Prior to NASCAR’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway just over one week ago, series chairman and CEO Brian France stated that the sport was healthy despite continued declines in TV ratings and attendance. "... We are still very pleased with our position in sports. The audience isn't going away at all. It's sliding to different places, consuming in different ways."
When the ratings came in from the series’ nail-biting finale, the race actually saw a 25% dip from the previous year in overnight ratings, down to 3.32 from the previous year’s 4.41.
To put this in perspective, the NFL’s season-ending Super Bowl did a 46.6 in 2016, and this year’s World Series Game Seven achieved a 25.2.
In fairness, the ratings for NASCAR’s season finale have remained in the 3-4 range for several years, including achieving a 3.1 in 2013 under the “old” Chase system, but most notably on cable and not terrestrial television.
So is this a decline in the sport or simply a realization that this is as far as the reach actually goes?
The concern is not over the rating itself, but the efforts to find a larger audience that have delivered negligible results. With the majority of NASCAR’s second half of the season being broadcast by ESPN up until 2015, an overnight rating of 3+ is fairly normal for a cable network, however with NBC purchasing the broadcast rights for an alleged $4.4 billion, the expectation and hope of growth for the series on a major terrestrial network was expected to raise the exposure of the series even further.
To coincide with this, NASCAR also engaged in a fundamental overhaul to their championship, introducing a new elimination-based Chase system for their championship that ultimately lead to a “highest finisher takes all” final race for the four cars still eligible after a series of eliminations. All of this in the name of added excitement, and added growth.
Yet, despite all of these efforts and investments, the ratings are fairly similar to 2013, when still on ESPN and under the “old” chase format.
Is it possible that NASCAR is simply at its maximum potential for audience growth? With attempt after attempt to re-invigorate the series, and barely measurable results to show for it, all signs point to a loyal audience continuing to engage, however the rest of America may simply be dis-interested.
In a business climate where you’re only succeeding if you’re growing, there are some fundamental questions on whether or not the general formula for NASCAR can reach any further. With a younger culture thirsty for green initiatives, high technology, and endless digital engagement, the tradition of NASCAR’s roaring V8’s on high-banked super-speedways is certainly questionable, but that’s not the place of this article to argue for or against.
What is evident is that it is becoming increasingly clear that NASCAR continued attempts to re-invigorate the series with format shifts vs. formula shifts is hardly making a mark, and now with a broadcast partner who has extremely high expectations.
With all that said, the core focus might best be suited not at growth, but at consistency and keeping the core audience happy. With increasingly discontented NASCAR loyalists becoming disillusioned with the recurring series of changes away from “authenticity,” perhaps its time NASCAR appreciate what it has (especially when compared with other racing series) and make sure that it’s core audience continue an interest.