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NASCAR's TV mystery: A Riddle? A Puzzle? What's the key? And why doesn't anyone have any answers?

 NASCAR pres Mike Helton (L), interviewed by ESPN's Marty Smith (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



 What to do, what to do?
   The mystery of NASCAR's vanishing TV audience continues, with a new twist.
   NASCAR's TV ratings finally broke above the 3.0 level, five weeks into the championship playoffs, with Saturday night's Charlotte 500 pulled a final national rating of 3.2 on ABC.
   That's still down some nine percent from last year's race, which drew a 3.5 on ABC.

   However, the previous four Sprint Cup playoff events this season were broadcast on ESPN, the ABC cable sister, and those four were off a stunning 30 percent from last year's first four chase races.
   ABC, which carried last year's NASCAR playoffs, turned that venture over to ESPN this season. When that was first announced in January, it was seen by some as a blow in prestige for the sport, since the 'new' TV package that kicked off in 2001 was centered on 'network' television carrying the sport, and providing more legitimacy.
   However the backing that ESPN can provide any sport, with its multiple media platforms and general sports overkill was considered by some to provide a big plus for NASCAR racing. However that has not appeared to pan out quite as expected.
   And to say that executives at both NASCAR and ABC/ESPN are troubled is understatement. For one, NASCAR's TV ratings overall have been declining the past two years, but not as precipitously as during this season's championship playoffs -- a 10-race chase format designed to compete against heavy-hitting sports rivals each fall.
   At first NASCAR officials pointed to the sluggish U.S. economy as a big part of the problem, hurting both crowds and TV ratings.
   However the NFL this season has been doing great on TV, one early season game drawing something like 27 million viewers.
   For comparison, Saturday's Charlotte race, according to Nielsen and ABC, drew 5.3 million viewers.
   And there is the obvious point that if race fans are economically strapped, and can't afford to attend the races themselves, then surely they would be watching on TV. That ratings are down so considerably shows that race fans, for whatever reason, simply aren't tuning in anymore.
   ESPN has certainly upped its NASCAR programming, almost to the oversaturation points. Yet ratings are still down. And ratings are apparently down in key demographics too.
   The action on the track, by the way, has been generally great this season. Even at California's Auto Club Speedway, where single-file racing has been the norm, the action was frantic and exciting.
   Yet TV is not getting any benefit.
   Last season's opening four events in the playoffs averaged 3.3 on ABC; this year's first four averaged only 2.4 on ESPN.
   There has been an argument that since ABC reaches more households (about 116 million in the U.S.) than ESPN (the cable audience is about 100 million), that could be a factor in the decline.
   However that argument doesn't seem to hold much water, with ABC/ESPN executives saying that much of the NASCAR decline has actually come in cable-households.
   Meanwhile out in the grandstands, the crowd for Saturday's NASCAR feature was estimated at between 92,000 and 103,000.
   On the NASCAR Nationwide side of the TV picture, ESPN2's Friday night telecast of the Charlotte 300, pulled a 1.3, which is slightly higher than the 1.2 rating the series has been averaging this season, but still lower than last year's 1.4 for that event.
   The network says that 1.3 rating means that the broadcast averaged 1.8 million viewers.

I think you kind of alluded

I think you kind of alluded to the problem - sports overkill. When the sport runs almost the entire year, oversaturation is a problem, not to mention very few tracks can hold interesting races at 500 miles. I was at the Fontana race last weekend and 400 worked fine for me. I think moving it back to 500 next year is a mistake.
Additionally, I think over-marketing drivers who aren't competitive (yet) is a misjudgment.

I think people have the answers, but they are hard choices nobody wants to make because it will mean less money in the short run.

Love your articles Mike!


Quite simple - NASCAR fan

Quite simple - NASCAR fan base is declining rapidly. They ran off all the old school fans with the new modern NASCAR and failed to gain the younger demographic folks to watch on a regular basis. The next blow will be any changes they make to the chase format in 2011. This will run off another group of fans.
In business, you must retain customers. For every one you lose, you need to bring on two more. The NASCAR business model relative to the fan base has failed miserably. Now they realize it's not all economy related - too late however.

