TV Ratings Are Headed In The Right Direction

There are topics that I know just enough about to be dangerous. TV ratings are one of them. I’ll probably regret stepping off into this realm, for fear of getting my head bitten off by those that do this for a living. But I’m going to give it a try.

While comparing IndyCar and the NFL seems like a pointless exercise in terms of volume, the two are heading into different directions. And for once, the direction is in the favor of IndyCar.

If you haven’t heard, NFL TV ratings are down 10-13% this season, depending on where you get your information. This is huge for a league that never worried about ratings before. All they had to do was schedule a game on TV, and fans and advertisers would flock to it.

A few years ago, stadium attendance started to drop. That wasn’t surprising, given the fact that the cheapest tickets are in the $75-$85 range while parking is usually $20-$30. If you weren’t smart enough to eat before you left home; a hot dog is around $5 and a beer is $10. So, if you bought the cheap seats at $75 and took only your spouse or date, you parked your car and you each had a dog and two beers – you are looking roughly at a total of around $230 or more. That’s a little pricey to go watch mediocre-to-bad teams like the Titans and Colts, as Susan and I will be doing this Sunday.

Not only is it cost prohibitive (that’s code-speak for “too expensive”) to go to an NFL game, the advent of high-definition television and massive screens have made the home viewing experience that much better.

But the NFL didn’t seem to care. They were the 900-pound gorilla when it came to TV ratings. It seemed that advertisers were willing to pay whatever the NFL dictated, just to have a presence on NFL games.

Well, it seems those days are gone.

Through five weeks, the NFL has seen their ratings sag like never before. ESPN’s Monday Night Football is reportedly bringing in record-low ratings. The league is blaming it on this being an election year. I’m not buying it. TV ratings for almost everything are down across the board. Everything that is, except for IndyCar.

Over the past couple of seasons, ratings for IndyCar have been increasing. Not a lot mind you, but increasing.

What is the reason for that? Skeptics will say that IndyCar ratings have been so abysmal over the last decade, that one extra household is noticeable. While that is an exaggeration, it’s true that it is easier to make a dent in the ratings when you are drawing only six to seven hundred thousand viewers for your telecasts. The flipside of that is that it is easier to detect a downturn when your viewing population is so small.

Others will say that there is nowhere to go but up. There have been a few races over the past five years or so that pulled in a 0.1 rating. That’s not 1.0 – that’s 0.1. Is there a measurement lower than that? Keep in mind that the lowly Titans average around 21.0 in the Nashville area. Back when they were winning, the Titans were pulling in local ratings over 30.0. The Super Bowl will normally bring in a 45-50 rating, which brings a 0.1 rating into perspective.

But this is a new day. Last weekend, the late NFL game on FOX between the Bengals and Cowboys brought in a national rating of 12.1, which led the NFL weekend. By comparison, the Monday Night game between Tampa Bay and Carolina garnered a 5.6 rating, down 27% from last year’s week five matchup.

We’re not just talking about the NFL. The NBA and Major League Baseball are taking hits as well. And what about NASCAR? Last week’s race at Charlotte was down 14% from last year’s Charlotte race. Of course, that’s not a fair comparison, because the race was postponed from Saturday night to Sunday – a move that would certainly affect ratings. Well, the week before when they ran at Dover – NASCAR got a 1.5 rating compared to a 1.9 last season with neither affected by weather. That’s a 21% drop from last year to this season. This is not coincidence, it’s a trend.

Since 2014, TV ratings for IndyCar are up 29%. That’s also not a coincidence. The naysayers and the Legions of the Miserable will give you all kinds of reasons why those numbers are skewed. But keep in mind, you can spin statistics anyway you want to in order to prove a point.

As I said earlier, I may regret jumping into this because I don’t understand all of the intricacies of TV ratings and what they all mean. But I do know that NASCAR and the NFL are now wringing their hands over their plummeting ratings, while IndyCar is boasting that theirs are headed in the right direction.

Is this a victory? No. But it is a sign that some of the things that IndyCar CEO Mark Miles has done may actually be starting to work. I’ve not been too kind to Mr. Miles since he took over in 2013, but he deserves some credit. It could be that his stability alone has made a difference. Randy Bernard was unceremoniously dumped after two and a half years on the job. Jeff Belskus reluctantly served in the role for less than a year, after Tony George was ousted.

