NASCAR: A Second Chance At 2016 For NASCAR

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

NASCAR has made great gains in on-track performance in 2016, but the television ratings and attendance has not improved. Can they take advantage of a small window to gain some momentum?

When NASCAR kicked off the 2016 season in Daytona, the sports calendar was open for NASCAR to make a statement about its product for about a month. The opportunity in February and March came and went and NASCAR had some of the worst television ratings in history. From Daytona to Auto Club speedway it was record low after record low.

While the television ratings declined, the effects of the new lower downforce aero package was on display and earning rave reviews from fans and racers alike. Up until opening day for MLB and the NBA playoffs, NASCAR was virtually unopposed on TV. So why could NASCAR not get any traction on television? For years everyone said that improving the racing would bring the fans back. It has been unanimous, the fans like the racing but fewer and fewer were coming out or tuning in to watch.

Once the NBA playoffs and MLB got into full swing, the decline continued. Last season the move of Sprint Cup races to FS1 and NBCSN as part of the new television package resulted in massive drops in the ratings due to the limited availability and knowledge of the new television home for Sprint Cup racing. In 2016 the low ratings from 2015 hovered around the same for broadcasts on the sports nets. All this despite better racing and more than a year of fans getting to know about the new networks

That leads us to now, the NBA finals just ended and the sports calendar again opens up for NASCAR to showcase itself for few weeks until the Olympics dominates the sports landscape. The months of June and July are typically the lowest rated television months there are, with families on vacation or just out doing things and not watching as much TV. NASCAR does have an opportunity though. NBC and NBCSN have been heavily promoting the return of NASCAR to their portion of the schedule starting at Daytona.

Daytona is a perfect place for NASCAR to try to jump-start the 2016 season. The restrictor plate races normally draw the largest television audiences of the season. Add to that the last restrictor plate race in Talladega was spectacular and controversial, both of those are good for ratings. After rain issues the last two seasons, NASCAR needs its 4th of July weekend spectacular to go on as scheduled. The May Talladega race drew 6.7 million viewers, the second highest of 2016 behind only the Daytona 500. Last years rain delayed event only drew 3.99 million viewers after starting at almost midnight on the east coast.

The reason they put Daytona as the opening race for NBC is they know there are going to be so many eyes on the television to help kick off their portion of the season. A race like Talladega, where mainstream media was forced to talk about NASCAR, is exactly what they need. The in race promotion of NBCSN and their coverage is all geared towards getting fans excited about NASCAR. Last year was very hard having the race start at almost midnight. Hopefully this years event will be run as scheduled and all the hard work does not go in vein.

Leading into the olympics NASCAR has five completely different tracks to showcase. We have the road course at Sonoma this weekend, Daytona, mile and a half Kentucky, short track New Hampshire and Indy all before the opening ceremonies. There is something for everyone and great opportunities for NASCAR to display the improved racing. With only Wimbledon and the British Open as major sporting events, NASCAR should be able to win the ratings battle and get a foothold before they light the olympic cauldron.

The importance of getting these next five weeks right cannot be understated. The olympics are on the NBC family and going to take precedent against everything else in broadcast decisions. Even if everything goes off perfectly, once the olympics are over the undisputed king of television returns, the NFL. While the NASCAR audience and olympic audience do not overlap much, football, both college and pro, do. A weak entrance into the fall for NASCAR could spell doom for ratings during the chase.


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The bigger concern for NASCAR might be that the weather works out and the olympics do not interfere, yet the ratings for NASCAR continue to struggle. If that turns out to be the case there will be have to be some deep soul-searching from the powers that be in NASCAR. It could force them to address the issue that they continue to ignore, the greying of the NASCAR fan. The average age of the NASCAR fan keeps going up and NASCAR seems not to address it in a meaningful way.

We are approaching a very pivotal time for NASCAR and the 2016 season. There is an opportunity to turn around the disappointing numbers from the first half of the season. With the search for a title sponsor to replace Sprint ongoing, there is no greater need than for NASCAR to show it knows how to stop the decade of falling popularity in the sport and attract new fans. The Daytona 500 started the 2016 season, maybe Daytona is where NASCAR can 2016 back on track.