Honest opinion, Mike. How

Honest opinion, Mike. How many people do you think would stop watching NASCAR if the chase was eliminated and the previous points system was reinstalled?

I doubt many would, and I'm pretty sure many would return. The chase hasn't created any excitement and it sure as hell hasn't improved the ratings any. What it has done is make the races unwatchable. Nobody wants to watch ESPN's scripted garbage and relentless obsession over 3 or 4 drivers.

Fans tune in to watch a race not a championship. The coverage needs to focus on the present, what is happening RIGHT THEN on the track, not on what might happen in the future.

I'll give you my top 5

I'll give you my top 5 reasons for the poor ratings:

1) It's football season. The NFL is king. College football is queen.
2) Earnhardt Jr. is not competitive. His fans have quit watching until Daytona.
3) Jimmie Johnson is dominant, so why watch since he's going to win again.
4) NASCAR's integrity is in question more now than ever.
5) Three of the first four Chase races are at tracks that produce very lackluster racing.
NASCAR can't do a thing about #1.
With #2, they have shot themselves in the foot by overpromoting a driver as if he was the next Richard Petty, when in fact he's not any better than Kyle. The over hype has caught up with Junior and NASCAR. His fans had unrealistic expectations all along. He has his daddy's large following, and now that he isn't even competitive his fans tune out. This isn't all NASCAR's fault, but they at least have an equal share of the blame since they fed the monster.
For #3, unless the #48 team has a really good cheater piece that NASCAR hasn't found, then there isn't anything they can do about this one either. Fans of other teams are getting tired of seeing the same ole' team win, though, but so long as it's real, I'm okay with that.
For #4, most fans who aren't oblivious have always suspected NASCAR of fixing some races to some degree. Now with Mayfield's allegations pointing that out to go with NASCAR's secretive fines and the debris cautions when there is no debris in the racing groove, people are just fed up. When the race fans no longer believe in anything NASCAR says or does, they quit watching because they don't know if what they were/are watching is real or staged.
For #5, Mike has preached this several times. When you're going up against the NFL, you don't open the playoffs with yawner races. But that's what Loudon, Kansas, and California are. I wouldn't watch much of those races if it wasn't football season. Improve the Chase schedule NASCAR. Put the yawner races in the summer when football season has not started, and your Chase ratings will improve.

When is a playoff not really

When is a playoff not really a playoff? In NASCAR! In other sports, the regular season ends and a number of teams are eliminated. Then remaining teams go head to head in the playoffs and eventually the final two play off for the championship. TV ratings generally increase week by week as interest rises in the spectacle unfolding. I can understand why NASCAR would not want to run only half the field in the Chase but there is a fundamental problem of credibility and meaning when a playoff consists of all teams participating with only a few really in the game. It is a bit like kids T-ball where everyone gets a participant trophy. The solution is a new formula for year end races (assuming we still include all the teams)that will reward going for broke to generate excitement, allow non-chase teams to reenter contention for the Cup via winning a race (ie. if an Earnhardt or Newman wins a race, then they are reinstated into the playoff), and keep the standings close by counting only top five finishes. In this scenario instead of having the Earnhardt and Newman (or #00 or #43) fans not bother to even watch the race on TV because their driver's participation isn't really meaningful, the fans would tune in to see if their man (or Danica!) can transfer into playoff/Cup championship contention by virtue of a win. The details of this new formula are found in another posting in the esteemed MM site. NASCAR appears to be willing to try new ideas but the Chase needs a major rework before dropping ratings force ESPN/Fox to push NASCAR onto a third tier channel.

The HOF in Charlotte is in

The HOF in Charlotte is in deep trouble already, hasn't been open six months yet. Today ISC and Daytona announced closing the Daytona USA - Daytona Experience attraction. The interest in NASCAR is just no longer present. It will take a long time (and new management) to ever get it back to the level of the 1990's.

