Thursday, October 7, 2010

Where has NASCAR's TV audience gone?

   What’s going on with NASCAR’s TV audience?

   Over the past three weeks, according to weekly Nielsen Media Research numbers, NASCAR has lost an average of a fourth of its viewing audience from one year ago at the start of the Chase.

   Ratings for the Chase for the Sprint Cup opener at New Hampshire were off 28 percent. Dover was off 23 percent and figures from Sunday’s race at Kansas show a 28 percent drop from one year ago.

   Folks, those are huge numbers. Even worse is the fact it’s developing into a very disturbing pattern.

   Don’t get me wrong, it’s no secret TV ratings have been flat or down slightly most of this season, but there’s something more going on here when such a precipitous drop coincides with what is supposed to be the biggest part of your season – the crowning of the Cup series champion.

   I don’t for one minute believe the big drops beginning with the Chase is mere coincidence. So what is it?

   Everyone has theories. Here are the most common:
   -It’s because the races are on ESPN this year instead of ABC. That seems plausible to me except that an ESPN executive dismissed that reason in an interview last week discussing the ratings drop.

   -It’s because the races are running up against the NFL. Well, maybe if that was new. But races and football have run side-by-side for nearly 60 years now.

   -It’s the new 1 p.m. start time for most races. Well, that might make sense, except that NASCAR and its networks made the change to the earlier start times because “fans asked for it.” Did they all suddenly change their mind?

   Or could it be the elephant in the room – the Chase. Perhaps fans who took a look at it when it debuted in 2004 have soured on it. Perhaps those who didn’t like it to begin with, simply aren’t watching or not caring.

   I don’t know the answer.

   But I can tell you this: Everyone in NASCAR – not just executives – but everyone who has a stake in the sport best hope someone can find out why this is going on and attempt to fix it fast.

   It’s not a trend that is going to help the sport and especially if it gets any worse.

9 comments:

  1. I'm saying its lack of interest. I have friends who are "nascar fans" but don't watch the races, I ask them why and they say because they just don't. Ratings for plate races are good, because almost anyone can win those races...like that Jr. guy. Ratings for races with Danica go up because shes something new and exciting for many, even if she doesn't run well. I think fans are lacking something to really rally around, they are tired of the same #48 winning and the same #88 not running well.

    Nascar.com had a great twitter tracker back for the Glen race, I'd like to see something like that to provide a real-time look into the interest of people. How do people react when the 88 takes the lead at Dega? Then how do they react when he is taken out in the Big One? How do they react when the #48 is leading? It needs to be something interactive. I know Nascar has the fan council, but there needs to be something more open and accessible to everyone to express their opinions of a race or a particular event in a race.

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  2. I know this sounds obvious, Jim, but people don't watch the chase because they don't like it. Why? First of all, it's contrived and silly. Second, it detracts massively from the coverage of the races themselves. And third, the TV coverage sucks.

    The first chase was exciting, it was rare that a bunch of guys had a shot to win the cup coming into the last race. The second was annoying because the word "chase" was used several times a minute during the TV broadcasts from 2nd Daytona on. Since then, it's been boring.

    The chase was an answer to a question few fans were asking. The reason NASCAR was popular was that you could tune in any given Sunday and see a great story develop and conclude and the coverage was nimble enough to tell it. Now the coverage is bloated and irrelevant and struggles to do anything other than follow predetermined storylines.

    If NASCAR wants to become special again, they need to take a hard look at how to make each race weekend interesting and unique. Until then, the sport will continue to hemorrhage fans and sponsors.

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  4. Here's my take on the problem with NASCAR's audience, without a concise answer, which troubles me... It starts with drivers from the Golden Era retiring and leaving their fans without a driver to root. The networks that cover NASCAR today don't help the cause at all either.

    http://looselugnutsnascar.blogspot.com/2010/10/look-into-nascars-declining-fanbase.html

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  5. I'm a soccer writer part-time, and while I understand that they're completely different worlds, some parallels can be drawn between them.

    While watching soccer most fans -- myself included -- prefer a very simple broadcast that focuses on the match and doesn't assault the senses with gadgets and graphics. I have a feeling many NASCAR fans are extremely similar to soccer fans in this regard, they'd like a simple broadcast with light graphics that makes the race the focal point of the broadcast. Less human interest stories, less graphical fluff (show of hands of people who've actually "cranked it up"), more commentary on the action, not what so-and-so got in the mail from Publishers Clearing House in midweek.

