Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Boob Tube – How Television Is Bringing NASCAR Down

You see it in the NASCAR headlines almost daily: lack of sponsorship causing teams to sit out races or fold altogether; fans are leaving, TV ratings are faltering. And there are all sorts of reasons offered for the problem. It’s the economy; it’s the boring racing and boring drivers; it’s the cars; it’s the teams’ fault. And it’s likely that all of those factors contribute.

But is there another issue contributing to both the lack of sponsorship and the declining viewership? Is the television broadcast of the race each week to blame as well?

The answer is yes. And not only are they hurting the race teams, they’re hurting their own bottom line.

I met a race fan who was in town from Australia for the races in Charlotte. He was excited to go to his first NASCAR race to see his favorite driver, Marcos Ambrose, compete. This fan said that while he could watch the races on television at home, he rarely did, despite his loyalty to Ambrose. The reason this fan gave was that the broadcasts hardly show Ambrose unless he’s leading, it’s a road-course race or the driver is involved in a crash. So he simply doesn’t bother to watch.

Ambrose won the pole at Michigan and led 15 laps en route to a respectable ninth-place finish. He got a little airtime early on in the broadcast, but hardly a mention as the race wore on, though he remained in the thick of things until the end. Ambrose is in the top 20 in Cup points, hardly a backmarker. And yet, this fan said he wasn’t watching the broadcasts because his driver wasn’t covered.

And if fans aren’t watching, ratings suffer. If ratings suffer, it hurts the networks both in advertising sales and in negotiations with NASCAR for future rights. It hurts the teams in finding and retaining sponsors. And it hurts the sport’s fanbase as a whole.

I asked 100 race fans to complete a poll on television coverage of their favorite drivers and the responses were eye-opening. Fans were asked to list their favorite drivers and then answer whether they thought all of the drivers they listed received adequate coverage every week. They were also asked if they felt that the networks owed it to fans to cover each driver, and if lack of coverage for their favorites made them less inclined to watch.

36.4% of fans said that they felt all of their favorites received adequate coverage every week (interestingly enough, the majority of the fans who answered that way had also chosen drivers with the most television exposure this year according to Joyce Julius and Associates, who tracks the amount of exposure each driver and sponsor receives during every broadcast.)

See also
Couch Potato Tuesday: TNT Focuses Too Much on Dale Earnhardt Jr.

While only 5.1% said their drivers never got enough coverage, 38.4% said their favorites only got enough coverage when they were leading and 20.2% said that only those that drove for one of the big teams or sponsors was given adequate airtime. And while the term “adequate” is subjective, it’s clear that fans want to see better coverage of drivers across the board, something television broadcasts rarely do.

When asked if they felt that the networks owed race fans updates on every driver during the broadcast, 47% responded that they should give full-field coverage sometimes during the race. Another 39% said the networks needed to cover everyone often during the race. 11% said no and 3% said any driver involved in a crash should get covered, but not otherwise.

The bottom line? 86% of fans want to see coverage of the entire field at least sometimes during the race. That’s a huge majority and yet the networks aren’t doing it on a regular basis.

Finally, while 74.7% of responders indicated that lack of coverage for their favorites won’t make them less likely to watch, 25.3% said that they were less likely to tune in every week because their favorites aren’t being shown.

Let’s just suppose that number is indicative of NASCAR fans as a whole, in which case the television broadcasts are driving away a full quarter of the fanbase by not covering the drivers and teams they want to see. That’s a lot of fans finding something else to do every weekend.

And it’s not just the fans being driven away. Sponsors pay to put their name on the side of a racecar for one reason and one reason only: exposure. Most of that exposure comes through airtime during the race broadcasts, either in driver interviews or cars being shown or mentioned on the air.

Many teams simply are not getting the on-air time to justify the cost. Say a 30-second commercial slot during a race broadcast costs $30,000 (that’s an estimate based on a few years ago, and does not include the Daytona 500, which commands more). So for $1.8 million or so, a company can get a guaranteed 30 seconds of airtime during every NASCAR broadcast by paying for commercial time.

Primary sponsorship of a decent mid-level team is around $15 million for the season. For that to be cost effective, the sponsor needs the equivalent of roughly eight 30-second commercials, or four minutes of coverage.

In reality, the equation is a bit more complicated as sponsors get other considerations, such as appearances and endorsements, but the bottom line is that sponsors expect to get a return on their considerable investment and if they don’t feel that the exposure they get warrants the price, they aren’t going to stick around. And that kills race teams.

Several fans commented on the survey that while they felt that all teams deserved a certain amount of coverage, that that should not stretch to the teams that start-and-park, but that’s short-sighted. If they had sponsorship to race, those teams would not start-and-park. But in order to get sponsorship, the teams need the television exposure. It becomes a vicious cycle for those teams.

Meanwhile, the sponsors that do get coverage enjoy a lot of airtime for relatively little money. This makes the chasm between the haves and have-nots wider all the time, and means that those that have less have less of a chance of getting the coverage they need to gain. It makes NASCAR an unfriendly environment for new teams as well as for fans of those drivers. When sponsorship goes away, the fans suffer as well as the race teams.

