A five-and-a-half-hour weather delay effectively soaked the official start of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series, as Fox’s broadcast of the Daytona 500 delivered the lowest ratings in the history of the race.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Sunday’s stalled event averaged just 4.83 million viewers and a 2.8 household rating, which marked a decline of 35% from the previous low-water mark set a year ago. Marred by a 16-car pileup in lap 14 and a subsequent weather meltdown—a spree of bocce ball-sized hail, soaking rain and lightning sent the 20,000 fans in attendance scrambling for cover—the race wouldn’t be finished until well after midnight on the East Coast, when Michael McDowell finessed his way through a fiery wreck to notch his first career victory.
By the time the red flag was finally lifted shortly after 9 p.m. ET, much of the TV audience had moved on to other things. Per Nielsen, the first 45 minutes of the race put up decent, if unspectacular numbers, with Fox averaging 8.48 million viewers and a 4.7 rating. By way of comparison, last year’s race, which was postponed until 4 p.m. the following Monday, averaged 7.03 million viewers and a 4.4 rating, while the far less disrupted 2019 broadcast averaged 9.17 million viewers and a 5.3 rating.
As is the case with nearly every other major sporting event, the Daytona 500 deliveries have been trending downward for a number of years after peaking in the aughts. Fox scared up its biggest numbers back in 2005, when Jeff Gordon’s third win at the speedway averaged 18.7 million viewers and a 10.9 rating. In October of that same year, Fox’s coverage of the four-game World Series averaged 17.2 million viewers.
While the rainout certainly didn’t do Fox any favors, the network likely would have had difficulty topping the 10 million viewer mark even under ideal circumstances. Season-to-date, overall deliveries at the Big Four broadcast networks are down 18% versus the analogous period in 2019-20, and that attrition has left its mark on everything from the World Series to the College Football Playoff National Championship to the Super Bowl.
In keeping with the overall audience shrinkage, Fox’s Daytona demo deliveries also took a hit. Sunday’s broadcast averaged just 1.18 million adults 18-49, down 50% from the year-ago 1.53 million. Since the broadcast season began some 150 days ago, the networks have weathered a 15% year-over-year decline among adults under 50.
Among the top-spending advertisers in Fox’s Daytona broadcast were Geico, Busch Beer, T-Mobile, Ram Trucks and Toyota. McDowell, a 100-to-1 underdog heading into Sunday’s race, drives a Ford.
Fox has nearly 40 new advertisers lined up for the new NASCAR season, as buy-ins from financial-services brands, insurance companies and quick-service restaurants pick up. Interest in NASCAR is particularly high this year thanks in part to an uptick in celebrity investment (Michael Jordan and Pitbull are now co-owners of separate racing teams) and a concerted effort to diversify the sport.
Fox returns to the Daytona track this Sunday with the 70-lap O’Reilly Auto Parts 253. A NASCAR partner since 2001, Fox’s current $3.8 billion rights package runs through 2024.