Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Blind Man Can See Why NASCAR'S TV Ratings Are Down

By Jerry Bonkowski

Okay, so the news came out Tuesday that NASCAR is "looking into" declining TV ratings, trying to figure out what's going on.

Thus far in the first 10 races of 2009, ratings are down 11.5 percent and overall viewership is almost down as much – just part of what some media outlets estimate to be a roughly 25 percent drop in ratings over the last few years.

Sure, NASCAR is still holding to the party line that its Sprint Cup races are still No. 1 in their time slots for the most part, yadda, yadda, yadda.

There's no sense to panic, NASCAR tells us, that they're simply just "looking into" why the numbers keep dipping.

Well, helllllooooooooo, the reason is pretty clear to most people – except perhaps those back at NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach.

Pick your poison as to the reason (actually, they all play a big part individually and collectively): the still-unpopular Car of Tomorrow, Toyota coming into the sport, the struggles of General Motors and Dodge away from the race track, the dominance of Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports, not to mention the penchant for NASCAR to oftentimes make up rules as it goes along.

And that's just for starters.

We can also add the boring Chase for the Sprint Cup and its format, how the sanctioning body continues to have an aloof attitude, particularly to the cares and concerns of its fans, and how it cow-tows more so to sponsors and so-called "business partners."

Most recently, even after a huge public backlash demanding an explanation, NASCAR wasn't even brave enough to man up and give the reason why Jeremy Mayfield was suspended for allegedly having an illegal substance in his system.

I'm sorry, if we have to endure the news that Lindsay Lohan is pregnant, surely NASCAR could enlighten us on Mayfield's condition and not hide behind the cloak of "privacy," when there is a substantial number of fans that feel the sanctioning body is once again being less than honest or forthcoming to them.

That's a shame, because it's pretty obvious Brian France and Co. have forgotten whose money it is that is the true lifeblood of this sport: it's not sponsors or "business partners," it's the hard-working fan and his hard-earned cash.

One of NASCAR's other big problems is its "our way or the highway" attitude and approach to seemingly everything. When was the last time someone from the sanctioning body admitted they were wrong, or that they blew a call or did something that wasn't in the best interest of the sport, the drivers, the teams and most importantly, the fans?

If I had a dollar for every e-mail I've received over the last four years from irate fans or fans that have simply given up on the sport, I might actually have enough money to buy the whole darn sanctioning body.

Frankly, fans have grown tired of NASCAR, both on-track "action" (which has proven to be more of an oxymoron) and off. They've tired of phantom debris cautions, of overt favoritism of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson, of dozens of commercials in TV broadcasts that deprives loyal fans of seeing the action (NASCAR continues to prevent its broadcast partners from using split-screen telecasts like every other racing series, so as not to diminish the "value" of broadcast commercials and their sponsors).

I could go on and on. If NASCAR is "looking into" the real reasons why the sport is slumping on-screen and in the stands, it has my number. I'll be glad to tell 'em why.

In fact, if they did call me, the first thing I'd say is "looking into" why the ratings are slumping is an exercise in futility. The answer is already at hand. The best place NASCAR has to "look into" the problem is simple, a no-brainer:

In the mirror.


  1. I'm not so worried about the COTS. They are ugly, but they seem tougher and recover better from close calls.

    I'm sick of seeing the same drivers dominate though. Even if I do like some of them. It just gets boring. It is an utter breath of fresh air to see a first time winner. How many did we get in 2008. NONE. Zero. Zilch. This year, one so far.

  2. I think fans are tired of plastic corporate talkbox drivers. Jimmie Johnson is a hell of a race car driver, but such a bore as a personality.

    At least Jeff Gordon has some attitude to him.

    I used to like Carl Edwards as an interview, but anymore he’s tiring me as well.

    On the other extreme we have Kyle Busch. Again, he’s a hell of a driver, but you can’t help but cringe when he’s being interviewed. He rarely accepts blame, and is the biggest crybaby in the sport. He’s exciting to watch - when he’s driving.

    We just don’t have the personalities of the past - the DW’s, the Intimidator, Cale, the King .... where have all those types gone?

