Now it's time to take this ratings business seriously.
Talladega was the most anticipated race of this entire season, a critical day that would either determine a champion or set the stage for a three-race shootout. And fans who are watching the races responded; ratings for Dega improved by at least 20 percent over all the other Chase races shown on ESPN.
But those last three words -- "shown on ESPN" -- are the key. Because when you factor that in, the ratings were down 24 percent from last year, when the race was shown on ABC.
Talladega drew a 3.1 rating, better than the 2.5 that the best ESPN-broadcasted race (Fontana) but still below the best-rated race of the Chase (Charlotte, which drew a 3.2 on ABC). You can massage the statistics still further, for the households that actually have ESPN, the race drew a 3.6 rating, averaging 5.2 million viewers. Relatively speaking, that would make it the highest-rated Chase race.
Relatively speaking. Hmmm.
We've been pretty dismissive of the whole "it's not fair the races are on cable" argument, but it's getting tougher and tougher to spin this away from that angle. You can also point at the start times; Talladega was competing with football right from kickoff.
What you can't complain about is the racing itself. NASCAR is as tight at the top as it's been in at least five years. The last two years, Jimmie Johnson was winning in a rout; this year, nobody's got any idea which of the Top Three will win. I'm also not convinced, as some others are, that most race fans really care about which network is broadcasting their races. As Nick said here recently, would you really stop watching your favorite team just because you didn't like the broadcasting crew? Come on.
So what's the issue? Perhaps it is indeed the network itself. I've often wondered what would happen if NASCAR were on a single channel, or at most two, over the course of the season. No matter how much you remind your viewers, you're always going to have collateral losses when you switch networks. Every week, we get dozens of "what channel is the race on?" questions on the live chat, and we've got the listings right there on the page. How many people are wondering where the race is, then giving up when they can't find it? (The flip side of that argument is that surely nobody is too stupid to be unable to locate a race on a different channel. Not even NASCAR fans. Hush, I kid because I love.)
No matter what the cause, I'm thinking drastic action will be necessary. The ratings drops are too significant to ignore or rationalize away.