There has been no shortage of debate and discussion about the 2010 decline in TV ratings for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Viewership dropped more than 20% in some cases, a decline that many blamed on the sport’s flagging popularity. Some observers have argued that moving late-season races from ABC (broadcast television) in 2009 to the ESPN cable network in 2010 played a major role in that decline; a possibility that was strongly denied downplayed by network spokespersons.
But broadcast ratings for many of the season-ending College Football Bowl Games bore a striking similarity to NASCAR’s late-season numbers. ESPN’s coverage of the Rose Bowl game between TCU and Wisconsin earned an 11.7 overnight rating Saturday, down 15 percent from the 13.8 overnight rating for last year’s Ohio State-Oregon matchup on ABC. The game was still ESPN’s highest-rated non-NFL matchup, but the lowest rated Rose Bowl since 2003.
ESPN is available in 13% fewer homes than ABC, providing one plausible explanation for the ratings decline experienced by both NASCAR and the NCAA this season. Can NASCAR place all the blame its for flagging ratings on a move from broadcast to cable television?
FOX Sports (broadcast) and TNT (cable) also experienced double-digit ratings declines during the 2010 NASCAR season, and in-person attendance at the tracks was off noticeably. But the struggles experienced by many NCAA Bowl Games -– including the Orange Bowl, which filled only half the 75,500 seats at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, and the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte that attracted just 40,000 fans to the 73,000-seat Bank Of America Stadium -– indicate that NASCAR’s downturn in attendance and viewership may be due in great measure to the struggling economy, rather than some deep-seated dissatisfaction with the sport.