Should NASCAR Be Nervous Over TV Decline?

As reported by "USA Today" sports broadcasting elf-in-residence Rudy Martzke, overnight television ratings for the NASCAR Winston Cup Brickyard 400 race last Saturday were down. Not horribly so, but enough to where if I was one of the executives who talked NBC, Fox and TBS into the $400 million-a-year TV package beginning in 2001, I'd be nervous.

The ratings -- a 3.6, down from last year's 4.3 -- represent measurements taken in select major markets. When the full Nielsen ratings come out, they will utilize data from smaller markets where, sometimes, NASCAR does better than in the major markets. But suffice it to say that, as they have been for most of the season, NASCAR TV viewership has declined, by an average of about 7 percent.

Why? If you talk to NASCAR or representatives of the three networks that will air stock car racing next year, it's because that lame ducks ABC, CBS, ESPN and TNN -- since they are losing Winston Cup racing at the end of the season -- have not been as aggressive about promoting the sport as they would be otherwise.

That is quantifiable, I suspect, though I haven't seen anybody quantify it -- telling me that, say, ABC aired 100 minutes of commercials for the Brickyard 400 in 1999, just 20 minutes in 2000. If that's true, it's a valid concern.

Certainly TNN, which had a very limited NASCAR schedule, has been profoundly aggressive in airing promos for American Speed Association and World of Outlaws races. Why? Because TNN literally bought into both series, and sees promoting ASA and WoO as investing in the network's own future.

Still, are there many NASCAR fans who, due to some perceived but as-yet unquantified decline in promotion, were not aware that the Brickyard 400 was running last Saturday? Unlikely. Perhaps a few fringe fans accustomed to seeing Winston Cup races on Sunday forgot to tune in, but we must suspect that most of the folks who wanted to watch the race, knew where to find it.

Additionally, it's a safe bet that NASCAR and the affected broadcast media might -- privately, anyway -- point to an unusually shrill string of racing media stories that insist how boring NASCAR, especially on big speedways, has become. Unfortunately, this Brickyard 400 did not make much of a case otherwise.

Indianapolis, when you remove the aura, is not a very good track for stock cars. Unless your name is Bobby Labonte or Rusty Wallace, it would be difficult to assert that this Brickyard was particularly compelling.

If you don't buy the declining-promotion argument for NASCAR's sagging ratings, then there's a problem. While some of the superspeedway races have not been stellar, this has been a darn good NASCAR season, with the best rookie crop we've seen in years, a varied roster of winners, and average or better rain delays.

You could also argue that while the departing networks may have lessened promotional coverage, the increase in NASCAR-related advertising should have more than made up for it -- has anybody NOT seen those Chef Boyardee commercials with Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, or Jeff Gordon's Pepsi and Fritos spots? Didn't think so.

So, if declining promotion isn't the problem -- and I'm not saying it isn't -- then NASCAR's popularity may have peaked. It has to happen sometime. Has it already?

That said, the Brickyard was ABC's last NASCAR race, and CBS has already aired its swan song. NBC and Fox are gearing up for 2001, and you can bet that to protect their investment, we'll see an unprecedented amount of NASCAR promotions. They will have to rekindle whatever interest has been lost in NASCAR; they will have to remind fans that their favorite racing is not where they've found it for years; they will have to overcome whatever level of resentment there is that NASCAR saw fit to take the money and run, leaving longtime broadcast partners in the lurch. They will also have to convince
sponsors that NASCAR has not peaked, only taken a breather.

Additionally, though -- and I'm not sure they have thought about this much -- they'll have to counter whatever ABC, CBS, TNN and ESPN comes up with to replace all that racing. Which -- to protect their investment in whatever it is -- will be aggressively promoted on those networks. If I was CART, the IRL, even ARCA and Trans-Am, I'd be pitching so tirelessly that those bereaved networks would give me good coverage just to make me shut up. This is a superb opportunity for the less-known series to make up some ground on NASCAR.

The only thing that is certain: This is about to get very interesting.

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