The Race for Ratings: NASCAR in the COVID-19 Era

By Taylor Cayro

“Woo! Yeah! Bristol, baby!” shouts a winded Kevin Harvick after an over 50-lap heart-pounding back and forth chess match with defending cup series champion Kyle Busch that saw Harvick claim victory in the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Man, I just want to say thank you to all the fans. Thank you guys! I was so jacked-up when we started this race because of you guys!”

Source: NBC Sports

Thirty-thousand fans cheer and shout back at Harvick who has just won his ninth win on the season, his eighth win since his fan-less victory at Darlington in May. When he won his first race of 2020 at NASCAR’s return from hiatus due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Harvick commented on the eerie lack of fans saying, “You know, I didn’t think it would be that much different and then we won the race and its dead silent out here.”

That May 17 race at Darlington would be the first professional race, match, or game played in professional American sports since all went on hiatus or postponed their seasons until work conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic improved. While other sports would have close human proximity, something people were not supposed to do in a social-distancing climate, NASCAR allowed for close contact sport action, albeit with 3,200 pounds of metal and horsepower separating each driver. While there were iRacing exhibition races that saw professional stock car drivers race virtual cars on the iRacing platform during NASCAR’s hiatus, the experiment to bring broadcast virtual racing to the masses who only had marble racing to satisfy their sport desires didn’t result in high viewership numbers. The return at Darlington though did and in an impressive way.

Source: NASCAR on FOX

A grim upside to the COVID-19 pandemic for many television networks was that many people were left at home, some jobless, in front of their TVs with nothing better to do. In March, NASCAR, the NHL, the NBA, and the MLB all announced a hiatus or postponement of their seasons, pushing the scheduled ends or starts of their seasons from April to September for the NHL and October for the NBA, with MLB waiting to start nearly four months late in July. With no NFL and the world’s sport of soccer joining the many hiatus and postponements, people were left with not much else sports wise to view. Witnessing an opportunity to capitalize on the desert landscape that was sports broadcasting, on April 30, about two months after COVID-19 began to spread across the United States, NASCAR announced they would return to the track in May for The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington.

It’s no lie that NASCAR is not as popular as it was just five, ten, or even 15 years ago. According to viewership totals provided by Jayski, NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, peaked in viewership in 2002 with 35 million viewers. Fast forward to the 2002 spring Darlington race and the race garnered only 9.6 million viewers, a noticeable 72 percent decrease in viewership in just four weeks. Now comparing to 2020, the Daytona 500 brought in 10.9 million viewers Sunday before being rained out to only 7 million viewers on Monday, with numbers continuing to decrease to 4.6 million viewers at Phoenix, a 34 percent drop in viewership from the 500 for the fourth and final race before COVID-19 forced NASCAR to put the season on hold.

Source: NASCAR on FOX

Though the beasts weren’t tamed for long as on a warm Sunday afternoon in May, the engines were fired up again and the roar of 40 mean race cars took the green flag to a staggering 6.32 million viewers, an only 10 percent decrease in viewership since the 2020 Daytona 500. Numbers wise it was as if the season had just started over anew. The same track that saw a 72 percent decrease in viewership from the Daytona 500 in 2002 was now bringing a renewed sense of action to the season as NASCAR would proceed to go on a tear running five cup series races in just two weeks, adding mid-week races to the schedule for the first time in 36 years.

The big issue for NASCAR now was their broadcasting deals. In 2002, all NASCAR cup series races broadcasted by FOX ran on FOX, while in 2020, races would be broadcasted on either FOX or FOX Sports 1. The same applies to NBC’s fall coverage of the sport, splitting broadcasts between NBC and NBC Sports. Following their strong Darlington comeback, NASCAR brought in only 2 million viewers for their second Darlington race that Wednesday on FOX Sports 1, followed by 4 million viewers at Charlotte on FOX the next weekend, then 1.5 million for the mid-week Charlotte race on FOX Sports 1, before rounding out their five race tear with 2.93 million viewers at the spring Bristol race on FOX Sports 1. On a positive note, the spring Bristol race viewership totals were up four percent from the prior year.

Atlanta did return strong ratings in June with 4 million viewers on FOX but was down 1.1 million viewers from the prior year. In all, while it’s not bad numbers, NASCAR was clearly not returning to their heyday of viewership numbers with no competitive sports competing against them. NASCAR actually lost in viewership totals to sports-related television series and events. More people ended up tuning in to an ESPN series on Michael Jordan, a charity golf tournament with the likes of Tiger Woods and Tom Brady, and the NFL Draft than any race this season beyond the Daytona 500 and NASCAR’s COVID-19 return at Darlington.

NASCAR has consistently been the United States second most-watched professional sport for years. Despite their ratings fall from the early 00’s, NASCAR has held steady with equal or more viewership than other major U.S. sports, bar the NFL. The MLB returned to more than 4 million viewers before dropping back off. The NBA returned to 2.9 million viewers, an increase in regular season viewership. The NHL returned with 1.3 million viewers. And the NFL, proving their worth for the most-watched crown, returned with an estimated 19.3 million viewers.

Source: NBC Sports

So, what happened? Many fingers can be pointed since their 2002 high, with the talent pool not being as competitive to six different championship-deciding playoff systems in 16 years (there was only one the prior 56 years) to the adding of stages to break up a race. The NASCAR cup series that took the green flag at Daytona in 2002 is not the same series that took the green flag at Daytona in 2020. For the little victories, like the four percent increase in viewership for Bristol, NASCAR took the checker, but it seems overall that the long-term damage NASCAR has put on itself in the last 18 years is too much for the sport to overcome.


This story was written by Taylor Cayro for JOUR 411 – Digital Newsroom at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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