NEW YORK -- One year into a $2.8 billion television contract
with Fox and NBC, network coverage of auto racing has sent interest
in the sport soaring, NASCAR president Mike Helton said Friday.
Sports researcher Richard Luker remains skeptical, however.
Speaking at the closing session of the International Sport
Summit, Helton said the TV contract broadened his sport's appeal.
"We moved into the mainstream of television sports with NBC and
Fox," he said. "We moved from a cable to a network sport. The
exposure helped us grow the sport."
NASCAR had 25 races on network television last year, up from 10
Helton said NASCAR now has 75 million fans, up 12 million from a
year ago, including 40 million "hardcore" fans, up from 30
million. He identified hardcore fans as those who watch 9 hours of
racing a week.
"It blows my mind, 9 hours a week," he said. "But God bless
NASCAR was a ratings hit, averaging a 5.3 and 13 share for 18
races on Fox and FX, and a 3.9 and 10 share for 20 events on NBC
and TNT. Those numbers exceeded projections, but the networks lost
money as they expected they would in the first year of the deal.
"We're not sure what the losses on the revenue side were,"
Helton said. "We don't think anybody expected this to be the most
profitable year of the period. We're mindful of that and pay
attention to it. But it's not a red flag."
Two years ago, Luker, founder of the ESPN-CHILTON Sports Poll
and now with Leisure Intelligence Group, painted a bleak picture
for the sport at the Summit, saying public interest was dwindling.
He hasn't changed his mind.
"They still don't have the numbers they had in 1998," he said.
"They were the only sport that showed improved numbers last year,
but they took a couple of solid hits in the years before that.
Everything is relative.
"I think there are some positives. It benefitted by the
presence of the networks."
Luker said it is unfair to compare NASCAR's ratings for one
event a week with the ratings of, for example, the NBA, which is on
the air four or five times a week.
"I'm not convinced the audience numbers are there outside of
the Southeast," he said.
Helton said he was happy with NASCAR's growth and its position
in relation to other sports.
"There's an argument to be made that we are second only to the
NFL for TV ratings and live attendance numbers," he said. "Others
debate that. We're confident that across the board, the numbers
support that. We're the new kids on the block. The other sports
have all been around longer. We'll keep plugging along."
Luker disputed that suggestion.
"They're not No. 2," he said. "They're about No. 6 or 7."
Luker admitted he had made at least one mistake in his
assessment of NASCAR.
"One thing I was wrong about," he said. "I got a Christmas
card from them. I didn't think I would."