Imagine the year is 2018, and auto racing is struggling to keep traditional television numbers respectable amid a transforming technological world. Same-day ratings decline gradually year-over-year, even with some of the most exciting race finishes and championship battles occurring right in the present day. The traditional tool for sponsorship pull has betrayed motorsports, and even the strongest long-term partnerships are dissolving.
Unfortunately, the above statement isn’t fiction – it’s reality – as are the issues that INDYCAR is facing after taking a step backward with 2018 television ratings.
Coming off a 2017 season in which the Verizon IndyCar Series enjoyed marginal upticks across the board for each of its 17 events, 2018 was modestly poised to continue that trend.
Momentum from a strong offseason was tangible, a new universal aero kit was making headlines and the final year of a joint television deal with ABC and NBC was about to come to an end.
What would follow over the next six months didn’t exactly follow the script. Per ShowBuzzDaily.com‘s weekly sport television ratings, INDYCAR took a step back in television ratings despite a dramatic and exciting championship that was fought right down to the final race at Sonoma this past weekend.
This year, INDYCAR viewership numbers dropped from an average of 1,027,765 viewers per race in 2017 to 989,313 viewers per race in 2018 (excluding the rain-soaked Honda Grand Prix of Alabama, where data was not available). That is a 4% viewership drop on average where race ratings dropped from an average of 0.72 per race in 2017 to 0.68 per race in 2018.
Those numbers include Indianapolis 500 qualifying, which has generated on average approximately 1 million viewers for each of the two time trial days in 2017 and 2018.
Digging a bit deeper into the numbers, annual ratings bolstered by the Indianapolis 500 – the series’ premier event which has seen substantial viewership loss over the past few years.
Last year, the Indianapolis 500 posted a same-day rating of 3.41 with approximately 5,467,000 viewers turning in. For 2018 those numbers dropped to a rating of 3.08 – the worst in the race’s history being broadcast live on ABC – and a viewership base of 4,910,000.
By comparison, 2015’s 99th Running of the Indianapolis garnered a 4.3 Nielsen rating.
If you remove the Indianapolis 500 from annual INDYCAR viewership averages it paints a better picture of what American open-wheel racing draws in traditional ratings on a weekly basis.
While we earlier said that 2018 races averaged 989,313 viewers per event (excluding Barber), those numbers, of course, included Indy’s 4.9-million viewers on May 26. Removing Indianapolis’ oval race from consideration, that race-by-race number drops to an average of 642,294 viewers per race and an average television rating of 0.44.
Those calculations are nearly identical to 2017 race-by-race averages excluding Indianapolis, which provided 666,944 viewers per race and an equal television rating of 0.44.
So what does all of this mean? It means that television ratings are no longer an accurate barometer of driver, race, or series popularity.
In an era which places a greater focus on cord cutting, digital streaming, and social media engagement, race fans simply do not consume motorsport in the same way they did fifteen years ago.
Now, I am not naive enough to think that there are as many race fans around today as there were in 2003, but with rising attendance numbers at most IndyCar Series events in 2018 it is clear that the television numbers are the only thing not drinking the Kool-Aid.
INDYCAR – and all other forms of racing that try to use television ratings as an asset – are fighting an uphill battle when trying to revive traditional ratings. The cruel reality is that these numbers will never recover to the meteoric levels set by NASCAR in the mid-2000s or the Indianapolis 500’s heyday in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
It’s the nature of the beast, a byproduct of the landscape.
What these racing entities have to do moving forward is to find a way to extract accurate and reliable data from online streaming services (such as NBC Sports Gold) and their most valuable social media sites (Facebook and Twitter) and package those interactive numbers to potential sponsors.
INDYCAR clearly sees the value in offering content through social media means following the resounding success of Fernando Alonso’s first Indianapolis Motor Speedway test as well as the posting of each live practice and qualifying stream in 2018.
Their efforts to expand into social media streaming should be applauded by fans, and utilized by racetracks, teams, and even the series itself when trying to sell the product currently being offered.
It appears that some teams are doing this better than others – see Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s influx of sponsors in 2018 – and a cultural change won’t happen immediately. Over time, though, the hope is the racing community can change the landscape and benchmarks for what makes their series “popular.”
If the mold can’t be broken, at the very least it must be altered in order for INDYCAR to continue positive momentum in this new age of motorsport.
Header image by Stephen King/INDYCAR.