As Mark Miles is slowly but surely moving away from the advice of the Boston Consulting Group and listening to more qualified racing minds, he is starting to get some things right, thereby allowing the series to finally grow some.

While IndyCar would kill to have the ratings that the NFL is fretting about, they can take comfort in knowing that their TV ratings are headed in the right direction. That’s something that the NFL and NASCAR cannot claim.

George Phillips

31 Responses to “TV Ratings Are Headed In The Right Direction”

  1. The NFL has shot themselves in the foot this year with their politics and such. Personally, I watch sports to get away from the Fox News/CNN crap, and the NFL can’t seem to realize that fact.

    NASCAR is awfully fake these days, with the “rivals” pushing and shoving after races, it’s silly. While their “CHASE” is exciting I guess, I don’t really feel that it rewards a true champion.

    Indycar is the last series that rewards the true champion over the full season which is great. I am not sure it is exciting to watch though. I wince thinking about a new fan seeing that the title will be decided, turns on Sonoma and and that is their first experience. That’s depressing!

    So, good for Indycar to have higher ratings, they are doing a lot right these days but there is work to be done still.

  2. ….and then there are those vets like me who have entirely stopped watching the NFL due to the absolute disrespect of the National anthem and the veterans who pledged to defend this country. Players have the right to state their opinion but do it some way that does not desecrate the flag or those who served and died for what it means. Find another way.

    • And then there are those like me who thought that what we were fighting for, among other things, was freedom of expression, freedom of speech. All too frequently the national anthem (not the greatest song ever written) is most disrespected by the pathetic way it is sung. What exactly does the flag mean in your view?

  3. There are a couple of contributing factors to the fall in ratings as they relate to NASCAR and the NFL. In NASCAR, they’re beginning to see what life will be like with NO Jeff Gordon and NO Dale Earnhardt JR. Two of the largest fan bases in NASCAR have “lost” their champions (albeit, Jr. will be back next year, one hopes.) Another factor in NASCAR is that you can almost assuredly cover the race winner with 5 cars.

    On any given week, if you bet on Logano, Truex, Harvick, Kyle Busch, or Kenseth, chances are you’ll have a winner in there somewhere. Add to that Keselowski and Hamlin and your odds go up even further. And where is the “personality” in that bunch (aside from Kyle Busch, who wears the “black hat.”) The current crop of young drivers has not caught up as yet, which I think will happen with another year or two. Plus, the Danica factor has grown tired.

    The NFL behemoth has made a couple of BAD decisions that frankly have irritated some of their mainstream fans. The Kaepernick
    fallout with the National Anthem when compared to the fines levied against players who wore shoes memorializing 9/11 has not sat well with some fans, many of whom feel the league is on the wrong side of both issues. Further, the league has been damaged to some degree by the fallout from the concussion issue. Many think the NFL “sat” on evidence of the link between head contact and brain trauma for far too long.

    Are any of these long term factors as to ratings? Maybe, maybe not. As an NFL fan, I personally believe that the NFL may have become OVER-exposed, particularly with the Thursday night games which the players hate, and are often not well played. Couple that with the retirement of the league’s most visible “star,” Peyton Manning, and you have a recipe for lower ratings.

    On the plus side, IndyCar’s on-track product has been superb over the last few seasons. It also doesn’t hurt that three of the sport’s greatest icons, (AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Rick Mears) are all still active in the sport to some degree. Add to that an expanded list of potential winners, some regularity to the schedule, the accessibility of the drivers, and some newer faces achieving success (Newgarden and Hinchcliffe in particular,) while still maintaining some of the more established talent (Dixon, Montoya, Castroneves, and Kanaan,) and the stars seem aligned for continued improvement, at least until the veterans start to retire.

  4. I can speak for myself. I was so angry the way NASCAR dissed their Southern fans with that foolishness over the Confederate Flag that I have not watched a race since July a year ago. And I hardly missed a race.

    The NFL has run full speed into left wing politics the last few years, and the last few months it has been out of control, with the NFL actually encouraging “protests” such was done by that quarterback in San Francisco. I will not support that or the NFL.

    Ask Target if there is a backlash from supporting extreme left wing causes.