NASCAR, as Republican,

NASCAR, as Republican, Conservative & All-American as they like to portrayed themselves need to STOP taking a Liberal stance on "trying" to compete against the NFL's, College Football, the MLB's, the NBA's on T.V. buy throwing everything like "the Chase", "phantom cautions", "danica patrick", "over-hyped t.v. racing programs", etc to sell to the public. How 'bout getting back-to-basics and just go racin'? Balls-to-the-wall, first one to the checkered flag wins!!!

Case in point...

Wanna know what PROBABLY is the REAL reason why nobody tuned in on Saturday's Cup race? It's called SEC FOOTBALL. All these games were played/televised on Saturday night, Alabama vs Ole Miss (9:00pm), Florida vs Miss. State (7:00pm), LSU vs McNeese St. (7:00pm), South Carolina vs Kentucky (6:00pm) Four of those teams (AL, FL, SC, LSU) were ranked in the Top 20 during that time. Also San Francisco vs Philadelphia during the MLB Playoffs at 7:30pm. There's too much going on with t.v. these days just to watch some cars go 'round n 'round in circles and just when the best car of the day/night is pullin' away from the competition for the win, out comes the caution for some "tissue" in Turn Two. It's ridiculous.

NASCAR, as Republican,

NASCAR, as Republican, Conservative & All-American as they like to portrayed themselves need to STOP taking a Liberal stance on "trying" to compete against the NFL's, College Football, the MLB's, the NBA's on T.V. buy throwing everything like "the Chase", "phantom cautions", "Danica Patrick", "over-hyped t.v. racing programs", etc to sell to the public. How 'bout getting back-to-basics and just go racin'? Balls-to-the-wall, first one to the checkered flag wins!!!

Case in point...

Wanna know what PROBABLY is the REAL reason why nobody tuned in on Saturday's Cup race? It's called SEC FOOTBALL. All these games were played/televised on Saturday night, Alabama vs Ole Miss (9:00pm), Florida vs Miss. State (7:00pm), LSU vs McNeese St. (7:00pm), South Carolina vs Kentucky (6:00pm) Four of those teams (AL, FL, SC, LSU) were ranked in the Top 20 during that time. Also San Francisco vs Philadelphia during the MLB Playoffs at 7:30pm. There's too much going on with t.v. these days just to watch some cars go 'round n 'round in circles and just when the best car of the day/night is pullin' away from the competition for the win, out comes the caution for some "tissue" in Turn Two. It's ridiculous.

I am one of those. I have cut

I am one of those. I have cut way back on my Nascar TV viewing. It started a year ago and has continued throughout this year. Speaking for myself, I am tired of watching one driver from a superteam that fields a brand of car I despise vying for a fifth championship.The GM mothership that has backed that superteam has suckled over $50 BILLION from the US taxpayers, yet continues to funnel hundreds of millions of $$$ into their Nascar Cup teams. As a taxpayer, I am furious and have let my elected representatives know about it. Realistically, they can do very little, so I am expressing my displeasure by, essentially, boycotting Nascar Cup racing on TV.

Do you happen to know what

Do you happen to know what sort of a number the ABC Saturday night college football games have been getting? I'm curious just to put last week's rating in context.

well lets start with the new

well lets start with the new car and about 300 lbs too much weight and top heavy so no one can drive it then throw in fix the race cautions
then have a car that looks like nothing on the street and you have an IROC race which nobody came to watch. take away rockingham,laborday darlington,and north wilksboro and have mostly 1.5 mile tracks.no coolers at some tracks and having to park away and be bused to the track
a while back we had a house in GA and thought we might like to go to the twins which was 125 miles so we called to see how much the tickets were and were told 150.00 each and we had to park away and be bused in and no coolers. WE HAVEN"T BEEN BACK.and i used to drive to rockingham from NH twice a year until they did away with it.
we very seldom even watch it anymore and i used to be a nascar inspecter

Robert McIntire

The thing that ESPN and Fox

The thing that ESPN and Fox have to realize is that the announcers in the booth should announce the event and not try to be part of the event or try to be the event and do it the way Bob Jenkins and Larry Nuber did it. When I listen to MRN it sounds so much more exciting. The other problem is the tracks themselves there are a few races on TV I don't even watch or would I take free tickets to go to and for the first time in 30 years I forgot a race was even being run when the California race was on I turned on the TV and the highlights were being shown on ESPN I would not of watched it but it never even clicked that it was being run.

