Cup TV ratings going bust
What has happened to NASCAR's once-soaring TV ratings? It appears that they've crashed and burned over the summer.
And now the sport starts its fall Chase for the Championship in a hole, trying to regain momentum among those stock-car racing fans parked in front of their TV sets.
Certainly the bar for this weekend's TV ratings game here at New Hampshire Motor Speedway isn't set too high. Last fall's race drew a 3.3 rating on ABC. (Ratings are a measure of the percentage of all 114.5 million TV homes in the United States that are watching a particular show, according to Nielsen.)
The races will be ABC productions from here on out, the final 10 Sprint Cup races, albeit with the same production crew and on-air talent that ESPN has used this season. From the ESPN side, the slump clearly isn't from not throwing enough time, money, energy and people at the NASCAR coverage. No other network has ever put as many assets into the NASCAR game as this bunch.
So how does Julie Sobieski, ESPN's vice president of programming and acquisitions, with motor sports her specialty, view the state of NASCAR on TV this season?
No, NASCAR isn't going bust, Sobieski said. Rather the sport has found itself the past few weeks in the eye of a perfect storm:
"Everything started off this year on a really great track. Ratings were up across the board on Nationwide (which ESPN has been carrying all season). Fox ended up strong on the Cup on their part of the package. TNT ended up doing well, vs. last year.
"So everything has been moving in a real positive trend.
"But where things started to fall off this year were things out of our control. Certainly the competition on the track has been great, especially heading into the Chase.
"But we've had a number of weather issues on the Cup part of our package.
"And the Olympics were a huge factor, impacting ratings not only on the NASCAR side but other sports, like the NFL, as well.
"The Olympics are a powerful force. And everyone on the sports' side was impacted, particularly with the Michael Phelps story.
"We still feel good about where we are. It's just been factors outside our control, like Hanna at Richmond.
"But if you pull those components out, Nationwide coverage is still up, even considering the Olympics -- up 12 percent over last year for us, which is a really strong turnaround that we're excited about.
"And with all the top drivers in the Chase, we're looking ahead to that....
"Hopefully now, moving into Loudon, we'll start to see those trends turn around."
One curious, and perhaps unsettling, angle behind the scenes is some growing discontent among NASCAR fans about ESPN's coverage. Although it's anecdotal, there are clear signs that ESPN isn't seen at the moment with the same "love" that it engendered during its first 20-year run with NASCAR.
In its first stint covering stock-car racing, ESPN carried NASCAR races when no one else wanted them, and ESPN reporters were seen as feisty and undaunted in digging out the news.
Now, after six years on the sidelines, ESPN is back, and back in force, throwing everything it's got into its NASCAR coverage. ESPN has dozens of announcers and reporters, an army never before seen in this sport. And it's got 17 different "platforms" for disseminating its news, from the Web to Spanish-language radio.
Is ESPN actually giving NASCAR fans too much? Too many announcers, too many things?
Sobieski said: "ESPN is proud to be back with NASCAR. We have a long history with NASCAR. And we expect to be with the sport for a long, long time.
"Our production team, everyone across the board, has a tremendous passion for the sport. We're always trying to do the best to serve the fans, because we're all sports fans.
"Certainly the passion of our announcers and our producers for this sport is second to none. We have one great super-team that covers Cup and Nationwide.
"We've got a lot of hours of NASCAR programming on the network every weekend, and we have a deep team that allows to get perspectives from Cup champions and owners and crew chiefs, who can speak to the race from so many different perspectives. And they've got great chemistry."
So why the complaints? Perhaps two minor incidents have hurt, a spring move of a race from ESPN2 to ESPN Classic, for an NBA game, and a Labor Day move of the start of a Nationwide race from ESPN2 to Classic, because of a long college football game. ESPN and ESPN2 each reach about 98 million homes; ESPN Classic reaches only 64 million.
Is that part of ESPN taking NASCAR for granted?
Sobieski disagrees. And she said that part of the plus for NASCAR being on ESPN is that ESPN is easily the top sports network in the country.
"We have NASCAR programming in the mix with a lot of programming, and the benefit of being with ESPN is that you're surrounded by sports fans watching live events, and we deliver them from event to event. The downside is that sometimes events run long. Sometimes it's NASCAR running long, and sometimes, unfortunately, it's the front-end of a NASCAR race getting impacted by another like -- like this time, college football.
"It doesn't happen often. And it's something we pay a lot of attention to on the planning side, so it's balanced and we can protect all of our ‘windows.'
"The good thing about us having multiple networks is we do have a place to serve those fans." Winston Salem Journal