Since the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series officially got underway four weeks ago, not a single televised sporting event has put up bigger TV numbers. Now in its 74th season, the professional stock car racing circuit has drubbed everything from the Winter Olympics to Coach K’s final home game, and while there’s been some slippage compared to the pre-pandemic years, NASCAR’s ratings remain the envy of the auto sports world.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the first four certified NASCAR broadcasts of 2022 averaged 5.49 million viewers on Fox, and while that marks a 9% decline compared to the 6.04 million viewers who tuned in during the analogous stretch in 2019, it’s a rounding error when viewed through the lens of the overall drop-off in TV usage. In the last month alone, nearly 26% fewer people watched TV than was the case just three years ago, a trend that pulled tens of millions of would-be viewers away from the tube. Given that more than one-quarter of the linear-TV base has dried up, Fox’s retention of 91% of its overall NASCAR impressions counts as a strong showing.
As is generally the case, the Daytona 500 is on course to win bragging rights as NASCAR’s most-watched race of the season. A coming-out party for NASCAR’s new Next Gen car, the Feb. 20 event averaged 8.87 million viewers, a turnout that eclipsed NBC’s Sunday night Olympics coverage (6.57 million viewers) and the NBA All-Star Game on TNT/TBS (6.28 million). This year’s Daytona race trailed the 2019 broadcast by 3%, for a net loss of around 300,000 viewers.
Penske driver Austin Cindric’s win peaked with an average draw of 10.6 million viewers in the 6:30-6:45 p.m. ET interval. The last time the Daytona 500 delivered north of 10 million viewers over the course of the entire broadcast was back in 2017, when Fox’s coverage of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final appearance at the Great American Race averaged 11.9 million viewers.
Fox’s winning streak continued apace, as the Feb. 27 Auto Club 400 scorched the field with an average draw of 4.57 million viewers, while the following week’s race from Las Vegas beat all comers with a near-identical showing (4.54 million). The latter event made short work of the valedictory North Carolina-Duke game on ESPN (3.98 million viewers), and ABC’s primetime NBA coverage, which featured the league’s two biggest TV draws in Golden State and the Lakers. LeBron James’ 56-point performance helped scare up 3.34 million viewers, making it the third most-watched sportscast of the week.
Fox capped its big NASCAR month with a March 13 Phoenix race that drew 3.99 million viewers, out-maneuvering CBS’ coverage of the Big Ten Championship (3.59 million) for top honors.
Despite leaving the sports world in the dust, many online naysayers tend to take a dim view of NASCAR, interpreting the ratings declines as a sign of certain doom while merrily hyping rival outlets such as Formula One and IndyCar. While it’s true that NASCAR deliveries are in retreat, the open-wheel motorsports reach a far smaller audience. For example, the 2021 IndyCar season averaged 1.22 million viewers on NBC Sports, an improvement of 10% versus its 2019 deliveries, but that’s less than half what the NASCAR Cup Series draws over the course of the year. A similar dynamic is in play with the Netflix-bolstered F1 slate, which in 2021 averaged 934,000 viewers on ESPN. While that made for an enviable 39% lift compared to 672,000 viewers in 2019—the lower the base, the more steep the rate of change—it’s also less than one-third the viewership of the Cup Series.
As Brian Herbst, NASCAR’s senior VP, media and productions, sees it, the flummery over ratings comparisons is a function of a pervasive myopia. “I think the industry gets caught up in the comp game,” Herbst told Sportico during a recent phone interview. “Given that the television audience is more fragmented than ever before, there’s an argument to be made for looking at share rather than gross impressions.”
Because share is a far more proportionate marker of success—as it measures the percentage of homes/viewers tuned in to a given program at a specific time, share effectively eliminates the pitfalls that come with comparing audiences from disproportionately sized pools—the data offers a more credible view of a broadcast’s relative impact.
As it happens, the first four official NASCAR races of 2022 are averaging a 9.73 share, which means nearly 10% of all homes that had TVs in use at the time of the broadcasts were tuned in to Fox. This marks a 25% lift versus NASCAR’s analogous share in 2018, and is the strongest showing since Fox got off to a 10.5 share start in 2016. (By way of comparison, the 2021 World Series did a 16 share, while the average primetime broadcast series commands around a 6.)
Thanks to its relatively generous deliveries and the “stickiness” of commercial messaging in top-tier sporting events, NASCAR has picked up a good deal of new business. Among the most noticeable newcomers is DoorDash, which not only partners with Bubba Wallace (the brand is one of the driver’s primary sponsors), but launched a new spot at the tail end of the Daytona 500. The 30-second commercial, which features Wallace and a cadre of anthropomorphic grocery items, aired just minutes before Cindric edged the DoorDash spokesman at the finish line.
According to Herbst, dozens of brands that weren’t in the mix as recently as the 2018 season have ponied up for in-race units. Meanwhile, some familiar advertisers are upping their spend behind the scenes. As part of an initiative designed to help develop the next Danica Patrick, Anheuser-Busch is funneling $10 million toward a three-year program called “Accelerate Her.”
A NASCAR sponsor of long standing, the Busch brand first joined forces with the racing organization back in 1982. The brew has been nearly ubiquitous during this season’s broadcasts, snatching up nine spots in Fox’s Daytona 500 coverage and investing in another 18 units throughout the other three races. Busch Light also served as the title sponsor of the Feb. 6 exhibition that was staged at the Los Angeles Coliseum. That event averaged 4.28 million viewers opposite the Olympics and the NFL Pro Bowl.
Other top NASCAR spenders thus far include Geico, Coca-Cola, Xfinity and T-Mobile. And as Fox preps for the April 16 kickoff of the USFL 2.0, the revived spring football league has found its way into the network’s racing rotation no fewer than 12 times.
All of which bodes well for NASCAR’s upcoming rights negotiations. The exclusive window for incumbents Fox and NBC will get thrown open in early 2023, whereupon NASCAR hopes to hash out a new media package that extends through at least 2032. Under the terms of the current deal, which expires in 2024, Fox and NBC will have paid some $8.2 billion for the rights to air NASCAR races on their respective media platforms.
The new deal is expected to fetch twice as much cash as the legacy contract.
(This article has been altered to correct the expiration date of the current NASCAR TV contract.)