Drop in NASCAR viewership is puzzling only to the blind Television executives also are preparing their networks' coverage. TV officials aren't stressing over a need for speed, though; they are trying to figure out how to get viewers back watching Sprint Cup races.
Ratings for last season's 10-race season-ending Chase for the Championship were off 23 percent from the previous year. The Chase averaged a 2.7 rating on ESPN/ABC, compared with 3.5 on ABC in 2009 (one rating point equals 1.1 million households).
There is a theory that moving the Chase from ABC to ESPN hurt the ratings. Over-the-air networks like ABC are in 116 million households whereas ESPN reaches nearly 100 million homes. With the nation's economic troubles, some racing fans surely dropped their cable or satellite service. However, an ESPN study released last month showed that such "cord cutting" is minimal.
"We really don't believe the move from ABC to ESPN is much of a factor," said Julie Sobieski, ESPN's vice president for programming and acquisitions. "The [racing] competition is as good as it's been. The ratings for NASCAR have been on the decline now for several years across the [network] partners. It takes time to turn trends around."
Sobieski said ESPN is encouraged, because "the time spent viewing [Chase races] was up double digits."
Hunter Nickell, president of Speed Channel, said ratings for NASCAR shows on Speed are "largely a good story." But Nickell says there has been an "erosion" in viewing by men ages 18 to 34.
"We have to best position the unique [strengths] of the sport," Nickell said. "Cup races are unlike anything else. [They] dwarf every other kind of auto-racing coverage domestically. People who go to races get it."
What puzzles many observers is, if fans hurt by the economy cannot afford to attend races, they should be home watching on TV. As Sobieski said, the competition has been first-rate. Denny Hamlin gave Jimmie Johnson all he could handle before Johnson extended his reign to 5 years in a row, edging Hamlin by 39 points.
If fans who used to attend races aren't watching, then the inference is they don't find the races interesting. There is a sense that new fans drawn to NASCAR in the past decade, when the sport boomed, were along for a temporary ride.
"The people that jumped on the sport were not real race fans," said Keith Younge, a longtime NASCAR fan from Philadelphia. "I remember going to races, looking around and thinking 'These people are just here because this is the next big thing.' Those people have now jumped on MMA."
"Johnson fatigue" also is suspected as a factor in declining TV ratings. As I've written, Johnson's five consecutive titles are a remarkable achievement. But the failure of challengers to end his domination has drained some drama from the sport. More at Philly.com
[Editor's Note: How many times must we reiterate that the younger generation could give a hoot about NASCAR's managed races, 1950's technology and basterdized cars that look hideous?]