    Another thing they have to look at is the the length of the races. It would be interesting to see a ratings chart throughout the course of a race. We live in a world today where anything we want is a click away on the internet, and digital TV options give us 300+ channels from our couch. The fact is a 500 mile race - from the couch - costs 4 to 5 hours of commitment. Look at all the caution flags this year and its easy to see how folks are losing their focus on the races. Our attention spans aren’t what they used to be.

    Undoubtedly the race in person is more exciting and keeps fans entrenched, but the cost of going to a race is to the point most families have to make a vacation out of it. Its just too much.

    NASCAR has got some work to do.

    Dusty Duncan
    Claremore, OK

  3. Dutty,
    I’m with you man. You said it.

    If NASCAR does come calling for your input, let them know that I look forward to our in-race chats more than the race itself.

    Where’s the passion of the drivers? What happened to the great interviews of drivers after a wreck, or at race end, where they can be themselves and tell it like it is? Tony Stewart was about the only driver that still had that side, but with his new ownership role, it seems to have been squelched a bit. Where’s the hard racing action of days gone by? Today we have the safest, most technically advanced cars, and the most sterile racing environment ever. I love to sit and watch the old races re-broadcast on ESPN Classic. I watched a race from 1983 on Monday for god sake! (Great race by the way.)

    We, the race fan, demand less commercials, less commentary, and more racing! (And PLEASE dig a hole for Digger, and leave him there!)
    Omaha, NE

  4. 1 - Inconsistent start times
    2 - Published start times are for the pre-race show - not the race itself. Yawn
    3 - One word: Digger
    4 - Two words: Hollywood Hotel

    Give me a 1:00 ET start for the RACE, drop the contrived banter between Hammond/DW/Larry Mc/Steve Byrnes/Chris Myers and the rest of the non-comedians. Give me level, insightful commentary a la Ned Jarrett or Neil Bonnett. If we had more racing TV commentators cut from the same cloth as Joe Buck, Al Michaels,Bob Costas, or Chris Economacki and fewer cut from the same sour dishrags as DW or Larry Mc, the races would be much more enjoyable to watch.

  5. Jerry,

    If NASCAR had ANY foresight, they would have seen this coming a mile away... or a year away!

    The cycle for ANY media driven entity is the same...

    Step 1: Make money by selling commercials
    Step 2: Increase rates to make more money as ratings increase
    Step 3: If ratings start todecline, continue to charge the same rates, but give someone a little more 'added value' (all those 'in race' mentions as the sponsor of something)
    Step 4: If ratings continue to decline, you have to decrease your commercial costs
    Step 5: If you aren't meeting your revenue expectations, just sell more commercials!

    The fan experience deteriorates all along and the only thing that stops the decline is something to bring back the ratings so that they can increase rates again and sell fewer commercials.

    Of course the lack of exciting racing is definitely a factor as well and although NASCAR will show anyone who cares to listen all the 'passing stats' and 'lead change' stats they want, the bottom line is that EXCITEMENT is not quantifiable... it is SUBJECTIVE... and it is gauged by the FANS who have stopped watching less racing that's less exciting.

    And that's why we love LOCAL RACING at local tracks so much! No commercials in the middle of Saturday Night specials!, For Fans of Fast!

  6. And, oh yeah, I almost forgot...

    Step 6: Create a cartoon character and try to sell a bunch of T-Shirts and Stuffed Animals to offset the losses for cheaper commercials.

  7. I used to not miss a race. Now, I just kind of glance at the race every few laps. And, I see commercials 50% of the time. So, I change channels. I'm sick of pre-race concerts, long drawn out jabber, DIGGER, Digger friends waving flags during the "acknowledgments" of sponsors when commercials aren't running, muzzeling the drivers, NASCAR officials thinking they are little tin gods, cutting away to the cutaway car to explain what a brake is or why gas powers the cars (Jeez, give me a break), the fastest 43 cars not qualifying (that would shake up the chase), corporate ownership instead of owner drivers, 18 year olds who couldn't change a tire driving these vehicles (what happened to working your way up to the big time), Dale JR fanatics thinking he should win every race, NASCAR stopping other drivers from punching Kyle Busch in the mouth, excessive fining and last but not least, what happened to the days when what was tried on the cars on Sunday was applied to improving my car on Monday? I hate to say this, but I sometimes think when Mikey Waltrip retires, I will too.
    Afton OK

  8. I was going to post "One Word: Digger" but it seems I was beaten to the punch. I'm also sick of the constant commercial breaks during the most action. Oh yeah, and the HMS show can also go. I want to see my driver every once in a while too.

