There was a time when NASCAR was king of the world. From the middle of the 1990s until the middle of the 2000s, NASCAR had plenty of butts in the seats and eyes on the TV screen.
As the new millennium wore on however, the world economy tanked, and suddenly races that were once guaranteed sell-outs had tickets available. Tracks responded by lowering prices and adding amenities, but it still wasn’t enough; soon tracks began to remove seating. Richmond which had 16 straight years of sellouts that ended in 2008, shrunk their seating from 112,000 to 60,000; Talladega went from 108,000 to 78,000. Other tracks followed.
International Speedway Corporation which owns 13 racetracks at which 12 have NASCAR events, had a total of 1.1 million grandstand seats in 2007. At the start of this year that number had dropped an estimated 30% to around 760,000.
During this time, TV ratings, the measure coveted by executives, began to decline. Not be single percentage points, but by double digits. In 2013, NASCAR announced a decade long TV rights package with NBC, and an extension with Fox shortly after.
Still the ratings dropped. And like Chicken Little, some pundits began to cry that the sky above NASCAR was falling.
The truth is of course very different.
What’s happening in NASCAR is the same thing that is happening in all of professional sports. Today’s viewers, especially younger ones, are digesting their live sports in ways that were unheard of only a few years before. Today viewers can see live games, or races, online or on mobile devices, and in fragmented ways. Society has gone from a sedentary group to one that multitasks, and is not content to sit through nine full innings, or 500 miles. They can find out all they need to know about their sport while grocery shopping, seeing highlights and recaps on YouTube, or on other social media platforms.
NASCAR, like other sports, has worked to engage these fans away from TV, which by the way still has good ratings in the major markets. In New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore for example, TV ratings this year are actually up over last season, by double digits.
NASCAR’s numbers when it comes to engagement away from the TV screen, actually paint a much rosier picture than simply looking at TV ratings alone. According to numbers provided by NASCAR, engagement on their various social platforms is up 83% year-over-year, with more than 114 million total engagements. The NASCAR Facebook and Twitter accounts have generated more than 2.3 billion (with a B), impressions year to date with more than 76 million video views on those accounts which is five times more than at the same time last year. Overall, across all its digital platforms, NASCAR registered 507 million page views and 155 million on and off platform video views.
While acknowledging that they did have a tough start to the season with TV ratings, which were down 18% in the first two races of the season over last year, that gap has now narrowed and was only a 3% drop from last year through the race at Kentucky Speedway.
There are still fewer butts in the seats, and that is still a troublesome trend. However, unlike other professional sports, NASCAR holds its events only in certain cities. Major metropolitan areas don’t have a “home team”, meaning that many NASCAR fans still need to travel some distance, and stay in hotels. Many of those hotels still inflate prices during a race week and require minimum stays; a practice that worked in the past, but although the economy had recovered ,the disposal income that people once had, may not have caught up just yet. For now, they may be just as content to stay at home, save their money and watch a NASCAR race in high definition on TV while augmenting that with the various social media platforms available online.
Few would argue that the racing in 2016 has been anything but fantastic. With record close finishes, the racing on the track has been better than it has been in years, and the season is far from over.
Executives in all professional sports, NASCAR included, are still trying to develop ways to get a n accurate and complete measurement of just how many people are watching their sport. In fact, TV executives are wrestling with the same issue. The media world is in somewhat of a transition. But just like newspapers and magazines which used to count their success, or failure, by the number of people who held their product in their hand, professional sports will figure out a way to show the value of their product and the actual number of people who watch.
When that happens, we all may understand that while there may not be as many people in the stands, or registering hits on a Neilson box on top of their TV, there are plenty of people watching NASCAR, maybe even more than ever before.