In the world of NASCAR, the Daytona 500 is unparalleled. It is the most prestigous, most-watched and most-coveted race of the season.
And this year, a record low number of people watched it.
Sunday’s iteration drew a 5.1 overnight rating on Fox, beating out the 2014 race (which was rain-delayed for six hours and scored a 5.6 overnight rating) for the lowest viewership in history.
That’s bad news for NASCAR.
But unfortunately, it’s also the new normal.
Viewership numbers for “The Great American Race,” like any sporting event, fluctuate on a year-to-year basis. The 2014 race that Dale Earnhardt Jr. eventually won scored that paltry 5.6, but the year before, it registered a 10.0. In the years before that, numbers usually fell in the 7-to-8 range overnight.
Now for comparison sake, the Super Bowl postgame show this year drew a 31.2 rating on NBC. That’s not the game. That’s just the talking heads after it – and still, it blew the Daytona 500 out of the water.
There are a number of factors that could have played into the dip in ratings.
First, TV viewership in general has been on the decline. The advent and growth of social media and streaming services render traditional viewership as just one of a handful of ways to watch programming now. That hurts numbers.
Then there’s the competition factor. Notice any similarities between the lows of 2014 and Sunday? Both were competing for viewers with the Winter Olympics, not to mention a slate of college basketball games. That hurts numbers, too.
But the one thing you keep coming back to is that since 2014, NASCAR’s biggest race just hasn’t had the same viewership pull it once held. Once a can’t-miss event, now it’s ... well, missed.
That isn’t to take anything away from the race, either. It had everything needed to fulfill a television executive’s dreams: a historic car winning to commemorate one of the best drivers ever; the sport’s only black driver finishing second in his first Daytona 500; and a thrilling last 10 laps, where multiple crashes and spin-outs changed the course of the race.
The storylines were there, and it didn’t matter.
The truth is, and the biggest reason behind this record low, is that NASCAR is falling from its perch among America’s elite sports leagues (if it hasn’t already). That’s a line that has been written and challenged and discussed at length, but there’s no dismissing the trend or this record low. The numbers are what they are.
The Daytona 500 is still a great event. It sold out, had 101,000 people in the stands and thousands more in the infield.
But it isn’t a marquee TV event anymore. Neither is NASCAR as a whole. Fans won’t like to hear that, but this isn’t a trend that’s ending soon. A small uptick in next year’s Daytona 500, or even the 2020 race, won’t change that.
At least on TV, NASCAR has fallen – time to get used to it.