A double-digit decline in ratings for NASCAR on Fox has officials researching why the audience is shrinking and what, if anything, can be done to reverse the trend.

Through the season's first 10 races, Nielsen ratings on Fox are down 11.5 per cent and viewership is down 10.8 per cent from 2008 numbers, which don't include a 2008 rainout. Ratings for each of the past seven Sprint Cup races going into last week's event at Darlington were down by double digits.
Fox's average rating for the season was a 5.4 with 8.9 million viewers before Saturday's race at Darlington, compared with averages of 6.1 and 10 million for 2008. The overnight rating for Saturday's Southern 500 was 16.3 percent lower than last year's race.

"As you look at the current snapshot, it's been a challenging year," said Paul Brooks, president of NASCAR Media Group. "That being said, we're still the number one sport on television six of the last nine weeks. Our position in the sports and entertainment landscape is strong.

"The biggest impact is with our TV partners and their commercial sales. We're mindful of that. The flip side is that we hear great things, that it's not a NASCAR issue. It's a broader economy and advertising issue."

Marketers in the sport have expressed some concern, not just over the drop, but how steeply the ratings have dropped. But for many sponsors such as UPS, NASCAR's official express delivery company, advertising is just one component of a multipronged program.

UPS advertises about as much as anyone in NASCAR, especially this year as it introduces a new driver, David Ragan, with five new spots.

"Is it a concern? Yeah," said Ron Rogowski, UPS's sponsorship director. "You don't want to see something you're heavily invested in fall off, but you have to be careful and keep it in perspective. It's just one part of our program.

"Where it becomes more relevant is when you try to substantiate your investment."

There's also the Dale Earnhardt Jr. factor. Earnhardt, the sport's greatest selling force and biggest star, has yet to hit his stride at Hendrick Motorsports. With Earnhardt standing 18th in points and owning one top-five finish this season, he has been unable to provide a Tiger Woods-like surge for NASCAR through his performance.

"We've been challenged in this area by story lines," Brooks said. "In professional sports, the story lines drive that momentum. Whether it's coming out of the gate with a rain-shortened Daytona 500 or other challenges, if we can catch a few breaks with story lines and the racing we're starting to see, it can be a momentum changer and booster."

Carl Edwards' airborne flip on the last lap at Talladega and the subsequent controversial finish was thought to be the kind of story line that NASCAR needed to spur interest. Footage of Edwards' car flying into the air and crashing against the fence played over and over the following week. The following race, a Saturday night affair at Richmond, drew a 4.0 rating, down from last year's 4.5.

"We agree with Paul that NASCAR is a strong TV sport this time of year, and that we caught a bad break out of the gate with rain at the Daytona 500," Fox Sports chairman and chief executive David Hill said in a statement. "We haven't finished examining this year's figures yet, but we're encouraged by the audience for Richmond given extremely tough competition."

Brooks said NASCAR and Fox are looking at every angle, from the lack of compelling story lines on the track to the spacing and timing of commercial breaks. Broadcasters have traditionally gone to commercial during pit stops, but Brooks said that NASCAR fans want to see the pit stops.

"Maybe we shouldn't be breaking away from pit stops, which is the traditional model," Brooks said. "What we're hearing from fans is that they want to see that. That's an important part of the race. We're studying all of those things.

"We have to remind ourselves where we are in the landscape of the broader sports and entertainment field. Our rating still outdelivers 75 per cent of the prime-time programming on broadcast. But that doesn't mean we're saying ratings are fickle and they'll hopefully come back. We're studying everything from commercial patterns, when they're run, to how networks break away from the action. Is there a different way?"

Still, there's plenty to trumpet, Brooks said. The Aaron's 499 on April 26 drew a 5.0, which was down from last year's 5.7, but it topped a competitive weekend of sporting events with 8.1 million viewers, compared with 5.4 million for the NBA's first-round playoff matchup between Cleveland and Detroit on ABC. From a market standpoint, New York's ratings are up 5 percent, but other big markets have not followed suit. Chicago is down 25 percent, and Los Angeles has dropped 23 percent.

Ratings for traditional NASCAR strongholds such as Charlotte and Atlanta are down 22 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

"Compared to a lot of other sports, I look at an average rating of 5.4 and say, 'Wow, that's pretty good,' " said Mike Trager, a sports TV consultant. "I realize they're off, but I look at it more in terms of sustainability. Sports, over time, are relatively predictable and they sustain a certain level, and I think that's still the case with NASCAR.

"I have not sensed any change in perception with NASCAR among the people I talk to. The NBA, baseball, they've all gone through their ups and downs."

by Michael Smith
Michael Smith is a reporter with SportsBusiness Journal

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