Column: What the Daytona 500 TV ratings mean for NASCAR
For once, file away the doom and gloom.
Well, at least for the time being.
This NASCAR season, more than any other in recent history, is pivotal. The sport’s iconic stars — including Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick — are mostly, if not all, gone. TV ratings have been in a precipitous free fall for years, bottoming out with all-time lows in 2018. Key sponsors are vanishing in mass exodus, and track operators can’t tear down grandstands fast enough to save the optics of a withering entity. Now the sport is in the final year of its current business model, meaning next year will bring … what exactly?
For all those reasons and plenty others — an aging core fan base, inflated industry costs … need I go on? — NASCAR’s fate is somewhat uncertain.
New leadership in president Steve Phelps and chairman Jim France, who took over for his nephew Brian France after the latter’s arrest in August 2018 for aggravated driving while intoxicated, have gone out of their way to make clear their optimism for the future. Before Sunday’s Daytona 500, Jim France even made his first public remarks since assuming his position, reassuring the sport that his family is committed to NASCAR (in light of rumors they might be trying to sell their stake).
And while that optimism is certainly appreciated, especially compared to the widespread negativity seeping into seemingly every sector of the sport, it hasn’t yet been rooted in substantial progress.
Until, finally, now.
Sunday’s Daytona 500, the Great American Race, is undoubtedly NASCAR’s most prestigious event of the year. The most fans, the most expansive venue, the most promotion ahead of time. It’s the Super Bowl of racing, and there isn’t really a close second.
And yet last year, the TV ratings for the 500 hit an all-time low, drawing a 5.1 overnight rating for Fox.
So while Denny Hamlin’s second 500 win Sunday was emotional, and the race featured a viral 22-car wreck with 10 laps to go, and 100,000 fans stayed in the hot Florida sun for more than five hours to watch, there was always that lingering question in the back of everyone’s mind:
What are the TV ratings going to be?
It’s sad in itself that that’s what the best race NASCAR has to offer has been reduced to, but when the results came in Monday, that sadness was largely replaced with glee. The 2019 race registered a 5.5 overnight rating for Fox, up 8 percent from last year, as did the network’s pre-race show, Raceday on Fox. That’s still down from a 6.5 in 2017, but it’s progress nonetheless.
And on top of that, certain markets showed a much more pronounced increase, such as 54 percent growth in Kansas City, 35 percent in San Francisco and 32 percent each in Boston and Washington.
So what to make of all that?
It’s tough to say exactly, and we won’t know more until the ratings start pouring in from Atlanta this weekend and Las Vegas the next, but this is a sign NASCAR isn’t the absolute sinking ship it’s often made out to be. Yes, the sport has issues, substantial ones at the heart of its business model and fans and product itself, but it’s also not the rotting carcass so many have painted it as.
As it stands, NASCAR is a fledgling league hoping to regain its standing among the elite American sports. That, in all certainty, will not happen, or at least not to the point that racing honestly can compete with the NFL or NBA.
But what NASCAR can, and must, do is remain relevant, and that starts with TV, its primary source of revenue. These Daytona 500 increases are encouraging that the sport may be able to rebound from its all-time lows last season.
The important thing here, though, is not to equate “encouraging” with “resounding.” Yes, numbers for the sport’s most exciting race — which, again, absolutely delivered — were up. Now if only every week NASCAR had a show as good as the Daytona 500 to sell.
Unfortunately, and obviously, it doesn’t.
All we can definitively say based on Sunday’s Daytona 500 viewership is NASCAR fans still exist, and not just ones concentrated in the South. Maybe some of those market increases can be explained away by general sports fans with nothing else to watch (it was the highest-rated sports event of the weekend), or perhaps the sort of NASCAR fans who only watch big races like Daytona and Talladega.
Either way, people watched. That’s all that matters in the grand scheme of things.
Now another question: Will they tune back in? Without all the hype, the 22-car wrecks, the chaos and mayhem and spectacle of NASCAR’s crown jewel, will that ratings trend continue, or send NASCAR back on life support?
Only time will tell. Until then, soak in the positivity while you can.