NBC has posted appreciable viewership gains on NASCAR Cup two weeks in a row, and the only reason it wonât be three weekends in a row is because the series has the weekend off before heading to Darlington, S.C., for the good, ol’ Southern 500.
After an Aug. 11 race at Michigan drew 14% more viewers than in 2018, viewership for the Aug. 17 Night Race at Bristol — which the unheralded Matt DiBenedetto darn near won — was up by nearly 8% over 2018. And that is not even the end of the positive ratings news.
Excluding the Aug. 4 race from Watkins Glen, which was broadcast on NBC last year but on cable on NBC Sports Network this year, the seven races carried on NBCSN both years have attracted about 19.6 million viewers, 1% more than those who watched the same races in 2018.
A 1% gain is not a lot, but keep this in perspective: Viewership on NBCSN plummeted nearly 36% for the Bristol race between 2015 and 2018, from 3.608 million to 2.326 million. Viewers are not running away as they used to; the numbers have settled, even grown a little.
But additional numbers, which can be found at Showbuzzdaily.com,Â shows that NASCAR and the networks have some catching up to do in the most critical demographic: viewers ages 18-49. They comprised 19% of the Bristol audience, compared with 23% in 2018.
Of the 5.4 million combined who watched the Michigan and Bristol races in 2019, 1.35 million (25 percent) were 18-49 — compared with 1.44 million of 4.87 million total (30 percent) in 2018. How hard will it be for NASCAR and NBC to catch up?
Scott Rosner, a sports business professor and academic director of the sports management program at Columbia University, explained recently that the 18-49 demographic is coveted for advertisers because these folks love live sports on TV and have money to spend. But once people walk away . . .Â
âItâs really hard to aggregate an audience on any property, especially with how fragmented of a TV world weâre in,â he told me.
As with many other televised sports, NASCARâs issue is that the races are just too long. The race at Bristol, as entertaining as it was, lasted 2 hours 49 minutes. That is shorter than a three-hour NFL game (or an even longer college football game), but Bristol was a full night.
âNASCAR itself has a format that is just not conducive to what younger audiences are looking for,â Rosner said. âThe events take too long, and peopleâs attention spans are not what they used to be.â
The 18-49 numbers suggest NASCARâs audience is getting older in a hurry. Although NASCAR is trying hard to get children to be more interested in the sport, it is not as if the NASCAR TV audience has been flooded with more kids recently. Kids are cutting cords with TV.
Rosner is aware that NASCAR has made rules changes to try to attract viewers for a full event — including dividing the races into segments and rewarding performances after each âstageâ — but he said, âItâs not like fans are coming back in droves because of it.â
Advertisers and sponsors could continue to disappear, which means less money to run the sport. Rosner said, âWhere it becomes problematic is not right now, but down the road. Thatâs where you run into trouble. If youâre not replacing fans, then thatâs whatâs happening.â
NASCAR has already unveiled its 2020 Cup schedule, and Steve Phelps, its president, has said that most tracks will keep their races in 2021, though the schedule may be juggled.
NASCAR made a huge mistake when it alienated many long-time fans in favor of drawing new ones in areas without stock-car traditions, but it is trying to reclaim old ground by celebrating its heritage. The Southern 500 is one of the best traditions in the sport.
There are metrics of optimism: The live attendance for the race at Bristol this year appeared to be about the same as it was a year ago (though NASCAR wonât disclose those numbers, even when they are good). But there is a flashing low-fuel light in those demographic stats, too.Â