Many fans commented that they felt that the teams whose sponsors paid for commercial airtime got more coverage, implying that the airtime was being bought. I don’t think that’s the case; it’s more a matter of those sponsors having the money to spend on commercials and on putting a top car on the track. Those companies can afford to put their name on the best cars, and those cars get shown.

But the real loser here is the race fan.

Fans of drivers not among the ultra-elite don’t get to see their drivers very often and that’s really not fair. They buy t-shirts and diecasts, too, and deserve better than to see a shot of their driver as he gets lapped, or, worse, to see the dreaded “out” next to his name on the ticker and be left to wonder what went wrong because the broadcast never mentioned it.

Even worse than that must be for a fan to see his or her favorite hit the wall and never hear a single word on whether that driver was hurt or not.

There was once a feeling among race fans that they really knew the different drivers in in the field. Even if they had never met in person, fans knew the different personalities of all the drivers, and that feeling of closeness drew fans to the sport.

But most of that is gone now, because so many drivers are left out of even the pre-race show, which should provide the perfect time for the lesser-known drivers to be featured. But instead, the networks mostly rotate through the same group of drivers each week, and because we learn nothing new about them, we label them as boring, vanilla.

One fan and frequent poster, “RamblinWreck,” hit the nail on the head on this piece of the puzzle.

“I started watching races in the late 1990s and I probably pulled for over half of the field (yes, I was a fan of Earnhardt and Gordon and Rusty and Rudd and Schrader and both Labontes and Bill Elliott and John Andretti and Bobby Hamilton and Kyle Petty and Ricky Craven and both Burtons) because I felt like I knew them all,” Ramblin’ wrote on the fan survey.

“After all, I saw all of them each weekend on TV! I still pull for Bobby Labonte, but I hardly ever see him on the screen. Same with Blaney and Tommy Baldwin. I don’t ever watch the pre-race anymore, since they started doing fewer and fewer driver interviews I haven’t really thought it worth my time to watch.

“The last few times I’ve been to Talladega, I’ve noticed fewer merchandise trailers than I expect to see. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times … fewer tickets sold, and we have less money to spend these days … but maybe TV coverage has something to do with it, because it’s hard for a driver who is invisible to build much of a fanbase.”

And that’s a big part of the problem-what chance do drivers like Landon Cassill, Casey Mears, David Gilliland or even past champion Labonte have to gain new fans (and new supporters of their sponsors; race fans have proved time and again to be loyal in that category!)?

Fans complain of boring, vanilla drivers, but they have no chance to see the personalities of so many that they could choose to cheer for and support. And in turn, some of them turn away from the sport. That’s just not a good thing.

Even fans of the bigger teams recognize that there is a problem.

“I don’t have any complaints as it relates to coverage of my favorite drivers. Mine are all “mainstream, top level” guys. But I can see how disheartening it would be for someone who is as much a fan of a mid- to lower pack driver as I am for mine. Coverage seems to be only for the upper eschelon(sic) teams and drivers. And that is a shame,” said Karl Schraut on his survey.

The other element that the current broadcasts take away from the fans is good hard racing in the pack. Often the races that are deemed “boring” by fans watching the broadcasts had plenty of action if you were there in person. If the drivers up front are spread out single file but there’s a side-by-side contest for 25th spot, why not show it?

It might give a driver new fans. It will give the sponsor those valuable minutes they’re banking on, and the fans of those drivers a rare chance to see them race. And if fans knew they’d see the action, more of them might tune in. It all ties together.

Finally, if a quarter of race fans aren’t tuning in because the drivers they want to see aren’t getting covered or they don’t have a favorite because they don’t want one of the usual suspects, the television ratings take a hit. So in essence, by not covering all the action on the racetrack or all the drivers and teams in the field, the TV networks are hurting themselves as well as the teams and the race fans. It just doesn’t make sense.

There should be a sense of community between the television networks, fans and race teams. After all, all three depend on one another. Fans depend on television to bring them their favorite racers every week and on teams to provide their favorites with a competitive car.

Teams depend on the fans to support their sponsors and on television to bring them and their sponsors to the fans. Television depends on strong competition to keep the fans watching so the sponsors will keep on advertising. They should be working together toward the same end.

But instead, the television broadcasts are either fulfilling their own agendas instead of showing what the fans want to see. Or maybe they really think fans want to see a few popular drivers. Or worse, they’re trying to tell race fans what or who they want to see.

Yet 86% of fans said they want to see every driver at least sometimes during a race, and yet, that rarely happens. As a result, teams are losing sponsors and fans are missing out on both personalities and race action every week. Everyone loses.

It’s time for the television networks to reconsider the quality of their broadcasts. They need to bring the fans all the drivers and all the action and let the fans decide who’s important to them. The future of the sport depends on it. Sponsors are leaving because they no longer get a return on investment. And many fans are finding other ways to spend Sunday afternoons.

In allowing this to go on, the networks are shooting themselves and all of NASCAR Nation-squarely in the foot.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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