Myth Surrounding NASCAR’s Decline Cleared Up As Top American Sports Suffer Under Flawed Traditional Metric

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The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season witnessed a double-digit drop in TV ratings. Fortunately, as the season progressed, the sport recovered well to end with a single-digit drop as compared to the ratings in 2022. While that has been perceived as a negative parameter, there is more to it than just the numbers.
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There are a number of ways to determine a sport’s popularity. With TV ratings considered an important metric, it has undoubtedly portrayed a difficult scenario for NASCAR. If that’s the case, then there are alarming signs for plenty of other popular American sports too.
A perspective on NASCAR’s decline as compared to other American sports
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With an average of 2.86 million viewers for the 2023 Cup Series season, NASCAR took a 5% hit in viewership as compared to the last season as per SportsProMedia.com. The championship race at Phoenix Raceway averaged three million viewers, the best for any playoff race this year. However, the Chicago Street Course race witnessed 4.79 million viewers, the most-watched NASCAR race in 2023.
While there have been positives, the dip in viewership has portrayed NASCAR as a dying sport. In fact, that has been the case for the past few years. It all started with the Daytona 500 in 1979 when CBS aired the season and ended up with 16 million viewers. In fact, the race had a Nielsen rating of 10.5.
Despite the sport offering some fabulous races, the ratings witnessed a gradual drop. For comparison purposes, the 2023 Daytona 500 had a Nielsen rating of 4.4. While it is a big dip in viewership, it is certainly no apple-to-apple comparison.
A lot has changed in the sport, especially in the 20th century. NASCAR has seen a change in the competition’s format, the tracks involved, and most importantly the cars and the components used. While change has been the only constant, it is worth noting that it is not only NASCAR that has seen a drop in TV ratings.
As per Sports Media Watch’s Jon Lewis, while the 2023 NBA Playoffs enjoyed an average of 5.12 million viewers, it was one of the least-watched NBA Finals with 11.64 million viewers. In fact, as per Tim Baysinger of Axios, the 2023-24 regular season has attracted an average of 1.6 million viewers till now, which is much less than how it was before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even the NHL took a significant hit this year. As per Statista, the Stanley Cup Final witnessed 2.6 million viewers as compared to 4.59 million viewers in 2022. With a decrease of 43% in viewership, one of the oldest sports in North America has also been a victim of declining TV ratings.
Similarly, after being 26% up for the first three months, even MLB witnessed a dip in the ratings as the season progressed in 2023. Only the NFL has enjoyed positive TV ratings given how the sport’s local network affiliation is too strong as compared to other sports. While that does not help in direct comparison, it surely gives a better idea of the rating scenario.
With so many popular sports facing the wrath of a decrease in TV ratings, what does it mean for them? Are all of them declining and losing their charm?
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Is TV rating solely an appropriate metric to judge NASCAR’s popularity?
It is no secret that traditionally the success of TV ratings meant plenty in terms of popularity. However, times have changed and so has the technology. In today’s world, television is not as frequently used as it was before. The digital world has taken over if not entirely replaced the traditional means of entertainment.
To put things into perspective, let us take a look at the viewership details for Formula One and IndyCar. Formula One averaged 1.24 million viewers per race for the season’s first 12 races. Similarly, for IndyCar, the count was 1.403 million viewers. So does that make NASCAR more popular than them?
The popularity dynamics have drastically changed nowadays. While TV ratings continue to be important, it is worth noting that users have opted to switch to streaming as well as other online viewing platforms. This means TV ratings no longer remain the sole source in determining the success of NASCAR or for that matter, any sport.
In fact, even Network TV dynamics have changed. As reported by vulture.com, CBS and NBC reported in 2017 that the traditional TV advertisers amount to less than half their overall revenue. As Nielsen reported, this year streaming accounted for 38.7% of total TV usage whereas traditional TV viewership went below 50% for the first time.
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While TV ratings become less relevant with time, NASCAR has been involved in trying to be more engaged with fans through various other channels. The move to offer free live streams from inside every car in the Cup Series seems to have worked well.
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Over time, NASCAR will come up with more such creative solutions. While the sport does that, it is necessary for the fanbase to keep having faith. With the TV ratings being just one parameter of success, it will take a lot more to make NASCAR less relevant.
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