With February’s Daytona 500 ratings dipping slightly to a record low and the expectation that viewership for the rest of weekly races will also continue its downward trend, Fox and NBC are struggling to sell advertising this season, according to ad buyers.
Denny Hamlin held off Joey Logano and teammate Kyle Busch to win the 61st running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, inaugurating the NASCAR season and the weekly telecasts on Fox, NBC and their companion cable sports networks.
But TV sales executives were likely not celebrating with Hamlin.
With the 500 ratings dipping slightly to a record low and the expectation that viewership for the rest of weekly races will also continue its downward trend, Fox and NBC are struggling to sell advertising this season, ad buyers say.
So much inventory is available that Fox is cutting prices 5% to 10% and pitching special deals, including giving discounts on NFL advertising this fall.
“Fox has been very creative trying to package NASCAR inventory with other sports,” says one agency executive.
“NASCAR has not been an easy sell by the networks to advertisers for the past five years,” says one agency sports ad buyer.
Another buyer adds: “Even when it was thought to have a somewhat healthy viewership, NASCAR ad sales have always been a challenge. Now it’s even less on most advertisers’ radar.”
Fox and NBC chose not to make sales executives available to discuss NASCAR ad sales, which is usually an indication that there are some problems.
However, NBC did issue a statement expressing support for its NASCAR telecasts.
“NASCAR is a signature property for NBC Sports Group and we’re looking forward to our half of the season kicking off in June,” the statement reads. “We are currently speaking with a number of incumbent sponsors, as well as potential new sponsors, and plan to have additional news closer to our first race broadcast.”
Fox did get about $200,000 per 30-second spot for the 500, but buyers say subsequent regular races on Fox are getting only between $50,000 and $75,000 per :30, not enough to cover the $300 million annual TV rights fees.
And some buyers say even the 500 coverage was not sold out and was filled in part by ad deficiency units moved from other Fox programming.
Fox will televise nine NASCAR races, with its cable network FS1 airing another nine.
“Right now there is plenty of open inventory available for every future race,” one buyer says. “You can buy whatever NASCAR telecast you want. There are deals to be had.”
At NBC, whose NASCAR coverage begins in June, advertiser interest has also been weak.
NBC plans to televise seven NASCAR races, while NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) televises 13. NBC’s annual TV rights fee to NASCAR is $440 million.
“NBC has been pushing NASCAR ad sales since the upfront last May and they just haven’t had much advertiser interest,” one buyer says.
One positive is that the top 10 biggest TV NASCAR spenders on Fox are back this season, including No. 1 GEICO.
Last year, according to iSpot.tv, GEICO spent $9.4 million on NASCAR national TV ads on both Fox and NBC.
Rounding out the top five: Toyota ($8.85 million), Chevy ($8.7 million), Ford ($8.3 million) and Ram Trucks ($7 million).
The overnight household rating for the Daytona 500 was a 5.5, which was up 8% from last year’s race, but when the nationals came in, that rating fell to a 5.31, or 9.17 million viewers, slightly lower than last year. The numbers were the lowest ever for a 500 telecast.
And the 500 is the most-watched telecast of the season. Other races don’t come close. The Feb. 24 race in Atlanta drew a rating of 3.1, down 6% from last season.
The race last Sunday at Las Vegas drew a 3.0 rating, up a tick from a 2.9 last year. But Sports Media Watch points out that that race was only the 25th time out of 132 races to post an increase in ratings and viewers since the current NASCAR TV contract went into effect in 2015.
And this is all coming off a 2018 season in which the 33 NASCAR races, including the 500, averaged 3.3 million viewers, down nearly 20% from the 4.1 million viewers the telecasts averaged in 2017.
One agency buyer for a major NASCAR TV advertiser says many clients feel the races are too slow, often stretching to four hours.
Pile-ups can enliven telecasts, but they also slow them down as the tracks have to be cleared. During the 500, three separate crashes, involving 21 cars, resulted in the last 17 laps of the race taking over an hour to complete.
Three million viewers a week is not bad for any programming, but buyers say the NASCAR audience is not ideal.
“Fox has been providing us data about how the NASCAR telecasts reach an underserved audience,” one buyer says. “But the audience is very regional. And it is also the same viewers who watch each week. In broadcast entertainment, you can move your ads around in primetime to reach different audiences.”
A large percentage of advertisers believe the audience is too small and too regional to spend national money targeting it. Says one agency exec who has two NASCAR advertisers as clients, “It’s not on anyone else’s radar.”
NBC is trying to keep NASCAR on viewers’ minds by arranging for assorted NASCAR drivers to make appearances during NBC’s National Hockey League coverage and on news shows like Today.
Likewise, NASCAR itself recently launched a multi-market ad campaign to promote the sport, trying to recruit more viewers from outside its traditional viewership strongholds.
Says one agency exec: “TV rights are going to continue to evolve. There may be a day when certain lesser-viewed sports become just direct-to-consumer telecasts. NASCAR could be one of them.”