NASCAR makes changes to ramp up racing, boost TV ratings – USA TODAY
USA TODAY Sports’ Brant James sits down with FOX Sports’ pit reporter Matt Yocum to discuss the new NASCAR point system. Daytona 500 airs Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on Fox.
USA TODAY Sports
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.Â âÂ Television provided NASCAR arguably its greatest opportunity at growth. Now it will provide its greatest chance at recovery.
This will not be an organic moment like 1979, when a snowbound East Coast was rapt by a rare live broadcast of NASCARâs premier race. In that edition of the Daytona 500, a last-lap wreck between Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough triggered a brawl in the infield grass that came to include Allisonâs brother Bobby.
This is a meticulous plan that includes a modified points system, segmented races and bonus points that carry into the playoffs. The theory behind the changes? Drivers will race harder, events will be more exciting, viewers will tune in and more fans will come through the turnstiles.
NASCAR is not alone in this latest remake. Fox and NBC are each paying billions of dollars through 2024 for the broadcast rights to the Monster Energy Cup Series. Without improved ratings, the value of future TV contracts will dwindle, and after weathering several years of economic downturn, the industry will be in real trouble.
âI think the TV guys have really put their foot down that they want more action because of the money theyâre committing to the sport over a long period of time,â team owner Roger Penske said in an interview with The Morning Drive on Sirius XM.
âIf you donât have the excitement on the television, youâre not going to get the viewers, and the viewers of course determine what kind of price they can get for their sponsorships, whether itâs a minute or half-minute.â
After decades as a regional curiosity of Southern birth, NASCAR began growing into a national phenomenon after the imagery of Yarborough coming at the Allisons titillated the mainstream. It grew massive through the early 2000s before faltering under its weight. Attendance declined and grandstands built to accommodate the gathering masses were razed. Sponsors and teams suffered when economic pressures couldnât justify expenditures. And though television ratings also declined, the nectar of revenue continues. For now.
USA TODAY Sports’ Brant James breaks down key story lines leading into the Daytona 500.
NASCAR chairman Brian FranceÂ â in his 14th season since he replaced his late fatherÂ â has overseen an era of change in major league stock car racing, from altering the way championships are awarded to granting labor a broader voice in the business affairs his grandfather and series founder Bill France ruled over imperiously.
But perhaps Brian Franceâs most defining legacy will beÂ his administrationâs ability to secure lucrative television deals while all indications are of a tepid, faltering audience. With that money comes the need for ratings.
And although a group of series stakeholders that includes current and former drivers, broadcasters, team owners, track and NASCAR officials had a voice in the process of deeply changing the way NASCAR races are contested and presented, there should be no mistake that TV had its say. Invested partiesÂ continue to insulate each other, parceling credit for the landmark collaboration of labor and management.
âI wouldnât say that (the new format) is broadcast-focused,â Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations, told USA TODAY Sports. âThereâs certainly a balance. Competition evolves. In this case, the result of the new format coming together will be a benefit to broadcast partners because thereâs never been a more compelling product. But it also benefits the drivers, who had a significant voice in the final racing format decisions.â
NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood characterized his networkâs involvement as discussing âthe opportunities to make the experience better.â
âWe know how to cover events. We donât tell them when to drop the puck and how to drop the puck in a hockey game,â he said. âWe donât have the experience to figure out how to change racing. That came from the drivers, team presidents and track owners.â
Fox is amid an eight-year, reported $2.4 billion deal through 2024, while NBC will begin its third season of a 10-year, $4.4 billion pact by taking over the second half of the 36-race schedule. Sixty-five percent of the yearly revenue derived from television is directed to tracks, 25% to teams and 10% to NASCAR.
âItâs the old story: Follow the money, and the No. 1 revenue stream in the sport is television,â Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage said. â(But) I donât know if they have too much influence or too much impact. â¦ I donât consider this too much of a change. Itâs basically two competition cautions.â
It remains unclearÂ whether the critical formula sold to drivers linking viewership with the need to divide races into three segmentsÂ will move the chains.
Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sportsâ senior vice president of programming, research and content strategy, told NASCAR stakeholders during discussions of a format change that an average viewer watches 95 minutes of each race and that each additional minute the viewer committed would raise the Nielsen rating by 1%.Â Most races last between three and four hours.
According to Nielsen, NASCAR viewership has fallen 45% since 2005, from nearly 9 million viewers per race to 4.6 million last year. Last weekend, Chase Elliott, the 21-year-old son of former series champion Bill Elliott and a driver promoted by the series as a future standardbearer, won Daytona 500 qualifying, but Sports Media Watch said it was the least-watched time trials since 1998.
âKnowing that we have points in the race that are really valuable, if we just get a few more people to hang on and watch, when the ratings are being scored and judged, itâs going to completely change the landscape of where things are going with the financial model, from television, right on through sponsorships,â defending and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said.
âI know from sitting in on (drivers) council meetings, everyoneâs been hypersensitive about entertainment and trying to keep the purity of racing. From what Iâve been told, from the way we can change our economic landscape with the ratings, it could be really good for us.â
Former driver and current NBC analyst Jeff Burton said there is a misconception that the overarching interest of the television industry is self-serving.
âMost people have this perspective that TV only cares about TV. Thatâs the furthest from the truth,â Burton said. âNBC and, I believe, Fox as well, want races sold out. They want the energy, the buzz. They want the things when NASCAR was at its highest point. They want that back.â
As for the melding boundary between competition and entertainment, even in a sport in which fans and competitors regularly debate the quality of âthe show,â Johnson is not concerned.
âIâm kind of frustrated everybody didnât get in a room somewhere and do this 20 years ago,â he said.
The entireÂ sports entertainment industry is grappling with some variation of the same problem, which is compounded by a new culture of instant access to live streaming or highlights without the hours-long commitment to traditional broadcast windows.
Ratings for the NFL dropped 8% in 2016, but Mulvihill told SportsBusiness Journal the dip was reflective of less time spent watching as the number of viewers actually increased. A 13% drop in viewership time almost vanished after the presidential election, he noted.
Similar woes in other sports properties have led to attempts at shortening or stoking the product, such as Major League Baseballâs much-maligned trial balloon of starting extra innings with a runner on second base.
And so NASCAR makes its move, with the industry hoping to recapture the magnetism of that sunny day in Daytona Beach when two race cars crashed and two brothers fought with an angry counterpart wielding a helmet. It is statistically verifiable that racing is infinitely more competitive now than that day in 1979, when only winner Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and A.J. Foyt finished on the lead lap.
âI think this is the right play,â Flood said. âEveryone is on board, knowing this is an opportunity to make a 400-lap event more dramatic.â
NASCAR needs its television moment again.
Follow James on Twitter @brantjames
PHOTOS: History of the Daytona 500