NEW YORK (Nov. 30) — After an unrelenting six-year streak in which it lapped all other professional sports except football in popularity and TV viewers, the $3 billion business of NASCAR is suddenly having to market itself.
TV ratings for the 10 final races of the season, dubbed the "Chase for the Cup," dropped 10 percent to 4.3 from 4.8, and some 31 of the 36 aces drew lower TV ratings this year than in 2005. NASCAR doesn´t release attendance figures at its tracks.
Combine the ratings falloff with the sport´s freshly inked eight-year, $4.48 billion TV deal with ABC/ESPN — about 40 percent higher than the previous agreement with NBC and Fox — and this week´s traditional annual post-season celebration of cocktail parties and driver appearances start to look more like work for NASCAR.
To be sure, NASCAR is far from crashing. Where three years ago teams were struggling to pull in primary sponsors — those willing to shell out the estimated $18 million needed to bankroll a driver through the 36-race season — NASCAR officials say 48 drivers will be fully funded for the 2007 season.
But there are signs its popularity may be waning, attributed to everything from the length of the February-November season; the length of races, which can push four hours; rising costs of attending a race; and a perception by hard-core fans that NASCAR has somehow gotten away from its roots.
Some say a ratings slip is inevitable after a period of meteoric growth, something even NASCAR concedes.
"Being down for the first time in a while is disappointing, but the ratings fluctuate for all sports and entertainment. We had a record year last year and a lot of times it´s difficult to sustain double-digit growth," said Steve Phelps, NASCAR´s chief marketing officer.
Roger Vandersnick, CMO for International Speedway Corp., which owns 12 tracks across the country and hosts 21 NASCAR events, said any anecdotal evidence of falling attendance at the tracks has to be taken in perspective. The August race at the Indianapolis Speedway, for instance, was noted in a report by "USA Today" as being 20,000 fans shy of capacity — even though 240,000 fans were estimated to be in attendance. "That´s three Super Bowls," Vandersnick said.