The National Football League (NFL), easily the highest rated form of sport in the U.S., has always been an interesting source of discussion among motorsports decision makers when outlining their season plans.
Inevitably, as a racing season enters the Fall, where championship stakes are at their highest, television ratings typically begin to decline. The easiest attributable reason? Football season.
It’s a tough nut to crack, and with the NFL’s continual growth, all of the major U.S. forms of motorsport have taken different approaches to counter this.
NASCAR’s answer to the NFL began in 2004 with the creation of “The Chase” playoff format, in which the top-10 drivers (and then 12 several years later ) would be locked in to their own form of a playoff for the final 10 races, conveniently when football season began. This year, NASCAR has gone even further with this strategy, creating an elimination-based top-16 playoff, in which four drivers are removed from contention every three races, with four drivers battling it out for the finale in Homestead, Florida.
The logic is simple. In years prior, the championship would rarely come down to the final race. With a 36-race season, by time you got to the final few Fall rounds, there were usually only 2-3 drivers in legitimate contention, and usually one standout. Therefore, it was easy for a television viewer to stop paying attention once the NFL season began.
This year, every race during the final 10 events matters. With “Chase” drivers facing elimination from the championship every weekend, the stakes are high, and NASCAR’s new system guarantees a top-four showdown.
For ESPN, covering all final rounds, the ratings have shown a slight rise. With the most recent round at New Hampshire showing a 4% increase since last year, even if the gain isn’t huge, it shows NASCAR’s ability to neutralize the threat of viewership decline.
While traditionalists continue to fight the change from the now 10-year old system, the bottom line is the move seems to have worked, and most progressive fans have grown to truly embrace the format.
On the other side of the spectrum is the Verizon IndyCar Series. Facing a similar challenge of declining Fall ratings, the series made the decision in 2014 to simply void the competition altogether, running their final race of the season on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, before the season even began.
The positive is, whatever ratings declines may have incurred, were completely avoided.
The negative, which seems to be most prevalent in the media now, is the invisibility of the series for six months. With their season not beginning until March, IndyCar will literally be off the radar for a half-year, and in an era of questionable ratings and attendance, such a long hiatus could prove to be a critical blow for the series.
Perhaps the most interesting maneuver, however, has been the IMSA TUDOR United SportsCar Championship. Running as North America’s premier sportscar series, IMSA decision makers took an interesting step for the most recent round at Circuit of the Americas in Texas, as well as this weekend’s upcoming Petit Le Mans.
With the majority of their television coverage coming via Fox Sports, the series has worked a partnership in which a tape delayed, time-specific broadcast of the race is placed on Fox’s terrestrial network. More specifically, adjacent to Fox’s single-header football coverage.
It’s an interesting tactic, and perhaps the only one which has embraced the old adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
Critics would point out that it is tape delayed, and in a social media-crazed environment that clings to live, in-the-moment coverage it’s a valid one. Addressing this issue, IMSA still did provide live coverage options for those who had Fox Sports 2.
With the race now over, however, IMSA can applaud themselves for being able to demonstrate the highest ratings the series has demonstrated all year. Hitting 1.1 million viewers, the pass-off of football viewers has paid dividends for the series, who will be able to boast these metrics to boards across the country.
Even if tape-delayed and time condensed, in an era where motorsport programs are in a constant state of life support, the ability to boast millions of viewers, and on a major television network, is a huge boost for the series.
With the next race, the 10-hour Petit Le Mans, also being condensed in to a 2-hour broadcast the next day, time will tell if this is a long-term strategy or just a novel success.
Either way, the NFL is a force that racing will never be able to ignore, and the manners in which each series negotiates continue to prove intriguing.