    It'd also be nice if they could integrate the ads the way IndyCar does. I don't know what focus group told them to do it the old way, they were wrong, people flip channels during those insanely long breaks and some don't come back.

    There's also the fact that it's sterile and dull visually. You can paint the CoT any color you want, they all still look the same, and look nothing like their road-faring counterparts. I understand -- and applaud -- the focus on safety but it'd be nice if the bodies were somewhat unique, and no, that crease in the Impala and Camry doesn't count, nobody can see it on TV.

    The coverage is kinda like the NFL too, wherein the broadcasters are almost afraid to offer anything in the way of a critique of the governing body/league at all. It almost seems like propaganda at times, and it's nauseating.

    Johnson winning doesn't bother me at all, but the Chase does, and my gripe with the Chase isn't the top but the bottom. One side effect it has is to keep a somewhat poor team in the top 12 (formerly 10) at the expense of a surging team. Examples of this include Vickers last year, Mayfield twice, and Bowyer this year. Though it really is nitpicking, if a driver races his/her way into the top 10 on merit over 36 races, they deserve to be at the banquet, not a guy who was good until August and fell to rubble when the chips were down.

    Leave the tracks that don't support the races too. That means abandon Fontana full-stop, if you can't outdraw Rockingham (and the Lumber basin isn't exactly a sprawling metropolis) you don't get a race, period. Give it to Iowa or the new Austin road course, they'll get up for it.

    Sorry about that, I guess I went on a tangent there.

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  6. Here's what it needs. NASCAR teams need to synchronize paint schemes to match or be similar to one another and act like teams. yeah, yeah, well work it around sponsor needs. Second, split the field into an AL and an NL. Run multiple races on different tracks each week. yeah, you might not need to get your JR at every race but run the AL and NL around regionally so that fans can still see them with a bit of travel (ex. Loudon and Dover perhaps?). Then bring the top of each of the AL and NL together at the end of the season for the CHASE. They haven't raced together, they can be put to a real test of each other. Create the buzz.

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  7. I'll say what I said in the article, with a few additions.

    For everyone complaining about the 48 winning all the time and that the Chase sucks, everyone used to hate the 43, 3, and 24 when they won all the time. The 48's run will end eventually and then somebody else will win all the time and we'll hate that driver. Also, everyone and his duck was screaming for a format change in 2003 when Matt Kenseth had the championship all but sewn up by August.

    Here are my ideas:

    1) Points - no points for finishing outside the top 30. One point for finishing 30th up to 20 points for finishing 11th. 30 pts for 10th up to 35 for 6th, 40 for 5th to 43 for second, and 70 points for winning. Five pts for most laps led (none for leading 1 lap)

    2) Schedule - there are 24 tracks used right now. Add one more (Milwaukee, Iowa, St. Louis?) Race once at every track for the "regular season." Then only the top 15 go on to the "playoffs" - 1 race each at Charlotte, Bristol, Indy, Talladega and Daytona.

    3) Races should be completed in 2.5 hours. Watching a 4-hour parade around the Pocono track could put an amphetamine freak to sleep.

    4) Cars should look like REAL CARS. There has to be a way to keep the safety advances on the car and yet make them look more like each make's standard street vehicles.

    5) Stop fixing races. When you give an unnecessary penalty like you did to Bowyer, or take 25 points away from Earnhardt for cussing in the Victory Lane interview, you are, in effect, fixing the races. Stop it. No other sport in the world takes points off the scoreboard 2-3 days after the game is over. NASCAR shouldn't either. Stop cheating with punitive fines. If you think what the 33 team did warranted them leaving Louden with only the points of the last-place finisher, fine the appropriate individual 10% of his gross income for 2010.

    And Brian France and his leadership group need to step back and realize that the fans are everything. His one and only focus the entire time he has been at the helm has been to make sure the world knows he's the boss, and absolutely no questioning of him will be tolerated. He needs to focus on what would be best for the sport, not on what would send the "I'M THE BOSS!!!!" message the loudest.

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  8. I don't know if the ratings include those of us who tend to tape races so we can skip the ads. I rarely watch "live" any more. I don't like the chase and never have, but wonder why that would affect ratings. A race is a race is a race, be it good or bad. Is announcer "chase hype" enough to turn off viewers? It annnoys me (especially the "if the race ended now" statistic), but it isn't enough to make me stop watching. Nor does "tech stuff" turn me off - I enjoy finding out what's inside the engines and cars.

    In short, I have no idea why ratings are off!

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