Television provided NASCAR arguably its greatest opportunity at growth. Now it will provide its greatest chance at recovery.
This is a meticulous plan that includes a modified points system, segmented races and bonus points that carry into the playoffs. The theory behind the changes? Drivers will race harder, events will be more exciting, viewers will tune in and more fans will come through the turnstiles.
And although a group of series stakeholders that includes current and former drivers, broadcasters, team owners, track and NASCAR officials had a voice in the process of deeply changing the way NASCAR races are contested and presented, there should be no mistake that TV had its say.
"It's the old story: Follow the money, and the No. 1 revenue stream in the sport is television," Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage said. "(But) I don't know if they have too much influence or too much impact. ... I don't consider this too much of a change. It's basically two competition cautions."
Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports' senior vice president of programming, research and content strategy, told NASCAR stakeholders during discussions of a format change that an average viewer watches 95 minutes of each race and that each additional minute the viewer committed would raise the Nielsen rating by 1%. Most races last between three and four hours.
According to Nielsen, NASCAR viewership has fallen 45% since 2005, from nearly 9 million viewers per race to 4.6 million last year. Last weekend, Chase Elliott, the 21-year-old son of former series champion Bill Elliott and a driver promoted by the series as a future standardbearer, won Daytona 500 qualifying, but Sports Media Watch said it was the least-watched time trials since 1998.
Former driver and current NBC analyst Jeff Burton said there is a misconception that the overarching interest of the television industry is self-serving.
"Most people have this perspective that TV only cares about TV. That's the furthest from the truth," Burton said. "NBC and, I believe, Fox as well, want races sold out. They want the energy, the buzz. They want the things when NASCAR was at its highest point. They want that back."
The entire sports entertainment industry is grappling with some variation of the same problem, which is compounded by a new culture of instant access to live streaming or highlights without the hours-long commitment to traditional broadcast windows.