NASCAR saw a healthy television audience boost on May 17 when it raced for the first time in over two months. It has not, however, been able to sustain that boost.
Per Nielsen’s measures, an average of 2.93 million people watched Sunday’s race at Bristol. That’s a pretty decent number all things considered. It’s the most-watched race on Fox Sports 1 since the summer of 2017. And it’s slightly higher than the roughly 2.8 million person-average that tuned in for the Bristol spring race in March of 2019.
Here’s the caveat. The 2.93 million figure is also less than half the size of the average audience that tuned in two Sundays prior at Darlington.
That May 17 Darlington race, won by Kevin Harvick, drew an average of 6.32 million viewers. It produced the most viewers for a NASCAR race that wasn’t the Daytona 500 since an April 2016 race at Talladega. Yes, it was run in the middle of a pandemic and only had a charity golf match that didn’t feature Tiger Woods as its live sports competition.
But the number was decent enough to wonder if NASCAR would get a sustained spring bump as it was the first major sports organization to resume events amidst the coronavirus pandemic. And a continued bump would be especially good for NASCAR after it dealt with sliding television ratings for much of the 2010s.
So far, the bump has been a one-and-done.
The May 24 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte posted the smallest average viewer figure in at least 20 years. That low number of 3.96 million viewers came as NASCAR was the only major series racing on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend and the low average somehow dipped below the previous low benchmark set two years ago in a race that was up against an NBA playoff Game 7.
That 2018 race averaged 4.09 million viewers, meaning that this was the first 600 of the 2000s with fewer than an average of 4 million people watching.
The numbers for NASCAR’s two midweek races haven’t been great either, though it’s worth noting that rain has impacted both of them. Last week’s race at Charlotte was pushed to Thursday because of rain and the May 20 race at Darlington ended 28 laps early because of rain.
It’s hard to blame the numbers entirely on rain, however. The Darlington midweek race attracted an average of just over 2 million viewers while Chase Elliott’s win in the midweek race at Charlotte had just 1.51 million viewers on average.
That second Charlotte race is now the least-watched Cup Series points race since 2000. Or maybe even before.
Why did so few people watch during the week? Maybe the numbers weren’t great because both races were on Fox Sports 1. Maybe casual NASCAR fans aren’t used to the idea of midweek races yet. These were the first two regularly scheduled — if you can call them that — midweek races of the millennium.
Before NASCAR resumed racing on May 17, president Steve Phelps said he believed there would be millions of fans tuning in who otherwise wouldn’t. That certainly held true for the first Darlington race. A lot of people who don’t regularly watch NASCAR decided to tune in.
But they haven’t come back for more. Or if they have, they’re replacing fans who watch NASCAR on a weekly basis. Neither of those theories are good to ruminate on. But at least NASCAR got that initial bump. It’s better to get a short-term boost before returning to more normal levels than to not get any boost at all.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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