When NBC planned for its vaunted return of NASCAR in July after a nine-year absence, the network was looking for some guaranteed fireworks. The first race of its 10-year, $4.4 billion contract came Independence Day weekend at Daytona International Speedway, and NBC Sports execs convinced the stock-car powers that be to move the Coke Zero 400 from its traditional perch on Saturday night (July 4, perhaps the lowest-viewing night of any year) to Sunday night in hopes of a bigger ratings splash.
A splash came, alright — long downpours pushed the green flag start from primetime to 11:40 p.m., testing the rain-delay abilities of the network’s new commentators and reporters. It all ended close to 3 a.m. with a grueling crash and, mercifully, a win by fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But NASCAR and NBC both found a big silver lining in the clouds — namely, the network’s commitment to staying the course. “We stayed on the air till 4 a.m., and those fans who stayed with us loved us for doing it,” Jon Miller, NBC Sports Group president of programming, said. “The affiliates were happy, and every sponsor was over-delivered. We turned chicken ‘beep’ into chicken salad, and it was a badge of honor for all of us.” Added Steve Phelps, NASCAR executive vice president and chief marketing officer: “Having hours and hours and hours of programming that night I think speaks to NBC’s commitment to the sport — and they still delivered decent numbers.”
NASCAR’s headlines and ratings horsepower keep it tops among the many motorsports that continue to play out all over the dial, in two- and four-wheel varieties and networks big and small. ESPN retains rights to NHRA coverage; World Rally can be found on MAVTV (see related story in Through the Wire); and stock-car sub series ARCA’s turns are on CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. Motocross cycles through on NBCSN and MAVTV, and the NBC Sports family also plays host to Formula 1 and IndyCar coverage. “For the first time, in the three motorsports that people care about most in this country — NASCAR, Formula 1 and IndyCar — champions in all three will be crowned on one network, NBC,” Miller said.
But this season, NASCAR gains an advantage it has long sought — races on groups of only two nets instead of three. (Turner Sports for several years aired several races halfway through the premier Sprint Cup season.) In a sense, this is the sport’s moment to truly begin finding a route to build on consistent ratings and gain, perhaps, a long-sought uptick.
Many factors now in place seem to point toward that possibility. First is the sense of continuity — after renewals and extensions on Fox (which has long aired the first half of the Sprint Cup season) and the start of NBC’s return, NASCAR is looking at the next decade to build on fan familiarity and the comfort of having the sport’s coverage anchored by two broadcast networks, each with a history and commitment to racing. ESPN housed most of the second-half races for the last several years, and a sport that once proudly built contracts on handshakes is no longer one among many priorities at the Worldwide Leader; instead, NASCAR has returned to NBC, which hated losing it in the first place.
“The sport is being treated the way this sport should be treated,” Miller said. “Not to take shots, but it was not always that way in other years.”
Fox’s contract now runs through 2024 and includes the first half of second-tier Xfinity series races, with a split in coverage between the broadcast network and Fox Sports 1. Fox in 2015 saw a 6% increase in households year-over-year in Sprint Cup ratings, with Xfinity telecasts rising 4% from last year’s performance on ABC. And the booth team, which has featured legendary champ Darrell Waltrip from the network’s start with the sport in 2001, gets another huge draw next season when Jeff Gordon — who will retire from competition at the end of this season — joins DW in time for the 2016 Daytona 500.
But the second half of the season — which includes the playoff-format Chase for the Sprint Cup — belongs to NBC, with the announcing team of former driver Jeff Burton and former crew chief Steve Letarte finding their chemistry, and the action guided by executive producer Sam Flood. NASCAR said it believes it is well-positioned to build on its current slew of stats, starting with ratings being consistent, with some fluctuation, since 2010. Races in 2015 are averaging 5.6 million viewers, and the strategy of splitting second-half races between NBCSN and the broadcast network means five of the final seven races will air on NBC, including the last three. If the Chase format produces anywhere near the hot-tempered action it did last year, the Nov. 22 finale in Homestead, Fla. — airing on a broadcast net for the first time in six years — should see some bump, especially leading into Football Night in America.
The other part of the strategic picture comes with digital and multiplatform, with NASCAR taking that operation in-house a couple of years ago. Famously dogged about trying to reach out to core and new fans, NASCAR did 1 billion page views last year and is up 23% so far in 2015. Engagement on Facebook is up 49% year-over-year, and Twitter is up 83%. And the races on NBCSN weren’t slouches — the July 26 telecast at Indianapolis’ fabled Brickyard earned the young sports cabler its highest numbers ever.
Of course, there are no guarantees to anything, but NBC likes its chances, given a playoff format that now all but assures an über-exciting title finish at Homestead. Looking ahead, the network will use the Rio Olympics to promote races next season. With the two long-term deals up and running, NASCAR likes what it sees.
“We are a pillar of NBC Sports and of Fox Sports,” Phelps said. “That’s very attractive to us. We have a 10-year deal with both, and that brings a lot of stability. And NBC has really embraced the entire sport, and that’s not to be clichéd.”