Still Going Strong

The NASCAR ratings have been nothing short of amazing for the past five weeks. The consistent double digit increases over last year have to leave even the most optimistic TV executives shocked.

Watkins Glen saw a 13 percent increase, Michigan was up 26 percent, Bristol gained 17 percent, and Darlington was up 14 percent. The night race from Richmond should continue that trend, as last year’s race on TNT had a very beatable 3.5 rating. Winston Cup racing is usually the top sports event on TV for the weekend and is often the highest-rated program on all of cable.

But it’s not just Winston Cup. The Busch ratings at Bristol were up 36 percent, the Darlington ratings were even with last year despite a rain delay (usually a ratings killer), and the Richmond numbers were up a whopping 47 percent.

Amazingly, this is taking place in a time when sports executives are generally happy to see ratings stay even with the previous year. The sports landscape is increasingly fragmented and it’s difficult to hold on to viewers. To the average fan these numbers may not mean much, but they are a major indicator of a financially successful, growing sport.

NASCAR and the NFL are about the only ones bucking this trend. Last Thursday night’s NFL season opener more than doubled any Thursday night broadcast from last year. NASCAR is the only other sport that regularly shows impressive growth.

Most TV executives have no hard evidence to support a particular theory on why this is happening. The NASCAR ratings were not up that much in the first half of the year. So, why is NASCAR seeing the increase?

First and foremost, it looks like NASCAR is seriously making inroads in turning marginal sports fans into racing fans. The numbers would not be growing like this without new fans, not just more previous fans tuning in.

Some of the on-track and off-track action is helping out too. The close racing at Bristol, the Tony Stewart storylines, the return of Jeff Gordon to Victory Lane, and increasing appreciation for night racing are all reasons that fans are carving out time to be sure they catch the race.

Much improved coverage from NBC/TNT may also a factor. The broadcast team is far ahead of where they were last year and it makes the viewing that much more enjoyable. Many race fans would tune in no matter what, but the extra numbers come from people making it a point to tune in, and solid coverage helps racing become more of a priority.

But the biggest test of the year is coming real soon. The last weekend of September will mark the first weekend when a direct comparison can be made to last year’s NASCAR numbers during the NFL season. If NASCAR can hold up against that competition, you know that these impressive numbers are for real, not just an aberration.

OTHER TV NEWS: The 1.1 overnight rating on ABC for the thrilling IRL race from Chicagoland was unchanged from last year. But the number is somewhat impressive because this year’s race went head-to-head against the NFL while last year’s broadcast was on an off-weekend for football. If ABC and ESPN would do more promotion for the IRL, showcasing the close competition, the numbers have solid potential.

Canadian football fans are in an uproar because Canadian network TSN stuck with the rain-delayed Southern 500 and showed the Winnipeg Blue Bombers game tape-delayed. Race fans have been known to be equally irate when the same thing happens. ESPN sticking with a baseball game instead of going to the NHRA’s U.S. Nationals is the most recent example. But it’s almost always the unwritten rule of sports TV that you stay with a live event until its conclusion.

Race fans in Boston are thrilled that the Red Sox moved their local over-the-air TV contract away from Fox affiliate WFXT starting in 2003. This means that no more races will be pre-empted due to the Bosox.

TNT’s “Witchblade” has been cancelled. But don’t rejoice too much. All of those promos have already been switched to get you to watch lots of “Law & Order” reruns.

MSNBC’s Don Imus will broadcast his Friday morning show live from New Hampshire International Speedway. Fans are invited to attend the 5:30 – 10:00 broadcast, and it’s only 25 bucks to get in. His brother Fred is a big NASCAR fan and will make his predictions that morning.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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