Instead of checking out a driver this week, we’re taking a different approach to Beyond the Cockpit: looking at the health of NASCAR as a whole. Andrew Maness is the owner of RACINGnomics, a “cutting edge” website devoted to intense statistical research in the world of racing. As a longtime fan with a deep background in economic policy, Maness has undertaken a number of projects aimed at garnering a better understanding of the racing business. One of Maness’ biggest areas of research has revolved around NASCAR’s television ratings and the sport’s popularity as a whole. How much has stock car viewership declined, if at all, and what are the long-term prospects for economic recovery?
Frontstretch’s own Matt Stallknecht caught up with Maness in an attempt to gain an idea of just how popular NASCAR “really” is in the year 2014, as well as gaining an understanding of why television ratings have been falling.
Matt Stallknecht, Frontstretch.com: Getting started, can you just give our readers some background information on what you do in terms of statistical analysis?
Andrew Maness, RACINGNomics: For a living, I conduct economic research — a lot of similar concepts as on racingnomics.com — as it relates to financial institutions. The website is an opportunity for me to combine those statistical talents with my passion for motor racing. On racingnomics.com, I intend to examine various long-held beliefs in auto racing via numerical analysis.
Stallknecht: Much of what you analyze on your website deals with TV ratings. Looking at the ratings for NASCAR in 2014, they have mostly been down. Can you give us any insight into what might be causing such declines?
Maness: It’s weird, right? We know historically that ratings for outgoing rights holders (like TNT and ESPN this season) shed about 7% of their audiences. But FOX’s decline has been surprising. While the sanctioning body has pointed to excessive inclement weather, two decades of data suggest that rain may not be the case. For example, 2011 — NASCAR’s only season since 2005 to exhibit an increase in household audiences — included many races postponed to Mondays. Furthermore, 2014 races that have been conducted as scheduled are down by 7% from 2013.
While there’s no empirical way to assess it, NASCAR’s new system to determine a champion might be the chief culprit. Its Most Popular Driver — Dale Earnhardt, Jr. — earned his first win of the season in February and clinched a postseason bid last weekend. Aware of his automatic seed into NASCAR’s Chase, fans may not have as much incentive to tune in until September.
NASCAR’s strategy might be to make up for lost audiences later in the season — with elimination races and a de facto Super Bowl setting at Homestead. Whether that will work — and whether its “lame duck” television partners will promote it — remains to be seen.
Stallknecht: Perhaps adding to the complexity of this situation, TNT’s ratings for its first Sprint Cup telecast of the season at Pocono were up a stunning 7% over 2013. Following on your principle that “lame duck” networks lose 7% of their total audience, that’s a substantial increase over what was expected. Could this bump be a delayed reaction of sorts to the perceived improvement of the on-track racing product, or something else entirely?
Maness: I think it adds stock to NASCAR’s implied belief that the back half of the season will become more successful with this new system. In 2004 — NASCAR’s previous structural shift in determining its Cup title — the average rating declined by almost 10% for the first several races. As the “regular season” began to wind down, though ratings increased very quickly. Fans wanted to see which drivers would qualify for NASCAR’s postseason. That phenomena could be occurring — some drivers are becoming desperate for a win. Perhaps fans like that.
The other explanation, of course, could be statistical noise. As I remarked last year — when this event set a 14-year low in household audience size — it could just be an outlier. The 3.0 U.S. rating is certainly encouraging, but we’ll know how it fits in to the season’s narrative a couple of months from now.
Stallknecht: How would you define “success” from a TV standpoint for NASCAR as the year winds down? Given some of the obstacles that they’re up against, what would make for a “successful” NASCAR season on TV?
Maness: They ended 2013 with an average U.S. television rating of 3.48. In other words, the average audience size to watch a 2013 Cup race was 3.48% of households equipped with television. If they can keep that number above 3.30, I think that would be successful. It would show that — after accounting for TNT and ESPN’s “lame duck” status — NASCAR’s rating held level. Anything about 3.20 would be adequate.
(NOTE: A 3.30 would indicate a 5% drop from last season. A 3.20 would indicate an 8% drop.)
Actually — I’d even go so far as to say I think anything above a 3.12 would be passable. That’s the number that NASCAR had at the end of 1996.
Stallknecht: One of NASCAR’s responses to its critics over the years regarding poor TV ratings has been that ratings across all sports have been down, while claiming things like the economy have played a factor as well. Does this response hold water from a statistical standpoint?
Maness: Regarding the economy, NASCAR’s average U.S. television rating had declined by almost 5% from mid-2005 through the end of FOX’s stint in 2006. Its television ratings were declining clearly before the financial crisis. Furthermore, drawing a connection between the economy and a person’s decision to watch a race on television is tenuous. NASCAR’s over-the-air television ratings have suffered, which eliminates an argument that cord-cutting is the culprit. Furthermore, one would expect the economy to encourage folks to watch races from home as a cheaper alternative to attending a race in person.
It’s very difficult for me to comment on other sports’ television ratings as they relate to NASCAR. The National Hockey League, for example, airs several games per week on a fledgling network. The NBA airs multiple games across a few channels. NASCAR’s in a somewhat unique position in that its top personalities compete at the same time on the same channel. It’s challenging to compare that setting to a game that includes just two teams.
Stallknecht: So you’d agree that it’s a bit superfluous to compare NASCAR’s ratings to other sports?
Maness: Yes. Ultimately, NASCAR has chosen to maximize its profit — and not its audience — by signing multi-billion dollar contracts that include several races on small and sometimes premium cable networks. Since NASCAR’s goal is not to maximize its audience, no one should be surprised if the number of households tuning in throughout the next media contract decreases. (None of this is particularly bad, mind you, for NASCAR. They need revenue to operate. It’s just that the fans might have to pay a bit more or work harder to find a race.)
Stallknecht: NASCAR’s popularity, relative to both its own past and other sports as a whole, has been a topic of intense debate as of late. I’ve heard many people, both industry “experts” and fans alike, make bold claims such as “NASCAR was more popular in the late ’80s and early ’90s than it is today.” Since you have the numbers at your disposal, once and for all, how would you say NASCAR’s popularity today stacks up to various points in its past, using the metrics you have?
Maness: If one accepts that television ratings are a proxy for “popularity of NASCAR,” the current Cup Series stacks up evenly to the interest levels in early 1997. Of course, 2014 is in the midst of a declining number of households tuning in, while NASCAR was growing its audience in the mid-1990s.
Stallknecht: Could one perhaps interpret that as a “regression to the mean,” so to speak, sort of like a stock coming back down to Earth after it’s bubble bursts?
Maness: While we can’t definitively know that — since we aren’t sure if the current climate will yield even smaller audiences — I think it’s very fair to suggest that, i.e. I can’t necessarily dispute it.
Stallknecht: Last question. What do you think NASCAR’s TV landscape will look like ten years from now?
Maness: That’s a great, great question, Matt. The ratings will be lower or equal at best. That’s simply because NBC Sports and Fox Sports 1 do not have the number of households or cache that ESPN and TNT have. Since NASCAR will lose viewers through traditional media — like television — it will need to compensate through other avenues. Social media comes to mind. Interacting with fans is nice, but introducing others to motor racing is key. A fan council can only retain your current fans. Asking non-fans, or perhaps former fans, is paramount to increasing its audience. And the structure of the sport will be different — as most things are after a decade. Most vividly, I expect pre-determined competition cautions in point races.