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NASCAR’s modernization efforts are paying off in bounce-back season

Austin Dillon (#3) leads a pack of cars

(Image by Jeff Curry/Getty Images)

Any NASCAR driver — or broadcaster, or journalist, not to mention drivers’ spouses — will tell you that the sport’s season is a long one. Revving up in February and cruising all the way through the Monster Energy Cup Series in mid-November, there’s hardly a moment to pause and reflect on the preceding season before the new one begins. That’s why the halfway mark is so crucial; it provides a natural point to stop and assess the season so far. And this year, despite recent hardships, NASCAR is thrilled with what it’s observed. 

In the first half of the 2019 season, marked by the Toyota/Save Mart 350 race on June 23, NASCAR has seen growth in three of its key metrics: TV, digital, and attendance. Considering that everywhere you looked the last few years, headlines were screaming about NASCAR fans abandoning the sport or its ratings declining, that’s a key bounce back for an industry that is looking squarely toward the future. 

And while NASCAR has been wooing viewers and cultivating new fans with everything from a revamped fantasy product, NASCAR Fantasy Live, to esports and sports betting, it’s the core product — the racing — that is recording wins at the season’s midpoint. 

“I attribute a great deal of our early success to the improved racing,” says NASCAR president Steve Phelps. “The 2019 rules are delivering close, side-by-side racing and that is helping pave the way for future success.” To wit, as we head into August, the “Big 3” of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. comprise three of the top five drivers in the Cup Series rankings, all within 120 points. 

NASCAR has had to grapple with the reality that in driving the sport toward the future, some of its more traditional fans may feel left behind in the dust — er, smoke. In particular, recent decisions regarding rule changes and competition overall may have been too much, too quickly for some of the sport’s stalwart fans. Take, for example, the 2019 season competition package, which aims to keep the cars closer together with higher downforce and lower horsepower regulations at its bigger Cup Series racetracks. Fans used to watching cars whip around at 750-800 horsepower have certainly noticed the difference at the new 550 threshold. If nothing else, though, it brings the field closer together. 

Despite the changes, the numbers don’t lie. Fans are tuning in to this year’s races at an increased rate across all platforms. Unlike other major sports that are broadcast on multiple networks throughout their seasons, NASCAR viewership is unique; FOX Sports broadcasts the first half of the season, NBC Sports the second. 

At the halfway point, FOX had some eye-catching figures to report. Per a press release, FOX’s half of the season averaged 4,076,000 viewers, up +2% from last year’s 3,980,000. To put that in perspective, the only major sport FOX broadcasts that sees more viewers on game per average is the NFL. 

“NASCAR viewership more than holds its own against other major sports,” says Michael Mulvihill, FOX Sports EVP, head of strategy and analytics. “Our races this year averaged just over four million viewers, which is better than what you’d find for NBA, MLB or NHL games across national broadcast and cable.”

And for all the talk about NASCAR traditionalists bowing out, the sport’s strongest TV markets are clustered almost exactly where you’d expect: Greensboro, North Carolina (7.4 rating); Greenville, South Carolina (7.0); Richmond, Virginia (7.0); Charlotte, North Carolina (6.3); and Indianapolis, Indiana (5.2). 

On the digital side, NASCAR is finding itself increasingly able to reach fans (or develop new ones) regardless of market. In the first half of the 2019 season, 2 million fans streamed NASCAR programming on FOX Sports platforms, up +79% year over year. On social platforms, FOX recorded 177 million video views of NASCAR content, up +51% year over year. 

To be sure, these numbers comprise only the FOX half of the NASCAR schedule; we won’t know if NBC will see similar gains until Thanksgiving. But the growth isn’t just happening organically; NASCAR execs have been putting initiatives into motion behind the scenes to bring about exactly these kinds of numbers, and they expect to see the fans continue to respond in kind. 

NASCAR President Steve Phelps speaks to the media

(Image by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

NASCAR has brought fans closer to the sport by, for example, adding 360-degree in-car cameras and augmented reality experiences on mobile devices. “All of these initiatives put NASCAR in front of new audiences, while providing our core fans with as many opportunities to engage with the sport they love,” says Phelps. 

Phelps has steered NASCAR through its fair share of roadblocks in his 15 years with the organization, serving as senior VP, chief marketing officer, and head of sales/marketing before taking the steering wheel as president in September 2018. Only the fifth president in NASCAR history, Phelps’ tenure began with the sport at its arguably most important crossroads: how to imbue NASCAR with wider appeal without sanitizing it? How can NASCAR pay homage to its bump-and-bang past peppered with infield brawls while making it cleaner? How can NASCAR reach the level of competition it wants without turning fans off by mounting penalties on pit road? “Let them race” is a common cry of stalwarts, but Phelps is confident the product he’s constructed is doing just that. 

Another reason fans may have drifted away in recent seasons? The retirements of some of the sport’s preeminent drivers like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. It’s a common thread shared across sports; sometimes we love certain athletes so much that even if they move to another team, we follow them there and watch every game. In NASCAR, fans have to be excited about who’s behind the wheel. To that end, the organization is hard at work at cultivating the next generation of drivers, even as current stars like Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Jimmie Johnson continue to captivate. And, per Phelps, it’s key that the next generation is as diverse as the fan base. 

“Developmental programs like NASCAR Next and Drive for Diversity create a strong pipeline of up-and-coming drivers, many of whom are multicultural and female, competing across our developmental series,” says Phelps. “These athletes are working their way up the ladder with goals of ultimately reaching the highest levels in our sport, and they all have unique stories to tell.”

NASCAR Driver for Diversity Combine at New Smyrna Speedway

(Image by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

Even as it works to perfect the core product on the track, NASCAR is also speeding into the future with initiatives like esports and sports gambling. For the latter, NASCAR has partnered with Sportradar, Genius Sports, and The Action Network to help prepare fans for the future of betting in NASCAR. On the esports side, NASCAR and its partners iRacing and 704Games are participating in three sanctioned esports series this year. The esports league, eNASCAR Heat Pro League, allows fans owning NASCAR Heat who were drafted earlier this year to stream their races (which feature 15 race teams and 30 drivers) at NASCAR.com, Twitch, and Motorsport.com. And esports content being broadcast on Twitch and NASCAR.com “helps bridge the gap from one race weekend to the next by providing unique content throughout the middle of the week,” says Phelps. To captivate new, younger fans, NASCAR is meeting them where they are. 

There’s no question NASCAR has some halcyon days in the rearview mirror. But, though it may be changing, those entrusted with steering it into a new era think the best is yet to come.