I think TV should go back to

I think TV should go back to the basics.Quit telling us how dumb we are by constantly explaining every little thing.Most ofthe time I will turn off the tv volume and listen to the radio.

Good article. It's gets past

Good article. It's gets past "its the economy stupid" really good. It's so obvious to the fans that if people can't afford to go to the race, they will watch on TV. Nascar buried their collective heads in the sand. There is so many things making the rating go down it's unreal. As a long term Nascar fan (read since 1996) I've watched just about every race until this year. I've missed about half of them now out of bordom. Here is what I think is driving the down turn. Cookie cutter tracks, cookie cutter drivers, the Chase itself, the wing drove a ton of fans away - that dumb looking thing belonged on some kids Honda Civic. Jimmy Johnson/Hendricks dominiting the Chase 4 years in a row. (He will win again this year and drive more away also) The Chase - 26 weeks of on track testing with no real racing followed up my 10 weeks of (if you have a problem it's over - sorry) The Chase excludes 24 drivers fans from the sport. Period. TV bairly covers any driver outside of the Chase. Then we get to the actual TV broadcast which is horrible. Last fall was a JJ Love Fest. Little better this year. But last fall's Love Fest with JJ drove A LOT of fans away. Just my two cents.

It looks like once again

It looks like once again nobody gets it. It doesn't matter what channel the WWF NA$$CAR staged show is on, its the product that King Brian thinks is so great that former fans have had enough of. IROC clone style, top 35 crap, the chase disaster, no credibility at all anymore. If King Brian likes his entertainment show he might be one of the few still watching in the not to distant future. ESPN can't make a pig with lipstick on appealing no matter where they broadcast it. If you like it watch it, however I won't tuning in anymore until those in the Ivory Tower turn back the clock.

I guess no body is listening

I guess no body is listening to what the people are saying. They're not talking about any of the above. They are talking about the way Brian France has ruined this sport by being so money hungry. If they would get him & his flunkies out of power & put some one in who is more interested in the sport & the fans - they might get some of them back.

Before this year, I probably

Before this year, I probably watched 95% of the Sprint Cup races on TV going back at least 10 years. Its probably down to 50% this year. Here are the reasons why my viewership has dropped: 1. When I go to the lakehouse, I can't watch on ESPN/TNT since we only have the networks; 2. My driver has not performed well this year; 3. I've never liked the chase format and now expect JJ to keep winning while this format seems to work for him. Of the three reasons listed, I can say the biggest factor for me is how my driver is performing. I'm not a part of the Junior Nation, but would expect that these fans feel the same as I. I know it puts way too much pressure on Junior and its not fair, but I would bet money that a Junior in championship form would boost the ratings and attendance at the track. Heck, I kind of feel myself pulling for him now to save my favorite sport. And by the way, I'm sure the decline of Gordon isn't helping much either. Together, Junior and Gordon probably claim 50% of the fans.

if dale jr was in the top

if dale jr was in the top three ,and running good,and seriously competing,would love to see the ratings then...just wondering,

Good article. I am a 29

Good article. I am a 29 year-old lifelong NASCAR fan who is likely going to call it quits at the end of this season. I used to watch every Cup, Nationwide/Busch, and Truck series race of the year. Now, I barely watch the Trucks, rarely if ever watch Nationwide, and fast forward through the Cup race enough that it only takes me 30-45 minutes to get through?

Why? It's not the economy for me, I am lucky enough to be employed. It's not football - can't stand that sport. It's not a lack of Dale Jr winning, as I've never been a fan of his.

It's a lot of things - first and foremost though for me has been the FOX television coverage since 2001. It has always puzzled me how NASCAR strived so hard on their broadcasts to be seen as a legitimate national sport back in the days when they were clearly a regional, niche product, but since their ascension to national prominence the TV broadcasts have become more of a corn-fed variety show than a race broadcast.

ESPN isn't much better - the broadcast is so tightly scripted that they miss the real action/stories taking place.

