them.

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