Sunday’s sold-out Daytona 500 is the first points race on the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series schedule (the Feb. 6 “Clash at The Coliseum” was an exhibition race). The upcoming season is a particularly important one for the stock car circuit. NASCAR president Steve Phelps explained, “It is the last full year before we enter into our [broadcast rights] discussions with Fox and NBC” (the sport’s existing media partners have an exclusive negotiating window). Current deals with both companies expire in 2024.
NASCAR has placed an emphasis on “getting the ratings right” this year so it can best position itself for negotiations come November. To help ensure it does, Phelps & Co. implemented a series of “bold and innovative” changes in the offseason, including the introduction of a new car and scheduling races at a pair of first-time venues. Phelps says NASCAR is simply giving “existing fans what they want—great racing and this really cool race car,” while it introduces the sport to a new fan base. But the hope is the multi-pronged effort, along with some help from Mother Nature, will also result in “at least mid-single digit [ratings] increase.”
JWS’ Take: Cup Series ratings declined 3% in 2021 (Xfinity Series ratings were flat, Camping World Truck Series ratings rose 8%). But with “a quarter of [the] races impacted by rain, including the Daytona 500, the Bristol dirt race and COTA,” Phelps said the viewership numbers do not reflect the momentum the sport has. He pointed out that despite the ratings decline, NASCAR achieved a “double-digit share increase” last year.
NASCAR should post improved viewership numbers in 2022. The sport has grown from a reputation and relevance perspective since the start of the pandemic (as hinted at by the success of “The Clash”). It will also have more races in over-the-air or broadcast windows this season.
The changes made this past offseason should also help to spur tune-in. Of course, no change was bigger than NASCAR’s decision to put the stock car back in stock car racing. “The [new] car is really important,” Phelps said. “Not only is there a relevance to [it], because the styling looks like a showroom or street car, it’s also reflective of the parts and pieces that are on your vehicle” (think: rack and pinion steering, independent rear suspension). The NASCAR president believes the car will improve on-track racing, too.
The sport tinkered with its schedule again this past offseason. The logic is new venues drive curiosity and interest. NASCAR will return to a couple of tracks that appeared on the circuit for the first time last season (see: COTA, Nashville Superspeedway, Road America) and will make two new stops (Los Angeles, St. Louis).
The Cup Series is going back to Bristol for another dirt race, too. But this time around, it is “going to be run on Big Fox on Easter Sunday night,” Phelps said. Historically speaking, the sport has avoided the holiday. But “if the NFL can own Thanksgiving, and the NBA can own Christmas, why can’t we own Easter,” he reasoned. NASCAR is expecting a huge rating for that race.
Phelps said NASCAR will “continue to innovate and be bold with our schedule” in the years ahead, which should appeal to broadcast partners. That could mean a return trip to the Coliseum or a race in another historic football stadium.
It could also mean a street race. “If I had my druthers, we would race on a street course in a significant metro market,” Phelps said. “It would need to be the right city and it would need to have a really strong layout, but I think it’s doable… It’s something that we’re exploring.”
Of course, bringing races to legendary football stadiums and metropolitan street courses has value beyond just the television audience it drives (note: “The Clash” would have been the fifth most watched race of ’21). Venturing out into nontraditional markets helps the sport to diversify its audience and develop new fans, also positive developments in the eyes of a broadcaster. It is worth mentioning that 72% of those who attended the exhibition race in Los Angeles, around 40,000 people, were taking in their first live NASCAR laps.
NASCAR is able to explore these opportunities because it has managed to change peoples’ perceptions of the sport over the last two years. “The stance we took on social justice in 2020, and banning the confederate flag [in 2021], has truly opened up the aperture for us to be able to market to a brand new fan,” Phelps said.
NASCAR expects both NBC and Fox to try to extend their existing deals. When asked if that would be the case, a Fox Sports spokesperson said, “We value our long standing partnership with NASCAR, and on the heels of the successful Clash at the Coliseum event, we’re excited to continue that momentum into the season with Sunday’s Daytona 500 on Fox. [But] we don’t comment on the state of our negotiations.” An NBC Sports spokesperson said, “We are very happy with our NASCAR partnership and are proud of our contributions to the growth of the sport. We are also excited by recent scheduling adjustments and the exploration of new tracks and locations to attract new fans, and hope to remain in business with NASCAR for a very long time.”
But even if they don’t, look for the stock car racing circuit to remain on linear television. “A significant portion of the team model is tied to sponsorship revenue, and that really needs to be tied to eyeballs,” Phelps said. “So, a network or over-the-air component is going to continue to be an important component for us.”
While the NASCAR president believes the sport will see a “significant increase” in the next round of rights negotiations if viewership climbs as expected, Ed Desser (president, Desser Sports Media) sounded less certain. “NASCAR in its last deals over-achieved and then saw audiences plummet. It’s going to be challenging for them to completely climb out of that hole regardless of modest growth this year and I suspect we will have to see some nontraditional players in order for that to happen.” He did add the caveat, “sports rights values continue to generally appreciate.”