NASCAR TV ratings were once the darlings of the sport. NASCAR rose to prominence in the 1980s and 90s as TV became more and more involved. Along with that came an all-important metric: the Nielsen ratings. Up until the middle of the 21st century the measured pairs of eyeballs watching NASCAR on TV were counted, analyzed and, for the most part, cheered. Ratings were like Bible verses, an almighty Gospel preached to stakeholders on how much of NASCAR was reaching the masses.
When added to metrics from an agency known as Joyce Julius & Associates, which specializes in measurement and analysis of media promotions that showed just how much TV exposure a sponsor was getting, NASCAR teams were able to justify the high cost of the sponsorships they were charging.
The Great Recession that swept across the landscape starting in 2008 changed everything. Not only in the business world, but in all sports as well. For NASCAR it meant fewer butts in seats at tracks, and fewer sponsors willing to part with what little revenue they were earning.
With fewer fans at the track, you might think TV ratings would continue to rise and maybe even increase as those fans turned on the TV instead of spending money to go to the track.
You’d be wrong.
In some ways the Recession came at a most inopportune time for sports TV. Though fewer fans were able to attend in person, with the improvements in internet bandwidth, and the rise of more and more cable channels, some were finding other ways to digest their favorite sports. And those ways that didn’t always involve traditional broadcast TV. Though Nielsen had been king of all things TV for generations, the truth was they were having trouble keeping up as people began to shift their viewing habits.
NASCAR’s TV ratings began to fall; the once all-mighty numbers began to show not an increase, but a decline. Certain segments of fans, and media, began to cry that sky was falling. That NASCAR was doomed, soon to become nothing more than a memory.
The truth was of course far from that. Nielsen slowly began to develop ways to measure who was watching what, and how. No longer tied to a box atop the TV or a diary that viewers filled out, the company started to figure out how to report who was watching on TV, on cable, and on streaming platforms.
While Nielsen was undergoing its transformation other smaller agencies stepped into fill the void. Professional sports adapted as well, understanding, and learning, how to measure viewership and show that value to their stakeholders.
In today’s world TV ratings aren’t the big deal they once were nor the only thing that matters. They are now just one part of a bigger picture: one pixel of a screenshot. A shot that shows the overall value sponsors receive. And the same is true for NASCAR.
Brian Herbst is the senior vice president for media and productions for NASCAR. He’s tasked with not only getting exposure for the sport but measuring that exposure and translating in a way that shows value to stakeholders. That exposure now comes not just from TV, but through streaming platforms, attendance, and even social media.
“Digital and social consumption is as important now, as it’s ever been; probably more important now than it’s ever been,” he said. “Social impressions, social following, a positive buzz of our sport, which is measured by third parties, like at YouGov is up 2.5 X over the course of the last two to three years.”
Many fans, especially those who might want to disparage the sport, don’t understand that just because the TV numbers are down or not at the sky-high levels they once were, doesn’t mean NASCAR is facing any sort of loss of popularity.
Herbst, and NASCAR, are well aware that fans, and some media, still look to the ratings. He said it’s important to look at the bigger picture, a bigger picture that shows how media is consumed.
“I’ll give you an example: TV, hot levels,” he said. “So that’s household using televisions. That metric is down 16% over the last 24 months. So more people are tuned into Amazon prime or Netflix
“But it’s an uphill fight for us and a lot of other sports properties. Most TV consumption, really all TV consumption of TV of tier one sports properties is down simply because TV consumption just broadly is down. So to the extent that you can be flat or even up a couple of points it says a lot just about fan interest in the sport.”
Meaning that in today’s world even the smallest increase in a TV rating is a really big deal when considering how overall viewership is measured. Looking back over the 2021 season to date in NASCAR’s top tier Cup series 12 of the 32 races had ratings that were higher over last year and had more viewers; that included a six race stretch leading up to Talladega that saw a consecutive increase in viewership each week.
Those numbers of course, don’t tell the entire story. They are included along with social media engagement, streaming, and the like. When combined, it shows that NASCAR is in a pretty good place.
“It’s certainly healthy in terms of eyeballs,” Hebrst said. “I also think it’s healthy just in terms of the interest. The fan base that is paying attention to our sport now than probably two or three years ago…part of that is the economic model of our sport is a little bit more sounder, on solid footing; the introduction to the Next Gen car, it brings on new owners like Justin Marks and Michael Jordan, Pitbull et cetera. There’s a lot of people that are looking around and understand that the economics of our sport probably are in a better place now than they’ve been in a long time.”
In the past NASCAR has tried to educate fans who might look at ratings and think the sport is in trouble and help them understand that things aren’t as bad as they seem. With all the different metrics used to measure a sport these days however, it can be complicated. NASCAR still attempts to do the best it can when it comes to getting the word out.
“What we try to do is boil it down to more simple sound bites that are A: true and B: accurate,” Hebrst said.
Herbst adds that small swings in the numbers show the steadiness of viewership week to week, and that’s a very good thing.
“In terms of tier one sports properties,” he said. “Which is any sports property, essentially professional sports league, that is about a million viewers or higher on a per event basis or the most stable property in terms of viewership over the course of the last two years, it’s possible that we’ll be able to be the most stable tier one sports property in terms of sports viewership over the course of those three years, (though) the NFL is off to a very good start. So if you can say that it’s you and the NFL in terms of stability of your audience. I think that’s some pretty solid footing.”
By the measurements used today, NASCAR then is in a very good place. The six-race consecutive increase in viewership prior to Talladega is something that everyone can understand and helps reinforce just how healthy NASCAR is.
“That’s the first time in a decade that that has happened,” Hebrst said. “I think that the momentum is good. The trajectory is good. We try to do is take the complex and boil it down to something that is more easily understood by the fanbase.”
TV ratings are no longer the end all be all for NASCAR. In today’s media world they are now just a small part of what is used to measure the popularity of the sport. And based on what we see today, NASCAR seems to be on an upward trajectory and shows no signs of slowing down.