    My biggest complaint with Indy car is that I can’t watch the races that are on NBC because I don’t have access to that station. A couple times this year the race was postponed or delayed and I got to watch on CNBC. So in my opinion the ratings could be higher on regular network television. And I would not be surprised if games or races on strictly cable stations is also hurting the NFL and Nascar to some degree as well.

  5. One thing that IndyCar continues to do better than just about every sport is have events that don’t envelop your whole day. NFL games usually last over 3 hours. Some college games are reaching 4 hours. NASCAR races are all 3 hours plus.

    • You nailed it, Sam. In the digital era, more and more people simply do not have, or are not willing to invest the 3-4+ hours to a single sporting event. We have Facebook. We have Twitter, we can follow along without having to devote 4 hours of our time. An IndyCar or F1 race is a lot easier to carve out 2 hours of my Saturday or Sunday to watch.

      But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s an article from MediaPost, an advertising industry newsletter by and for those who actually do this for a living.

      • It’s a great point. Bill Simmons, formerly of ESPN and currently doing his own thing under the HBO banner, has said for approaching 10 years that anything exceeding 150 minutes in duration (whether a movie, sporting event, whatever) is a hard sell for anybody under the age of 40-45, and I think that NASCAR and the NFL are both learning that the hard way right now. It’s not the only reason they’re both struggling to maintain upward momentum, but it’s most definitely one big reason.

        • What up us who pay good money to go to the races for the weekend and want 400, 500 miles of racing. I go to Arca, I do Trucks and Xfinity as well…. Nascar has taken surveys and those shelling out the money want the race length we have now. I will say this though it does seem like a lot of people leave before the end of the Cup races…. Like Kansas last weekend it was almost a packed house at the start and towards the end it was half full… I don’t get it. Me I’m a die hard Cup races or the main event I want a full race. That would be like saying lets have MLB Baseball start playing 7 inning games and NFL games be 3 quarters…. never going to happen. I hope to goodness they don’t implement those lame heat races either. But I do like the caution clock…. anyways just my 2 cents

        • I guess we should shorten the Indy 500 to the Indy 250 then?

  6. I used to be a casual NFL viewer, but I’ve just grown tired of the “look at me” players, the rule changes, and just the overall slow pace of the game. I’m a basketball guy, who actually enjoys watching Summer League and pre-season games over football and baseball.

    The NFL ratings hit their ceiling, especially now that games are being watched on other social media platforms. There are also those turned off for other reasons, but the IndyCar product has seen very strong growth over the past few years, and with some staff additions like Cavin, I think it will continue to grow.

  7. When it comes to the NFL, there are many moving parts to where they find themselves…

    Yes, I do think that the blatant politics that is seeping into their product is a problem and they have clearly forgotten why Johnny Carson stayed out of politics (“Why anger 50% of your audience?”)

    Yes, it’s gotten too $$$ but as a season ticket holder for a storied franchise, I can tell you that what has kept me from games isn’t cost, it’s environmental. Far too many fans who are far too drunk and belligerent before kickoff…It’s just too much anymore. I am not taking my wife and young son to be exposed to that. I have been attending NFL games since 1978 (when I was 7 years old) and the difference between crowds then and now is striking. yes, there was drinking and tailgating back then but people policed themselves and they knew that they had to face the people in their section next home game if they got out of hand – not anymore…

    The NFL’s biggest issue from my optic is overexposure. They are are stretching the league schedule so that there are smaller windows where there is no NFL action of some kind…Right on the heels of the Super Bowl is the Scouting Combine, then the draft, then mini-camps, then training camp, then pre-season games, then the season starts where you have games on Thursday, Sunday and Monday (add Saturdays once college season ends). It’s everywhere nearly all the time – thus it is no longer special.

    If your product is ubiquitous people will treat it that way. Once it’s no longer a special event, it isn’t treated as one.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    Indycar’s ratings growth has come largely on the rising tide of NBCSN. The channel seems to have finally established itself in the minds of many viewers as a viable outlet for sports programming. It has been a much longer road than I anticipated getting to this point, though. I expected the network to rise almost immediately upon being rebranded from Versus, bolstered by NBC’s brand name and its Olympic programming, but that did not happen. Overall ratings on the channel (including Indycar) stagnated or dropped from Versus levels out of the gate and have only climbed past them in the past few years. It is not ESPN-level visible, but it is far, far closer than it was just 2-3 years ago.

