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ESPN and NASCAR looking for excuses for plummeting TV Ratings
Despite an on-track product that many feel is better than in recent years, the first two Chase For The Sprint Cup races saw startling drops in television ratings.  The New Hampshire rating dropped 28 percent from 3.2 to 2.3 while the Dover rating fell 23 percent from 3.1 to 2.4.

While the 2009 Chase races were on ABC, a switch to ESPN was not the reason for the drop, said ESPN Vice President of Programming & Acquisitions Julie Sobieski.

“It’s concerning to us,” Sobieski said in a phone interview Friday. “We’re looking at every single factor that we can possibly look at. There’s so many things that are potentially at play.

“The rating declines that we’ve seen are not from broadcast-only homes. We know it’s not from the drop of broadcast to cable. Last year, ESPN outdelivered ABC. We don’t think it’s attributed to that.”

The network will research whether it is possible the 1 p.m. Eastern start times had something to do with the drop. NASCAR went to consistent start times this year, and the 1 p.m. Eastern start for all East and Central time zone races allowed races to end earlier but it also coincided with the start time for NFL games. With three hours representing a typical race telecast, the NASCAR events have ended around the same time as 1 p.m. NFL games.

ESPN preferred to have its races start at 2 p.m. Eastern during the Chase when the races were on ABC.

“While during the rest of the year that may not be a factor, it is something we are paying attention to in conjunction with the start of the NFL season,” Sobieski said. “Whereas when it was at 2 o’clock, we were ending that race at the beginning of the 4 o’clock [NFL game] window.

“We’re now concluding those races right up against the 1 o’clock windows. That’s just one factor we’re trying to looking into. We need some more research. The first two weeks isn’t enough to tell us that.”

NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston agreed that it's too early to determine if the Chase races would draw better ratings with a 2 p.m. Eastern start.

"NASCAR and our partners worked really diligently with the tracks to get everybody on a very well-coordinated schedule for the earlier and 1 o'clock start times," Poston said. "Any time you have change, that is tough on your fan base. We'd obviously be open to anything that makes sense, but at this stage we'd want to give this a little more time before we made a quick decision."

The ratings drop has been consistent among all demographics, Sobieski said. But the average time spent viewing the race increased 12 percent for New Hampshire and 14 percent for Dover, Sobieski said. One other difference in the telecasts is the viewership is not spiking near the end of the race as it has in the past, she said.

“We feel like we’re doing everything we can from our standpoint to make fans aware of where the races are,” Sobieski said. “It is a consistency play for us to be on ESPN with a consistent message that should be resonating with fans.

“The time spent viewing the telecasts is up. So the fans that are coming are engaged with the race itself. We’re doing a lot of unique things this year to drive interest.”

Each week, ESPN has a driver come to its Bristol, Conn., headquarters to appear on all of its platforms to help promote the races. Also, the "SportsCenter" telecast right after the race, which includes expanded race coverage, is doubling that of ESPN’s late Sunday afternoon programming in the past, Sobieski said.

“It’s been a nice addition … with expanding that 'SportsCenter' and including the NASCAR coverage in that window,” she said. “We’re very pleased with the addition of 'SportsCenter' and we think it is a nice service for the fans.”

Last year, while ESPN’s six races leading into the Chase saw a ratings increase of 2 percent, ABC saw a drop of 8 percent for its 11 races last year. None of the 10 Chase races showed ratings improvement from 2008 to 2009.

Sobieski said she did not believe it was a problem with the Chase.

“I think there is strong competition [on TV] this time of year,” Sobieski said. “That’s much more the case likely than anything specific to the Chase. The fans continue to give more positive feedback and more positive understanding of the Chase itself. It is a good race this year. It is a tight points race.”

Compared to 2008, the ratings for 2010 were down 39 percent for New Hampshire and 27 percent for Dover.

"You always want ratings to go up," Poston said. "You always want to see a positive move in in them, but the ratings do fluctuate. As to why they've been the last couple of weeks, it's just hard to say. … I think ultimately our fans like better racing and we've had great racing this year. I think we're going to have a great race, and I wouldn't speculate what exactly the cause is."

The considerable drops have participants scratching their heads.

“I really feel like the racing has been better,” Richard Childress Racing driver Jeff Burton said. “I think the racing has been good, I think the double-file restart thing has been good. … When Jimmie [Johnson] won four championships, everybody thought that was so bad for the sport, well now we have 10 people that have won [the last] 10 races, is that bad for the sport?”

“I don’t have the answers for it. I just believe our sport has to continue to grow, continue to improve and if we do continue to improve, the people are going to watch. Why they’re not watching now, I just don’t have an answer for that.”

Jeff Gordon had a similar reaction.

“I feel like it’s been exciting,” Gordon said. “We’ve got an interesting story right now. There’s the potential of a new champion, you’ve got a four-time champion going for five, the racing has been pretty good and exciting.

“I don’t think what we’re doing out there on the race track is an indication of what the ratings are. We’re not the only sport. There’s plenty of sports that are battling the same issues. We’re not through it yet, that’s an obvious thing that I see.” Scenedaily.com

[Editor's Note:  As one fan put it to AR1.com during last night's IndyCar race at Homestead-Miami Speedway while watching the cars going three wide in the corners with sparks flying out from under the cars at over 200 mph, "The NASCAR cars look like slow and boring sleds compared to these guys."  There in a nutshell may be NASCAR's problem - their slow 1950's technology cars that take almost 4 hours to finish a race just do not connect with today's younger generation.]

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