After several years of sharp ratings declines, NASCAR television viewership is on rise again. Nielsen reported that the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series averaged 4,076,000 viewers/race through the first half of this season (+2% YoY, excluding weather-impacted races). JohnWallStreet spent last weekend at Watkins Glen trying to find out what the drivers think the catalyst for the turnaround has been. The common theme among them was the belief that NASCAR president Steve Phelps’ increased focus on promoting the sport was driving it back in the right direction.
Howie Long-Short: It’s reasonable to wonder if a series of tight races (see Fan below) is responsible for stopping the ratings slide, but 7x Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and Landon Cassill, driver of the #00 Chevrolet, don’t believe the ratings uptick is related to the competition on the track. Johnson pointed out that “stage racing isn’t new [instituted in 2017] and Cup Series racing has been highly competitive for a long time.” Cassill agreed saying there’s been “good and bad racing throughout [his] career, with every package” [and yet ratings have always declined].
Cassill believes the ratings increase is the product of the series’ renewed focus on marketing. He said, “like most businesses, everything starts at the top and NASCAR leadership – from Steve on down – has gotten serious about promoting the sport.” Aric Almirola (driver of the #10 Ford) agreed adding that “for a long-time, NASCAR just assumed the fans knew the race was on TV and that they would tune in to watch; but, fans have a lot of other entertainment options on Sunday afternoons. Steve has done a great job of making sure we all understand the targeted mission (see: growing the sport’s popularity) and what our role is [off the track].”
That role includes regular interviews with the media. Drivers say their media obligations have increased this season (see: new requirement forcing Sunday’s top ten finishers to speak post-race and a mandate that every driver meets with the media either before or after qualifying), but none that we spoke to balked at the responsibility. In fact, Cassill suggested television viewership is impacted – if not driven – by the media’s narrative – or lack thereof – and that regular driver interactions with reporters help to keep a sport that has just one race a week, in the news throughout the seven-day cycle.
Perhaps no strategic marketing initiative has given a greater boost to NASCAR ratings than the identification of the markets with the most rabid racing fans (see: Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Nashville, Raleigh, Greenville SC, Greensboro NC, Cleveland, Kansas City, Tampa) and a subsequent increase in promotional efforts – and spend – in those cities. Almirola said he’s noticed the sport making a concerted effort to increase driver activations in those core markets. It seems to be working. Through the FOX portion of the season schedule, television ratings are up +7% YoY in those targeted markets.
Johnson agreed with Almirola’s assessment that NASCAR has “been more strategic with marketing the product” and pointed out that “the start times of races” have changed. He might be onto something. Sunday afternoon races are indeed starting consistently later this season than years past. The green flag now typically drops between 2-3:30p EST. It’s certainly possible that the new window draws more viewers.
2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon didn’t challenge what any of the other drivers had to say, but wanted to add that the sport’s budding group of young charismatic drivers (see: Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Bubba Wallace and Dillon himself) also likely have had something to do with the increase in viewership.
Fan Marino: While the drivers didn’t want to attribute the ratings uptick to on-track performance, there is a strong argument to be made that this season’s new package has enhanced the racing product. The first 22 races of the season produced 704 green flag passes for the lead, compared to just 504 at this point last year (+39.7% YoY) and 14 of the 22 races (63.6%) this season finished with a margin of victory of less than one second – the most since 1994 (also with 14 of the first 22 races).
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