    The additions of F1 and especially NASCAR to NBCSN seem to have done wonders for Indycar’s visibility on the network too. Racing fans in general know the network and are apt to find Indycar races when they are on. I was concerned about Indycar programming being crowded out by these new properties, which has happened to some extent, but they have absolutely helped Indycar’s ratings with their presence on the network.

    The NFL is beset by a variety of issues, which are not too dissimilar to those afflicting NASCAR: political issues, long commercial-heavy broadcasts, “over-officiating”, retirement of old fan favorites, chasing markets without a strong racing/football culture, struggles connecting with younger people. Both have healthy followings and are far from doomed despite their recent dips, but they will have to rise and face these challenges. These things won’t go away.

    Also, as has been pointed out, media fragmentation was bound to hit the NFL eventually. It was demolishing network scripted show ratings 10 years ago, a drop for the NFL and pro sports in general was inevitable. Even with recent ratings success (relatively speaking), this is going to be an enormous challenge for Indycar. They’ll probably always be able to find their audience, but it will become harder to figure out how to grow it. You won’t be able to simply put something on TV or online and expect folks to stumble upon it.

  9. One of the things Miles needs to accomplish is to unbind the series from ABC’s grasp, so that NBC can show some races on the main Peacock. Personally I would like to see ABC out of the picture entirely. So, let them keep the month of May for the time being. ABC isn’t interested in the rest of the season. I hadn’t realized that NBCSN was not included in many cable/satellite packages until I learn this from several of you. I would fight to the death to keep my channel!! (Or pay through the nose, but do not tell DirecTV. It gets my pound of flesh each month).

  10. College Football is having a great year with a lot of great storylines (and a lot of hearbreak) and so I think that also may impact NFL. Personally, I prefer the college game to the pro game. College FB is also probably hurting NASCAR right now. The other factor is the MLB having a strong year. With the potential for a Cubs v Indian’s World Series, that really cuts into both NASCAR and NFL.

  11. After being on the Green Bay Packer season ticket waiting list for over 20 years, I just received my current position. There are now only 66,622 folks ahead of me. That may change quickly given the recent pathetic performance against Dallas. Regarding TV, I think the NFL is over exposed. Nine hours on Sunday, then Monday night and Thursday night. Also, there are all the additional hours of ex-player and coach talking heads analyzing the same ol’, same ol’ each week. “They’re going to have to bring their running game
    today Biff.”

  12. I’m going to make this short and sweet…. Reason why Nascar ratings is down isn’t no one is interested… its the booth… its NBC and they way they present there coverage to the viewer. Nascar on Fox and Fs1 were doing pretty damn good with Fox averaging 7.0 million vieres and FS1 3.5

    When the coverage went to NBC and NBCSN the ratings went down hill…. The coverage absolutely sucks! I’ve been a die hard since 2004 and this is the absolute worst ive ever seen in any sport period. Rick Allen there lead announcer has no clue about Nascar. Jeff Burton ugh I shutter every time he talks…. there is no crank it up no sounds of the race…. They don’t even call the race NBC sorta acts like the viewer is stupid they explain the same things over and over and over every practice every race. I’ve been explained what the wave around rule is the past 3 races… WERE NASCAR FANS WE KNOW THE THE FN WAVE AROUND IS. nbc treats viewers as if there idiots. Rick Allen Mr GREEN FLAG BACK IN THE AIR is as stall as a 2 year old bag of chips. NBC needs to bring Allen Bestwick in to call races…. Dump Burton for Dale Jarrett… and give Ralph Sheheen a shot… Earlier this year when Nascar was on FS1 at Martinsville it bear out both opening Baseball games on ESPN and ESPN2…. and a NBA Basketball playoff game on NBC….. so that’s saying something. Nascar is just fine when the coverage is worth while. I’m a die hard you cant pry me away from the tv when Nascar is on… lately its been hard to sit through a race while on NBC…… AND ARE YOU SERIOUS ABOUT THIS INDY CAR COMPARISION??? bro Indy car couldn’t fill any Nascar track unless its Indy for the INDY 500…. did you see the races at Texas and Phoenix earlier this year. I cant count more stones in my front lawn than fans in the stands for both them races. Indy Car is going no where brother get your head straight. lol

    • and Indy Car races don’t even come close to even .5 million viewers most races lol….. good luck with Indy car.

