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CALIFORNIA 500 / CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY

Those in Favor: the Eyes Have It

Television: Over-the-air and cable ratings are increasing yearly, in contrast to other sports.

April 28, 1999|LARRY STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Exactly when NASCAR went from being a regional Southern sport to the big time is up for debate.

Some say it was in February, 1979, when CBS televised the Daytona 500 from start to finish, the first such coverage of a major stock car race.

Some say it was later that year, on Sept. 7, when a little cable network known as the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network began operations from a studio in Bristol, Conn. ESPN began using NASCAR races as filler programming about a year-and-a-half later.

Some say it was in 1983, when CBS put cameras in some cars for the first time in covering the Daytona 500. That was also the year The Nashville Network (TNN) went on the air.

Whenever it happened, there is no arguing that NASCAR these days is a major sport, growing in popularity almost as fast as the breakneck speeds the cars reach going down a straightaway on a superspeedway.

The sport, which generated only $3 million in television revenue in 1985, will bring in about $100 million this year.

NASCAR television ratings are on the rise despite the advent of the Internet and an influx of new cable channels, which have ratings in general going down, and most sports taking hits.

The 40.2 rating for this year's Super Bowl was the lowest since 1990, when San Francisco's 55-10 victory over Denver got a 39.0. The New York Yankees' four-game sweep of San Diego in the World Series averaged a record-low 14.1, 14% lower than the previous low in 1989, the year of the earthquake-interrupted Series. The NCAA championship basketball game, which matched Connecticut and Duke in a thriller, got a 17.2, an all-time low.

NASCAR is the exception. Its television ratings have increased each year this decade and it draws better overall national regular-season ratings than all pro sports except the NFL.

This year's Daytona 500, the most-watched ever, got a 9.6 national rating, up 10% from 1996.

The average rating for over-the-air network coverage of NASCAR this year is 7.0, an increase of 7.1% from a year ago and an increase of 19% from 1993. The cable average is 5.2, up 1.9% from last year and up 33% from 1993.

Those numbers are for Winston Cup racing, but even the NASCAR Busch series ranks second in motor sports, ahead of CART and the Indy Racing League.

When NBC televises its first NASCAR event, the Jiffy Lube Miami 400 the second weekend in November, NASCAR will become one of the few sports televised by all three major network.

ESPN and TNN are the biggest cable carriers, with TBS also involved.

ESPN televised its first NASCAR race on March 21, 1981. It was the Carolina 500 from Rockingham, N.C., and it was shown on tape-delay.

This year, among the 1,200 hours of motor sports on ESPN, which is seen in more than 75 million homes, and ESPN2, seen in nearly 64 million, will be 13 Winston Cup races, 13 Busch Series races and 21 NASCAR Craftsman Truck events.

Also, ESPN generally produces the NASCAR races that are carried on big sister ABC, which is the case with the Busch Series race on Saturday and the main event, the California 500, on Sunday at California Speedway in Fontana.

ESPN has won 16 Sports Emmys and four CableACE awards for its NASCAR coverage during the '90s. Even Cole Trickle, the character played by Tom Cruise in "Days of Thunder," said ESPN does "an excellent" job of covering NASCAR.

ESPN commentator Benny Parsons, a former driver, said, "We used to be this little Southern sport and now we're seen by millions all over the world. It's really amazing how far we've come in the past 20 years."

Parsons remembers how it used to be: "About the only auto racing you saw on TV was on 'Wide World of Sports.' We were given the same coverage as cliff diving and arm wrestling."

Mark Quenzel, vice president of programming for ESPN, says those involved in the sport deserve a lot of credit for its popularity.

"The promoters, the owners and the athletes, the drivers, do an incredible job of promoting their sport," he said. "It is a fan-friendly sport, and everyone is so willing to cooperate in any way possible with television and the media in general and make themselves accessible to the fans.

"Sure, one reason for that is because the sport is sponsor driven."

Sponsoring a car costs about $8 million a year.

"You have to keep those people happy," Quenzel said. "I think that's a big reason you don't find many scandals and no labor strife in NASCAR. The sponsors are the ones paying the freight, and they could easily take off if the sport develops a black eye."

Because sponsors count on getting their products mentioned, television is given just about total access.

"We can talk to a driver or a crew chief during a race," Quenzel said, "which is like being able to talk to a [baseball] manager in the middle of the fifth inning. We're allowed in the pits and allowed to eavesdrop."

Of course, viewers have to put up with drivers continually mentioning their sponsors, and crews continually putting different caps on the drivers when they appear on camera after winning races.

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