This past weekend for the first time since 1989, and for the first time on purpose, NASCAR held a race on Easter. Traditionally, the holiday is an off weekend for the sport, but this season NASCAR headed to Bristol Motor Speedway, covered with dirt for the second consecutive year, for a Sunday night race.
While there are many metrics that can be used to measure the success of a race, there is one that stands above others, the Nielsen ratings. The measure of how many pairs of eyeballs are on TV screens mean more to the sport than just about anything else.
The Sunday night race on Easter at Bristol was a grand experiment of sorts. The measure of that experiment would be the Nielsen ratings. And that was no secret heading into the weekend.
“The only way it’s successful is if the TV ratings are through the roof,” driver, and former Cup champion, Kevin Harvick said before the race. “That’s the only way that having it on Easter night is successful.”
Harvick was a bit biased as he normally would be on a long family vacation during the Easter week; one that this year obviously had to be cut short. He said Saturday he wasn’t exactly thrilled with being at Bristol, but like everyone in the industry understood why.
“It’s an experiment, which I’m fine with experiments if it’s beneficial,” Harvick said. “If it’s beneficial for this sport and beneficial for TV ratings and beneficial for a number of things, then I’m all in, but that will be the real tell of success; if that rating is way up compared to what it was.”
It looks as though Harvick, and his family will have to plan another short vacation next Easter.
Tuesday the Nielsen ratings for Sunday nights race were released and showed double-digit increases from 2021, peaking at 4,518,000 million viewers. That made the Easter race at Bristol the most-watched NASCAR event of any kind at Bristol Motor Speedway since the spring of 2016.
No doubt executives from NASCAR as well as at Fox Sports which aired the race, were celebrating.
Bill Wanger serves as FOX Sports executive vice president of programming and schedulinga role he assumed in April 2019. Wanger oversees programming, scheduling and live operations for all FOX Sports channels as well oversight of FOX Deportes. In addition, he plays a vital role in the assessment of rights acquisition opportunities and valuation.
Wanger said Tuesday that the decision to hold a race on Easter wasn’t something that was made overnight. The planning for the Easter night race started in late 2020 into early 2021 and was part of a discussion with the broadcast networks and NASCAR executives president Steve Phelps and senior vice president of racing development and strategy Ben Kennedy.
“We looked around at the landscape,” Wanger said. “We’ve seen great evidence of other sporting events on holidays that have done well: Thanksgiving for a number of years with NFL, Christmas with NBA and most recently Christmas with NFL. And we felt that at that time of the year, on Easter, that we can make a splash with a race on Easter night.”
The race is part of a host of new innovations across the sport. Not just a new car in the Cup series, but a chance to try new dates, new venues, and a race on dirt. NASCAR raced at Darlington Speedway on Mother’s Day last season, another holiday they had avoided in the past.
“That was a good success and the numbers popped there,” Wanger said. “So all that kind of information went into our brains and, and collectively we thought through ‘why don’t we try this on Easter’ and particularly Easter night… we didn’t want to disrupt people’s families, Easter breakfast, brunches celebrations, church services. And we felt that having a race Easter night presented a good opportunity.”
That opportunity, however, was somewhat of a gamble. But one that Wanger was confident would pay off.
“We were confident because we’ve seen that holiday viewing, there’s a lot of group viewing that happens,” he said. “And we felt that if it was positioned in the right way and it was done at night after everyone’s Easter services were done that it would be a hit.
“Of course, yes, it was a risk. You know, the track, SMI, and Marcus Smith we work with them to really create a whole weekend and a whole day on Sunday with the Easter service that we had, and we just felt it was an opportunity to take it advantage of a holiday and yeah, there was risk, but, you know, anytime you try something new there’s risk.”
Tracks no longer provide attendance figures, but on race day at Bristol visually there seemed to be a good showing of fans. Many showed up early for a televised Easter celebration held at the track a couple of hours prior to the race, and even more for the race itself.
And despite a couple of rain delays that race provided some thrilling moments, and a surprise winner who won after the two cars in front spun out racing for the win on the last corner of the last lap.
It all came together and delivered high ratings for FOX. Crucially the ratings for the 18-49 demographic, the demo most advertisers want to appeal to, were particularly strong according to Wanger. And those Bristol ratings only add to a positive story for the season to date for FOX Sports. This season the races on FOX have averaged 4.76 million viewers, up 17% from the first eight races of last season which averaged 4.09 million.
Sunday’s race capped off a good weekend overall when it came to ratings. Saturday nights NASCAR Truck series race at Bristol averaged a 0.65 and 1.167 million viewers on FS1 (FOX Sports 1), making it the largest Truck Series audience of any kind in five years and the most-watched Truck Series race at Bristol on record.
TV ratings set ad rates for the networks and good ratings mean those ad rates can move upwards. This, in turn, earns more ‘TV money’ the percentage the network shares with NASCAR, for the sport. The TV money earned by the sport is arguably the largest revenue stream for NASCAR, which it shares with its tracks, teams, and drivers. So healthy ratings mean a healthy, and constantly growing, revenue stream.
“You know, when ratings are up and there’s momentum behind the sport; marketers want to be involved and we’ve seen good sales pacing since the beginning of the season,” Wanger said. “And the strong ratings just really help us earn those dollars. “
“And it also helps us in future years, as we position NASCAR in our sales upfront process, which is going to be beginning here pretty soon…. So the numbers just help our sales attract new clients, fulfill our deals with the current clients, and hopefully raise some pricing; all of that is good for the industry.”
So by all accounts, at least by the metrics that matter, NASCAR’s grand experiment at Bristol was a success. This begs the question: How about next year?
Tuesday, about the time the ratings were released, Bristol Motor Speedway president and general manager Jerry Caldwell issued a statement:
“I’m so thankful for our owners, Bruton and Marcus Smith, for allowing our Bristol Motor Speedway team to put on an amazing Easter celebration and NASCAR race weekend that exceeded our expectations with strong ticket sales and primetime viewership on FOX.
“Bristol Motor Speedway will prepare for a spring night race on dirt in 2023, giving the fans two great NASCAR shows on different surfaces. The dates for our NASCAR events will not be available until later this year. To guarantee the best seats for more amazing dirt racing next year, guests may contact the ticket office or visit our website at BristolMotorSpeedway.com to renew their tickets today.”
Easter next year will be on Sunday Apr. 9. And though NASCAR’s schedules for next year haven’t been finalized, with the ratings from this past weekend as a guide expect a race on Easter. FOX Sports will be ready to broadcast it once again.
“We’ll take all the data points that we’ve learned and are still learning from: attendance figures and ratings and, and such, viewer feedback,” Wanger said. “And I think we’ll get with our partners at NASCAR and look to make a collective decision. But we would be in favor of doing it again, for sure.”