Iair Raves:/I Fans Tuning Out

Is America's fastest-growing sport slowing down?

Sure seems that way.

With four races remaining in the Winston Cup season, it appears NASCAR is on track to losing its decade-long right to claim it has increased its television viewership every year.

Viewership this season is down for the first time since 1990, according to a RacingOne.com analysis of Nielsen Media Research figures for the current Winston Cup season obtained from one of the networks.

And that, sports fans, can't be great news to NASCAR's new television partners, who will base their advertising prices on the figures generated by the networks now carrying Winston Cup events.

Indeed, 18 of the Winston Cup events held prior to last weekend's race at Talladega scored ratings that were lower than the year before.

Of the remaining 12 races (including The Winston), three recorded audiences that were level to the year before, and all but a handful of the others finished with low, single-digit increases.

So far this season, the number of homes actually tuning into Winston Cup events is down 7 percent when compared to the same point a year ago. Those figures don’t factor in rain-delayed races, which by nature draw fewer viewers, sometimes more than 50 percent less than a similar event run on schedule.

Let's be clear, as any network executive will stress, the Nielsen measurement system isn't perfect. That said, it's the only yardstick available to measure viewing… and the indications are NASCAR is coming up short.

Looking at the Nielsen performance of Winston Cup events, it's highly unlikely the remaining four races will draw enough viewers to turn around the ratings slide that has occurred this season. Typically, and this season holds true to the pattern, viewership for NASCAR events dips in the fall when it faces tough NFL fare on two networks Sunday afternoons.

Moreover, with Bobby Labonte seemingly on a path to win the Winston Cup championship, there's not much with the sport to compel a casual viewer to the set to see the finale in November.

Frankly, the picture is worse on the Busch level, where ratings for the series are down 23 percent when compared to last year. And, as reported here earlier, with a dozen Busch events on the FX network next year, which is in fewer homes than any of the networks carrying racing this year, the ratings will drop steeply next season.

NASCAR's declining Nielsen ratings beg the question: Has the sport peaked?

Trouble is, the question is easy and the answer is a bit harder to find. There are a number of reasons for ratings to fall, often at no fault of the event.

Because of the growing number of competitors vying for viewer's time, virtually every program on the air today draws fewer viewers than it did a year ago. Even the major events such as the Super Bowl and Academy Awards draw fewer viewers each year as more cable competitors pop up.

The typical home with cable these days can have upwards of 100 channels. And if a race gets boring, viewers may start channel hopping and not come back until the last 10 laps of an event. That’s a nightmare for NASCAR sponsors.

However, what's unusual in the case of NASCAR, is the decline comes after a 10-year period of consistent growth. And never has the sport held the nationwide profile it has today.

Taken alone, the Nielsen dip may be considered to be nothing more than a reaction to the action, or lack of, on the track. But when combined with the ongoing reports of empty seats at race facilities that previously had been jammed - and occasional backlash over the cost of attending a race - it's not such a stretch to suggest racing might have hit its nadir.

And that, my friends, is what's going to cause the new TV partners to cringe.

The thinking all along for the new deal was that having many of the events on broadcast networks such as Fox and NBC, and splitting the season between those two, would create a sense of continuity that could help push new fans to the sport. New fans, of course, hopefully translate into higher ratings.

That said, what about the folks, presumably fans already, who are tuning out?

CBS' coverage of the Daytona 500 in February was down 13 percent when compared to the year before. The network's coverage of the Texas event in April was off 11 percent. ABC's coverage of the Brickyard 400 in August was down 20 percent. These are hardly figures on which to bank the future of the sport.

Think about how you would feel if you spent twice as much as the guy before for something that just lost 7 percent of its value. Now, you're standing in the shoes of a network executive.

The argument has been made that the promotional push by NBC and Fox, which has already begun, will bring new attention to stock-car racing.

Maybe, maybe not.

What TV viewer of any type hasn't seen Jeff Gordon in any of a dozen commercials airing nationally? Or, how about Darrell Waltrip eating Wendy's burgers? The proliferation of NASCAR images, due largely to the efforts of sponsors who plaster driver's faces on everything from boxes of waffles to toothpaste, has clearly helped boost awareness for the sport. How much of that has rubbed off on the TV ratings? Hard to know.

Yet, how much more of a promotional push will it take to revive the ratings with the fans who already know about racing?

Many sports have been staples of the broadcast networks, and despite the networks' best efforts, have remained fairly stable performers not home run hitters. Golf is one of them. Unless Tiger Woods is running away with a tournament, viewership for most golfing events is stable year-in and year out.

The sport never does Super Bowl numbers and never draws anything comparable in ratings to a strong regular-season NFL telecast. The same holds true for such sports as swimming, gymnastics and tennis.

Maybe racing would have been better compared to those sports than the larger stick-and-ball leagues all along.

The reality is, the sport may have found its level and will remain there. That's not necessarily a bad thing to occur, however, it does take some of the bloom off the preverbal rose.

Whether the flower blooms again we won't know for sure until sometime next season, but you can bet the suits in Daytona and New York will be stocking up on Miracle Grow.

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