It could be only one, as Ryan Blaney took home his first Nascar title at last weekend’s championship race at Phoenix Raceway, the first champion to not win the season finale since the current playoff format debuted in 2014.
Kyle Larson was the only previous Cup Series champion among the final four, while he was also the oldest at 31. This is a new generation of Nascar drivers, which is fitting for a series attempting to attract a new generation of fans.
This season’s championship battle has also been documented for Netflix, which will be airing a behind-the-scenes docuseries following the playoffs in early 2024. The five-episode show is Nascar’s latest attempt to emulate Formula One’s Drive to Survive after seeing its Race for the Championship series fall somewhat flat.
With Dale Earnhardt Jr among the list of executive producers, receiving even a fraction of the attention that Drive to Survive has generated would be a step in the right direction for the stock car racing series.
But with the 2023 season now wrapped up, Nascar will be taking stock of where it currently sits as it looks to improve in the future. BlackBook Motorsport analyses the thinking behind Nascar’s recent commercial moves and rounds up the key TV viewership and attendance figures.
Viewership struggles continue
Confirmation of Nascar’s next media rights deal remains elusive, but it appears to be a matter of time until Fox and NBC renew their current contracts, which are worth a reported US$8 billion combined and expire at the end of the 2024 season.
When the new deal starts in 2025, teams want an increase on their current 25 per cent cut of the broadcast contract. The issue is whether Nascar can demand a similar rights fee amid its current viewership slump. A separate package has also been carved out for its second-tier Xfinity Series, which was picked up by The CW Network in a seven-year, US$800 million deal, further reducing the overall value of the next contract.
One bright spot was the inaugural Chicago Street Race, which averaged 4.63 million viewers, Nascar’s largest audience on NBC since Homestead-Miami in 2017. The race carried a certain degree of risk for the series, as it had never competed on a street course before. The level of interest in the first edition has proven it can be a success with fans, especially as the race secured more than double the audience achieved by Road America, which was held on the same weekend last season.
A good indicator of Nascar’s overall popularity is the Daytona 500, which saw an eight per cent decrease in viewership compared to 2022, averaging 8.18 million viewers. For context, the audience for the Daytona 500 has more than halved in the space of a decade - viewership in 2013 was 16.65 million.
With that in mind, the stock car racing series may need to realign expectations when finalising the next media rights deal, which should conclude by the end of this year. Fox executive chairman and chief executive Lachlan Murdoch said on the company’s most recent earnings call that the media firm is in “the final status” of extending its Nascar deal and said the broadcaster “look forward to continuing that partnership”.
Unsurprisingly, Nascar doesn’t publish attendance figures. After all, crowds have dwindled since the early 2000s, when circuits could expect around 100,000 people to attend races.
This season, Pocono Raceway claimed that it had its largest crowd in more than a decade, but no official figures were released. Estimates say the circuit sold around 50,000 grandstand tickets and 3,300 camping spots.
Outside of the perennially sold-out Daytona 500, attendance showed signs of recovery last season as Atlanta and Bristol reported their largest crowds since 2014 and 2017, respectively, while Phoenix Raceway sold out its spring race for the first time in more than ten years.
This year, in addition to Pocono Raceway, Michigan saw its highest attendance since 2015, although its 56,000 capacity is substantially lower than the 137,000 people it used to be able to seat in 2006.
Without concrete data, it’s hard to reach solid conclusions on the health of Nascar’s attendances, but track attendance record reports have been few and far between this season.
Experiments like the Bristol Dirt race have proved unsuccessful, with the series confirming a switch back to concrete for 2024. The event received mixed reviews from fans, but the move back to concrete suggests the experiment has not boosted attendance and viewership in the way it was originally hoped.
Other major developments
With viewership and attendance either stagnating or declining, it’s clear that there is plenty of room for improvement at Nascar.
Hopes for an international event are yet to come to fruition, but its Garage 56 entry at the 24 Hours of Le Mans spoke to Nascar’s ongoing efforts to grow its presence overseas. Formula E reportedly now has a larger global fanbase than Nascar, so expansion beyond North America feels like a necessity.
It appears, though, that Nascar has recognised the need to adapt. One fan-centric move was to create a free-to-access online archive of more than 1,000 Cup Series races. Plus, new races will be added to the platform within weeks of their conclusion.
While the nostalgia of historic races caters to avid fans, ensuring that the history of the sport is available for free to anyone interested in learning more will be crucial to growing Nascar’s appeal. The creation of Nascar Classics accounts across all social media channels is a big indicator of the goal to target younger audiences.
An archive unlike any other.— NASCAR Classics (@NASCARClassics) August 17, 2023
This is NASCAR Classics.
Nascar’s efforts to appeal to a younger generation has also been evident through its continued focus on gaming. Whether it’s the arcade-style racing game Arcade Rush, the standalone mobile game in development with Hutch, or iRacing snapping up Nascar’s video game rights for a new title in 2025, the series is making a concerted effort in this area.
Nascar has also signed name, image and likeness (NIL) deals with numerous college athletes in a bid to get its events in front of younger audiences. Most notably, Olivia Dunne promoted this season’s Nashville race to her more than ten million followers across Instagram and TikTok.
Numerous sports betting partnerships were also signed with the likes of Sportradar, FanDuel and nVenue as Nascar looks to diversify its offering and enhance the fan experience.
While these moves aren’t guaranteed to work, they show a series willing to modernise, an important factor in ensuring Nascar remains relevant in an increasingly competitive motorsport world.