FOX Trots In

About a week before the Daytona 500, a colleague walked up to me and said, "So the racing season starts with the Subway 400?"

His query wasn't based on any of the talk that the real racing begins at Rockingham, but rather he was asking a simple question based on the ton of promotion FOX put behind its Rockingham telecast during the Super Bowl.

He thought the season actually began there. How well FOX’s promotional efforts worked will be learned this weekend, when the network airs its first race of the new season.

Ironically, a year ago, FOX set the bar for NBC's telecasts of NASCAR events that came earlier in the season. This time around, because NBC aired the Daytona 500, the bar has been set by NBC.

From a ratings standpoint, the bar is set very, very high, and there are some obstacles for FOX to get around before it sets any ratings records.

Last Sunday's Daytona 500 generated the highest ratings in the history of the event and the highest ratings for an auto race of any kind since ABC's Indianapolis 500 telecast of 1987. It was also the most-watched race ever.

More than 18.7 million viewers tuned in Sunday, up from just over 17 million a year earlier, according to Nielsen Media Research, the folks that count these things.

NBC researchers also estimate 35 million people tuned in for at least a portion of the event Sunday, also up from 32 million in 2001.

For an afternoon sports event, the numbers are pretty heady. Indeed, based on the viewership statistics alone, the race would finish among the top-10 most-watched shows for the week.

The race also clobbered other sports competition in the time period.

At a time when sponsors are dropping like flies - can anyone say Blue Light Special? - strong ratings are important, if not critical. Build in the loyalty factor that comes along with NASCAR fans, and racing is a good buy for a sponsor.

That is, of course, as long as the ratings hold up.

Subway got into the Rockingham race at the last minute, at what some would suggest were fire-sale prices. It doesn't really matter how they got in, but that they're in, and now FOX needs to wonder and worry about how the Nielsen Gods will respond.

NBC had it easy Sunday. CBS aired a college basketball game and later there was a golf tournament on.

FOX won't have it so nice. NBC will be in the last day of its Olympic coverage and has the gold medal game in hockey scheduled in the afternoon, and an NBA game earlier in the day.

Daytona is usually strong because it draws the light users of television - those who will occasionally tune in for a major event, such as the Olympics.

Therein lies FOX’s potential problem. The viewers who tune in for the Olympics, may actually be at NBC instead of watching racing.

That is, of course, unless people are tuning in on Sunday because FOX’s promotional efforts left them believing the season starts at Rockingham.

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