Race Weekend Central

A New Way of Seeing Things

Poor NASCAR.

Nothing seems to work.

Open the 2016 Sprint Cup season with the closest finish in Daytona 500 history, and still the television ratings are the second-lowest ever for live coverage of the event. An audience of 14.1 million was miniscule when compared to other, less exciting finishes in The Great American Race. And all this despite the fact that the event was sold out and run under near-perfect weather conditions.

Same could be said for the season-opener of the XFINITY Series just one day earlier. That event, in which Chase Elliott took the checkered flag just ahead of Joey Logano, experienced a 28% decrease in viewership from the year before.

And now we learn the ratings fate of last Sunday’s Sprint Cup broadcast from Atlanta. The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 posted an overnight number of 3.7 – a 27% drop from last season. This was also the lowest rating for an Atlanta event since Fox began airing races back in 2001.

Where have all the viewers gone?

Watching races has always required a time commitment. To dedicate three or more hours to one event means investing both energy and patience; it takes energy to stay engaged with the competition, and patience to stay engaged when there is a lack of competition.

This is how we arrived at our current evolutionary state in NASCAR. When there arose the cry that Sprint Cup races were little more than high-speed parades where the leader could ride “good air” straight to Victory Lane, changes were suggested and put into place. It might be a little early to declare the new low-downforce package a success, but at least something was done to try and make racing more competitive.

More competitive racing should equate with more popular racing, but that’s not always the case. Today’s NASCAR is the most competitive we’ve ever seen, and yet it still isn’t enough to attract a significant TV audience.

Many citizens of NASCAR Nation wax nostalgic about the sport’s “classic” period: the years when drivers named Petty, Pearson, Baker, Allison, and Yarborough raced door-to-door and nose-to-tail before massive crowds of adoring fans. Those glorious days when Fords and Chevrolets ran wheel-to-wheel against Oldsmobiles, Dodges, and Mercurys. I, too, reminisce about those days and how special they were.

Or, at least, how special they seemed.

This past Monday was Leap Day — February 29th. According to Tom Jensen, the only NASCAR race ever run on that date was the Carolina 500 at Rockingham in 1976. It was the week after David Pearson limped his Wood Brothers’ Mercury across the finish line to win the Daytona 500 after his last-lap wreck with Richard Petty. “King Richard” made up for his Daytona woes by winning the following week at Rockingham on February 29th, finishing two laps ahead of the field. Thirty-six cars started the race. Nineteen went the distance.

Benny Parsons, as reported by Jensen, finished fifth – only twenty-five laps off the pace.

Yet today we complain when a Kevin Harvick or a Kyle Busch dominates a race and maybe even makes it to Victory Lane with most of the field still on the lead lap. So if NASCAR is the most competitive it has ever been, why such dismal television ratings for anticipated and exciting races like at Daytona and Atlanta?

Maybe it’s because we’re becoming a television-free society.

Have you looked at your cable bill lately? More Americans can’t examine their cable bill because they don’t have one. There are far too many convenient (and affordable) viewing options available now. Races can be streamed over a laptop or a smartphone, so who needs to waste three hours perched in front of a television plowing through a seemingly-endless barrage of commercials? Subscription services allow audiences to buy coverage direct from the supplier, which cuts the cord that connects us to cable companies.

And not just NASCAR is losing its television audience. Last Sunday’s broadcast of the 88th-annual Academy Awards, according to The Hollywood Reporter, drew the second-lowest rating ever with 34.3 million viewers. Only the 2008 telecast had fewer viewers with an audience of almost 32 million.

Controversies aside, we’re simply looking elsewhere for our event coverage.

That’s what I did for the Daytona 500.

My wife was running errands and I was at home with our eight-year old son. We try to limit his screen time, so much of the afternoon was spent doing non-TV based activities, even though I knew I was missing The Great American Race. While puttering around the house, I followed pre-race and early-race activities on Twitter. While working in the basement, we listened to the race on MRN via my iPhone. As the laps wound down, we finally plopped in front of the TV to catch the final ten laps.

We’re sure glad we did.

And our habits that afternoon apparently echoed those of others across the globe who used social media to “watch” the Daytona 500. NASCAR’s various “social channels” saw a 63% increase in what are called “social impressions”. This kind of contact was a three-fold increase over 2015’s race, including the most tweets of any televised event that day.

That’s because we live in a brave new Internet-based world. I rely on Twitter to gather and share NASCAR news (@DrMarkDHowell) much more than I rely on network TV coverage. Not that such coverage is bad; it’s just not fitting to my lifestyle these days.

And other NASCAR participants are leaning in the same direction. Notice that Daytona International Speedway/Motorsports Stadium signed an agreement with Tripleplay, a video streaming service that will provide content to 1400 screens located around the technology-friendly facility.

Nothing will ever replace the experience of seeing a race in person, but that’s not to say how we watch races can’t be enhanced a little bit. It’s a far cry from the days of sitting through forty minutes of figure skating at Grenoble in order to see forty laps at Daytona.

Maybe I’ll tweet that….

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