FROST: A Challenging Year For NASCAR

Tim Frost

WILMETTE, Ill. — The sports industry has been challenged this year like no other time in recent memory.

Let’s review how NASCAR responded to the challenges and where things stand as we polish off one season and prepare for the next.

The early portion of the campaign was subject to typical weather delays. The Daytona 500 finished on Monday and posted lower television ratings and attendance than normal. The next several NASCAR races were run with solid viewership until racing was shut down because of the pandemic in mid-March.

Over the next seven weeks, FOX broadcast eNASCAR iRacing competitions. These races were a completely new concept for professional sports — virtual competition shown on broadcast networks.

The network used its regular NASCAR commentators, who called the contests remotely from their converted home studios. The broadcasts started off a little rough but were refined each week. Toward the end of the run, the entire technology work-flow process was seamless and served as a foundation for a new operating environment.

The iRacing events ranked as the highest rated esports television programs of all time.  There were about 2 million new unique viewers who had not previously watched NASCAR programming.

NASCAR returned to live racing at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in mid-May. Over the next nine weeks, NASCAR’s three national divisions raced frequently and managed to get back on schedule by the end of August.

This was a phenomenal task that included running midweek races, hosting doubleheaders and competing on modified circuit configurations. Practice and qualifying were virtually eliminated to condense travel time, reduce costs and limit health risks.

In the end, NASCAR finished the season on time in early November and crowned a new champion at Phoenix Raceway. Chase Elliott, 24, became the third youngest title holder in NASCAR Cup Series history.

Statistically, the NASCAR races were competitive with a record number of green-flag passes, lead changes and narrow margins of victory.

The delayed season caused NASCAR to push the introduction of the Next Gen car to the 2022 season. A revised testing timeline was announced to allow NASCAR officials, manufacturers and teams additional time to evaluate performance data.

Overall, the television ratings for the NASCAR Cup Series season were relatively strong.  Average viewership was 3.05 million, a decrease of two percent from the previous year. Without the major impact of the Daytona 500 rain delay, there was actually a slight increase for the remainder of the season. More than 190 countries and territories receive NASCAR-related content.

Most major sports properties experienced double-digit declines in television ratings during the pandemic season. The regular seasons for MLB, NBA and NHL were off by more than 30 percent and the playoffs even more. Ratings for the first half of the NFL season show a smaller decline.

NASCAR’s early return to the track was not just about racing. It required a massive effort to meet the hurdles imposed by the pandemic.

NASCAR officials had to work with health and government officials to develop protocols that would protect its community. Ensuring the safety of its personnel was critical. As a result, the number of drivers, race team members and at-track personnel who contracted the coronavirus was not extensive.

They did not utilize testing regimes or operate in a bubble environment used by other professional leagues. Instead, the sanctioning body utilized health questionnaires and temperature checks to each person entering the race track.

Sponsors supported the sport throughout the season as the NASCAR Cup Series moved from a single series entitlement sponsor to a premier partner model.  Busch, Coca-Cola, GEICO and Xfinity were recognized as NASCAR’s Marketing Achievement Award winners for 2020.

The financial health of NASCAR was challenged. The sanctioning body received the annual broadcast contract fees of approximately $850 million by completing the season.

The lack of fans attending races cost more than $100 million in lost revenue. The debt associated with going private last year also raised interest payments.

Overall, NASCAR met the challenges with strength during a difficult year. There were difficulties on many fronts, but officials moved forward with a methodical approach that will pay dividends as the sanctioning body moves toward next season.

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