There was a lot to unpack from a recent compilation of the most-watched motorsports events in the United States to date through 2023.
Most of this data has been individually released and dissected but seeing it all together provides quite the perspective on the respective popularity of every discipline around the country.
Some immediate takeaways:
- NASCAR is still king in the United States
- Formula 1 had an uneven but still positive year
- 2023 was IndyCar’s best viewership in 12 years
- How sports is consumed is changing quickly
Big picture, there are so many misconceptions about what television numbers do and do not mean. For one, comparing television numbers today to those a decade or more ago is such a fruitless exercise. Consumption habits and devices are just so radically different.
After all, think of how you consume television or sporting events today than how you did a decade ago. This year marked the first time that linear TV usage fell below 50 percent. At the same time, streaming now accounts for 38.7 percent of television usage.
So, the more valuable exercise is thinking more immediately like year-over-year gains and losses, where a given product stands against its competition on any given day and where the broadcast ranks in key demographics.
This doesn’t even include unforeseen elements like rainouts for NASCAR, which generally can’t race in the rain on high-speed ovals and suffered three Monday races in 2023 compared to just one in 2022.
It didn’t help NASCAR, for example, that one of those rainouts was the prestigious Coca-Cola 600.
IndyCar hasn’t had this many races on over-the-air television in a long time so the ratings were downright expected but it takes a lot of data parsing to get to a full picture of what those gains mean.
First, here is the full list as compiled by NASCARman_RR on Twitter:
NASCAR feels pretty good about how it rebounded in the second half for the races on NBC and USA Network.
“If you look at digital and social consumption for NASCAR for this year, it’s up,” Phelps said during the end of the year press conference at Phoenix. “Television has been a bit of a mixed bag with the Cup being down, low single digits, as well as our Craftsman Truck Series, low single digits, the Xfinity Series is up.
“I wouldn’t say we haven’t had great luck particularly in the first half with weather. Weather wasn’t our friend. But I’m super excited to get us back on a growth pattern from a television perspective next year because we’ll have lower comps than we did this year. Excited about that.
“NBC came back in a powerful way. Those metrics are up. If you consider back in March we were down 15 percent, now we’re down mid-single digits, we’re happy with where that is.”
The races that helped the motorsports ratings
Phelps isn’t hiding the ball when it comes to those second half numbers either.
NBC’s portion of the regular season was up 11.6 percent year-over-year bolstered by the inaugural Chicago Street Race, which almost matched the Indianapolis 500 in overall viewership but also strong numbers for the regular season finale at Daytona too.
The playoff numbers are very noticeable, but also easily explainable, as there is just no defeating the NFL head-to-head from September to November.
Overall, NBC enjoyed a year-over-year increase of 1.7 percent and Sunday viewership increase of 0.25 percent. USA’s Sunday viewership was up 0.96 percent. The Bristol Night Race, on a Saturday night, was one of the worst races of the year from a viewership standpoint and speaks to that time slot not being a winner for the sport moving forward.
Also, the Indianapolis Road Course race was preempted in six markets for NFL preseason football coverage, something that has to at least be factored into the holistic exercise.
The first half was absolutely down but a lot of that has to, for better or worse, be contributed to the absence of Chase Elliott, who was recovering from a March snowboarding incident and missed seven races.
Elliott came back and the FOX numbers stabilized.
Meanwhile, IndyCar boasted an averaged Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 1.32 million viewers across NBC, USA Network, Peacock and NBC Sports digital platforms this season. That ranks as the most viewed season since 2011 (1.39 million viewers, NBCSN/ABC) and up two percent year-over-year.
The Indianapolis 500 had a 13 share, the percentage of homes watching television at the time of the race, the best number for that event at 2008 when it was also a 13 share.
Those were all positive developments to IndyCar CEO Mark Miles.
“Look, the world, the media world is changing, and we’re about to get into the process of re-licensing our rights for the 2025 season,” Miles said. “Those discussions with lots of interested parties will start in October.
“Who knows; I personally thought that in this early growth mode from an IndyCar perspective, reach and broadcast windows are really important. I continue to think that. I guarantee you we’re going to hear from all kinds of possible platforms that have interest in IndyCar racing.
“The world is changing as we’re on this call. I think there will be fewer cable platforms out there by 2025 and major media companies’ attitudes will be evolving.
“Anyway, we’ll do the absolute best we can through a great partnership with NBC. Peacock is really important to them, and it’s been important to us. We wanted to be on a streaming platform, so there’s a couple of those next year, and that keeps growing. In many respects, that’s going to be important to the future.”
Formula 1, which still has two races remaining this weekend at Las Vegas and in two weeks at Yas Marina, has averaged 1,091,000 viewers in the United States down from a 1.3 million average last year. It’s worth pointing out that those numbers include the pre-race shows and not just the periods surrounding flag-to-flag coverage.
The second half has also seen a noticeable dip with races at or below a million viewers with all sorts of explanations, from the dominance of Max Verstappen and a stale championship battle, to start time factors.
Even the race at Las Vegas will start at 1 a.m. ET to accommodate viewers abroad as opposed to those in the United States.
The broadcast rights agreement for NASCAR and IndyCar expire after the 2024 season and the Formula 1 deal with ABC/ESPN ends in 2025. The NASCAR Xfinity Series will air on the CW Network starting in 2025, a $800 million deal that was announced back in July.