      • billytheskink Says:

        While I wouldn’t tout these figures against NASCAR’s, 11 of Indycar’s 18 broadcasts (16 races plus 2 days of 500 qualifying) drew in excess of 500,000 viewers, including 4 NBCSN broadcasts. NBCSN alone averaged 498,000 viewers for its 9 broadcasts that were not affected by rain.

        I would also like to see a bigger role for Ralph Sheheen at NBC.

    • Typical NASCAR “fan” here, I am sure you want Rockingham and North Wilksboro back on the schedule. I like NASCAR too but Ralph Sheheen isn’t going to fix their problems!

      • No I don’t want Rockingham or North Wilksboro back… I’m 35 started watching in 2004… Ralph Sheheen isn’t going to fix Nascar’s problems…. I don’t think there problem is as bad as it seems but he would help fix NBC’s problems. The booth they have now has no rhythm no nothing. I’m saying wouldn’t you rather have a broadcast booth that consist of Bestwick, Jarrett, and Sheheen… over Rick Allen, Burton, and LaTart??? Nascar on Fox has Mike Joy the season vet as lead announcer…. Jeff Gordon will get better with time but ill take him over Burton annny day and Darrell well he’s just awesome. After the worst coverage ever I for one sure as hell cant wait for February and BOOGITY BOOGITY BOOGITY LET’S GO RACING! Oh and about Indy car you forgot to mention there famed Indy 500 (witch I feel many fans go and watch just for the spectacle) hit a three year low this year down 7% from 2015. Indy car isn’t going no where hate to burst your bubble.

        They may have sold out the Indy 500 but again 95% of those there probably couldn’t name you 10 Indy drivers they go for the spectacle… same as the Kentucky Derby people go for that race but could care less about any other.

        Nascar on the other hand has one of the most loyal fan bases in all of sports and while ratings have been down on tv while on NBC I honestly do think its the coverage. Fox was doing pretty damn good. Hell even the NFL is seeing ratings declines this year. Google it. Many NFL stadiums are half full and they don’t even hold 40 to 50,000…. Its happening all over but Nascar is just fine… still beats many MLB, NBA, NHL, PGA games and so on…. Most leagues would die for the fan base Nascar has.

  13. Commercials, commercials, commercials ……………

    A few years ago the media guys got together and decided that 8 minutes of commercials in a 30 minute tv show would be the new norm.

    That single decision immediately rendered almost every sitcom/drama/documentary/etc almost unwatchable. I will no longer watch almost everything that hasn’t been taped ahead of time.

    If you watch a 1½ mile NASCAR oval race you’re watching over an hour of nothing but commercials. Same with the NFL where somebody scores a touchdown (followed by many commercials) followed by a kickoff out of the end zone (followed by many commercials) and if you’re still awake you’re told how exciting the whole spectacle is. This only works for locals who have a team to cheer for. For everyone else ….zzzzzzzzzzz…
    If you turn the tv viewing public off of the product, they may gravitate toward a disinterest that translates to nobody showing up at the venue anymore. I fully understand why people are turning off regular broadcasting and sports on tv.

    Why the resurgence in IndyCar watching? I dunno. Maybe it’s fun and interesting enough for fans to put up with the crap.

    • I think you have a point about the series being fun and interesting. I enjoy the broadcast team both in the booth and down in the pits. Paul Tracy has been a joy to watch develop as a commentator.

  14. Edgar Emmitt Says:

    One problem I see is the seasons of each sport is far to long and overlap each other.

    The NFL may have a real issue on their hands with this concussion business that is just coming to light that could actually have a real impact on Football in the long run . What would you rather have your children be a race car driver or a football player. 5 year’s ago that would have been an easy answer.

    Sports use to be a thing where we could leave the problems of life for a few hours each week and enjoy ourselves.I personal turn the volume off and have a book or something to read when they run those useless commercials that takes twice the time of the event itself.And the announcers make everything a big deal.e

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