Rain Reigns

Sunday’s Daytona 272.5 wasn’t great TV because of the rain and relative lack of drama. However, the race was especially important for two reasons that most people are not talking about.

First, this was the initial glimpse of the challenges brought on by later race start times. The TV partners wanted later start times, and it appears the devil may be in the details.

However, and bear with me on this point, this race may do more to reach the coveted “new fan” than any other race in history.

A lot has been made already this year about the TV networks wanting later start times on Sundays and more Saturday night races. Later start times mean more people are at home so more people are watching TV. The networks forked over billions for the TV rights and they need to generate as much money as possible to pay those big bills. More viewers and better demos mean more ad dollars.

But, as we learned Sunday, Mother Nature can really screw up those plans. Right now, the TV contingency is eerily similar to NASCAR’s red flag/yellow flag last minute dilemma at the end of races last year. They’ll decide when they get there.

In case you missed one of the 20,000 promos during the race, Sunday night’s fare on FOX was the 300th episode of the “The Simpsons” and the “Married With Children” Reunion. FOX would be comfortable with a slight delay in the starting times for those shows, but those screams you may have heard all the way in Des Moines were from the FOX Entertainment people dreading a rain-delayed Daytona 500 run under the lights on Sunday night.

Both NBC and FOX will face this dilemma one day, especially with later start times and more tracks adding lights. Does it keep the rain-delayed Sunday night race on the over-the-air network or move it to its cable partner? It was much simpler before when most tracks didn’t have lights and the race was simply moved to Monday.

This type of challenge is unprecedented in network television. The biggest threat now is a football game that goes into overtime or a golf tournament that runs long. But there’s no sporting event like NASCAR that threatens to wipe out an entire evening of prime time programming. This is especially magnified during the sweeps months when special programming is used to build ratings. There’s no way that the FOX Entertainment people will allow NASCAR to trump “Joe Millionaire and Trista Meet Michael Jackson’s Plastic Surgeon.”

Did TV play a role in NASCAR’s decision to end Sunday’s race? Will TV ever play a role in calling a race? Let’s hope not.

If NBC needs to move a big race to TNT or FOX needs to move one to FX, then that’s just too darned bad for the TV people. The TV partners are an important part of the sport now and their needs are more important than ever. There’s no problem with that. However, NASCAR will have gone way too far if it ever allows a TV executive to affect the outcome of on-track competition because he or she doesn’t want a race to interrupt prime time programming or be moved to a cable network. That threatens the very integrity of the sport.

In an odd sort of way, Sunday’s controversy sparked a large amount of interest among the general sporting population and media and may go a long way towards increasing interest among the traditional stick-and-ball fans.

Driving home from Daytona to Chicago, I had the opportunity to hear it discussed on numerous radio outlets, and the phone lines were lit up with regular sports fans checking in with their view. ESPN Radio talked it over Sunday night with Tom Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning News, and on Monday morning it was a big topic with Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic. Tim Brando had people calling in to talk it over on Sporting News Radio, as did Tony Bruno on Fox Sports Radio. Then, WSCR in Chicago had lots of non-racing fans calling in on Monday night to share their view, and they made many references to it being discussed on other shows during the day.

It’s doubtful that a “normal” Daytona 500 would have generated that much interest among the general sports fan. But the controversy generated tons of publicity. There’s a strong possibility that this publicity will go a long way towards getting more people to tune in.

DAYTONA NOTEBOOK
The Daytona 500 turned in a 9.8 rating and 21 share, making it the fourth most-watched Daytona 500 ever. That’s impressive for a rain-delayed race that never got a chance to build an audience. The race averaged 16.8 million viewers watching at a time and a total of 29.4 million people saw part of the race, says Nielsen Media Research.

"Given the fact that we had just over two hours of live racing and never got the huge bump that is normal at the end of an uninterrupted race, to have this be among the most-watched Daytona 500s ever is remarkable, " said FOX Sports president Ed Goren. "Between this and the great ratings we had earlier in Speed Weeks, NASCAR continues to amaze."

So how did FOX do in primetime with the Simpsons and Bundys? The overnights show that FOX won the night with a 9.2 rating and 14 share, far ahead of second place ABC’s 7.5/11. In the coveted 18-49 demo, FOX pulled off an impressive 8.5, well above the 4.5 from second place NBC. The two “Simpsons” episodes scored a 10.7 and 11.2 and “Married With Children” scored a 10.1.

The Koolerz 300 Busch Race on Saturday garnered overnights of a 3.6 rating and 8 share, the race's highest overnight mark since 1998, and 24% better than FOX's last presentation in 2001 (2.9/7).

Coming Next Week: An interview with Fox Sports President Ed Goren.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2003

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