To say that the 2017 NASCAR season was a disappointment in the TV ratings category would be an understatement. Despite the season getting off to a relatively decent start, with the 2017 Daytona 500 seeing a viewership increase over 2016, most of the season saw TV audience declines from 2016. In total, 26 of the 36 championship races in the Cup schedule saw a decline in TV viewership. To make matters worse, of the 10 races that saw viewership increases, five of them were up because the 2016 edition of the race was rain impacted (Texas 1, Pocono 1, Pocono 2, Bristol 2, Texas 2), and two more were races moved from cable to broadcast (Indianapolis, Talladega 2). In total, only three Cup championship races saw increases in viewership over 2016: the Daytona 500, Richmond 1 (moved to Sunday), and the Martinsville Playoff race. Suffice it to say, the 2017 season was not a kind one to NASCAR’s major broadcast partners, NBC and FOX.
Fast forward to the 2018 season. We are now one-fourth of the way through the Cup schedule, with nine events in the record books. After nine Cup championship events, a grand total of one race has seen an increase in TV viewership compared to the 2017 season. Though this number does include three rain-impacted races (Atlanta, Martinsville, Bristol), the other six races have not just seen declines in their TV audiences, but rather the numbers have fallen off of a cliff. In the first year of the post-Dale Earnhardt Jr. era of NASCAR, it appears that his many of his hordes of fans did not embrace his replacement in the #88 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports and instead have tuned out of NASCAR.
Below is a quick look at the TV numbers for the 2018 season compared to the 2017 season for the nine Cup races so far:
Of the six races not impacted by rain, four have seen TV audience decreases of over a million viewers. Atlanta and Phoenix saw the smallest decreases on a percentage basis, with a 15% drop from 2017.
But What About Streaming?
A common misconception, from fans, media, and even the NASCAR sanctioning body itself, is that fan consumption of races has pivoted significantly to streaming. However, the numbers simply do not support this. We know that streaming isn’t the reason TV numbers are dropping; when FOX and NBC release the number of devices that streamed a race, the number is often around 1% of the number of TV viewers. Martinsville’s rain-delayed race had an estimated 1,191,000 viewers on FS1, but under 15,000 devices streamed the race on Fox Sports Go. Nielsen, the company behind the TV viewership numbers, incorporates the major streaming TV services like Playstation Vue, DirecTV Now, and Sling into their TV numbers.
For those that turn to pirated/illegal/ online streams of the race as a reason for why TV numbers are down, it typically quickly becomes a last-ditch effort to blame “the internet” as the reason that TV numbers are dropping. Unfortunately, quantifying the number of fans that actually watch pirated streams online is nearly impossible, not to mention that it seems highly unlikely that literally millions of NASCAR fans suddenly turned to pirated streams online within the last year or two when that isn’t happening for other sports.
Long story short: if the fans, NASCAR, and the TV partners thought that the 2017 season was rough in terms of the TV audience, 2018 is off to an even worse start, and it’s not even close. The races that typically trend below average in viewership may hit numbers that have not been seen since NASCAR took over organizing the TV deal from the individual tracks starting in the 2001 season. We thought dropping below 2 million viewers for some races last year was a sign that NASCAR’s TV numbers were hitting rock bottom. As it turns out, 2017 might not look that bad in comparison to what 2018 has in store.