  9. I couldn't agree more with the commentary on the dismal state of broadcasting. Frankly, as bad as FOX is, the season tanks even further once TNT and ESPN take over.

    As for criticisms of Hendrick Motor Sports, I'm not so sure I can jump on that bandwagon. Clearly, Hendrick has a huge advantage over single car operations, like Robby Gordon, but I didn't hear anyone complaining when Joe Gibbs Racing won all those races last year. Could it be that no one whined because the only one delivering those wins was Kyle Busch. If Hendrick Motor Sports is guilty of anything, it is consistently high execution (though that doesn't seem to be helping the #88 car much). I have no problem with Hendrick's repeated trips to victory lane. Maybe that will be incentive enough for the Roush Fenways, RCRs and JGRs to kick it up a notch or two.

  10. Hey, I just had a thought…NASCAR should hire the best promoter there ever was in the business, Humpy Wheeler, to become the head of their exploratory committee to look into the declining TV ratings. If anyone can help the fans, it’s Humpy.

  11. Why are NASCAR ratings down? That's easy: The Chase for the Jimmie Johnson Cup. No matter how Brian France tries to spin it ("If more drivers have an opportunity to win a championship that's a great thing"), the truth of the matter is this: (1) Jimmie Johnson dominates at the last 10 tracks, and (2) re-setting the points does nothing but stack the odds in his favor.

    The first 26 races almost serve no purpose. OK, so maybe you get a feel-good story like, say, David Reuitmann, Marcos Ambrose or Juan Pablo Montoya qualifying for the Chase, but does anyone really think they're going to win the championship? The truth of the matter is that you're going to see pretty much the same faces competing in the Chase (Johnson, Gordon, Stewart, the Busch brothers, Edwards, Burton, Hamlin, Bowyer), but the bottom line: it's going to come down to Jimmie holding that Cup aloft at Miami-Homestead.

    Maybe after Jimmie wins his 7th Cup in a row and attendance and ratings are in the toilet NASCAR will finally admit that the points system hasn't done what it was supposed to do: Level the playing field and make the run for the championship exciting.

  12. Maybe the ratings are down because (1) people are worried about more important things, (2) the coverage of Cup last year by TNT and EESPN was so bad that it drove fans away, and/or (3) you old media guys start every article out with how to blame NASCAR. The coverage of the suspension of Jeremy Mayfield by NASCAR versus MLB's suspension of Manny R. is a clear demonstration of the anti-NASCAR bias of the NASCAR media. You need to go back and read the article that Bob Margolis wrote last fall about what fans in the stands told him about NASCAR races. Richard in N.C.

  13. Taglia: Great point about Humpy Wheeler. I wholeheartedly agree.

    Richard in N.C.: Big difference between Jeremy and Manny. Ramirez admitted he took performance enhancing drugs and will not appeal MLB's penalty. In Mayfield's case, he said he took a combination of prescribed and over-the-counter medications, which sometimes can cause a positive result on a drug screen. Mayfield insist he's not guilty and is going to fight this legally, mark my word -- and he's going to win, too.

  14. Jerry, the TV ratings are in the toilet not only because of the things that have previously been mentioned, but also the cars are the same, the drivers are the same, the rules are too restrictive, everything is cookie cutter.
    Hell if a guy says shit in the heat of the moment he is fined, a little friendly rivalry on the track and he is fined. a little "extra" in the car and there are HUGE effing fines.. Where is the competitiveness any more. Yawn. I took my current dislike for NASCAR (50 year fan) and went to my local dirt track.. At least there, I know the racing is honest

  15. You want to see excitement?....It's simple....Shorten the races, (to about half of what they are), and have every restart be a double-file restart. There's no reason to have lapped cars up front with the "lucky dog" rule. Let them race for that out back.
    Those two changes might not keep me awake when they're at Michigan and California, but they would make the short and 1 mile tracks outstanding.

  16. Just to double-file restart I meant the 1 and 2 cars on the front row...3 and 4 in the second row...etc...


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