More than anything else, though, the Chase has rendered the first 26 races so much less important on an individual basis. I used to be glued to my TV set because I knew if Tony Stewart blew an engine, he'd be out of championship contention. It felt like something was really on the line.

Now if a guy has a blown engine, it isn't a big deal because he is still in Chase contention as long as he stays in the top 12. If a driver doesn't seem aggravated about blowing an engine, why should I?

I am literally the only NASCAR fan that I personally know anymore in my everyday life. A few years ago, my friends, family, and co-workers would bring up NASCAR as a regular topic of conversation. It has gone from a red-hot product to an ice-cold one in very short order.

Sorry for the rambling post, but NASCAR has so many problems that it will be hard for them to recover. I'm sad to say it, but I think I will be pulling into the garage for the final time at the end of the season.

I think a lot of us long-time

I think a lot of us long-time "NASCAR Fans" have lost their spark of interest and just can't get excited anymore. For me it was the loss of David Poole as the lone voice of reason in the NASCAR sanctioned media circus. With his loss I stopped listening to Sirius all day while working and although I still will listen to Moody or Buddy a few times a week, and try to not miss Pat on weekends listening to Sirius is now an occasional interest not something i go out of my way for. And while everyone might have their own "trigger" where they lost that interest there's been very little interesting enough going on to pull someone back in.
Joey Logano? certainly not the second coming
can barely win in NNS in a car that blows away
all but his teammate
Kyle Busch? can beat up on the minor league but
looks human on cup side.
Dale Jr? so disappointing it's painful to listen to some races
Jeff Gordon? even more disappointing than Jr because he's
Scott Speed? disappointing but not surprising
Brian Vickers? the last NC hope for race wins and he's out
(maybe he can come back BIG next year with Kahne as teammate)
JPM? he's playing second fiddle to a driver dumped in favor of
David Ragan...certainly not what a "World Class" driver would
expect Can JPM even stay in NASCAR not being the #1 on his
own team. Rusty's ego was too big to handle being #2 at Penske

There's been ample reasons to LOSE interest the since Big E passed, but I have trouble thinking of something that's happened to excite fans.
The Chase? existing fans find it contrived
New tracks? only people near them even care
New Car? harder to drive and less passing...certainly not bringing
new viewers to sport or disinterest fans back

I've been excited watching NASCAR once in last 18 months, when Junior won the Daytona NNS Race. That was EXCITING, was at a bar...people were yelling (oh...maybe that was just me) but it was exciting and emotional. I remember that most race wins were exciting and emotional.

That Jamie Mac story is GREAT!!! But since he's not in the chase his story is still somewhat a footnote. Without the chase we'd be talking about how he's still working to make the Top 10 to get to thank his sponsors at the Banquet. Now finishing in the bottom of Top 10 is abject failure since you were just a few races from a possible championship. We went from celebrating 10 season long champs...the best of the best... to 9 people apologizing they couldn't do better in chase and one champion. We've lost so much the last ten year, drivers, personalities, fans, stories, history, tradition and we've seemed to gain very little in exchange that anyone can get excited about. Maybe Jamie can win out the year and THEN we'd have something to be excited about.

Sorry i'm rambling on...but I've really been mourning that i've lost my interest in NASCAR. Something i've loved longer than i've known my wife. I just keep hanging on following NASCAR on Autopilot hoping that something that catches my interest will happen, but hope is dwindling.

Bob from CT

From the email bag: Easy to

From the email bag:

Easy to explain the poor ratings this year in Nascar.
-First off the only coverage that is any good is FOX's... ESPN and ABC are spotty and just try to copy theirs. Not to mention the few races I watch on those coverages have blackouts, sound-outs etc every race.
-But that is not even close to the biggest problem. Those two coverages are primarily on cable channels. In these tough times people are cutting costs and that means cable. Can't watch it when its not on. Put the races on on FOX and the rating will go up.
-Last is we are sick of JJ. Either find a way to get him off the podium or more and more people will stop watching.

The economy is some of it, My

The economy is some of it, My self I cant afford cable due to underemployment. The chase is the closest ever and now its not on abc? In Atlanta abc shows paid programing on sundays,REALLY? why not watch football?

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