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Poll Position: NASCAR losing TV viewership by the numbers

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Poll Position

CBSSports.com editor Brian De Los Santos, writer Pete Pistone and a chosen member of the community (for a pure fan perspective) share their thoughts on this week's poll question.

TV ratings for NASCAR's Chase races have plummeted this season. What do you see as the primary cause?

PETE PISTONE: I don't think there's any one reason for the drop in ratings this season. It's more like the perfect storm of many things.

The bottom line is that ratings have declined all season long and NASCAR and its TV partners need to find a way to stop this trend. With NASCAR's TV contract expiring in 2014, it's essential for the sanctioning body to reverse the decreases in viewership. Obviously the value of that contract won't come anywhere near matching the $1 billion deal NASCAR currently enjoys with FOX, TNT and ABC/ESPN unless there's a significant change in the direction the ratings have headed in the past few seasons.

While I understand there is still some backlash against the Chase and Jimmie Johnson's dominance may turn off a segment of fans, I don't think those are the main problems. Neither is it the on-track product, as this has been one of the most competitive and entertaining Sprint Cup seasons in some time. I'm also not buying that fans aren't watching because of the TV presentation. While not perfect, the overall telecasts are strong despite what nitpickers say.

I really think the change from most races now airing on cable versus the majority carried by broadcast TV a year ago is a major culprit for the sag in ratings, especially during the Chase. And then there's the NFL, which is enjoying record TV numbers and flatten any Sunday afternoon competition. At least one Thursday night Chase race should be considered, along with more Saturday night offerings, like last week's race from Charlotte, which didn't see anywhere near the ratings drop the previous four playoff races did. Getting as far away from the 800-pound NFL gorilla will certainly help the problem, but it's going to take other factors as well to get anywhere near the ratings NASCAR enjoyed earlier in this decade.

Fan Poll

What do you see as the primary cause for the steep ratings decline of this year's Chase events?

Fan backlash against the Chase
26%
Jimmie Johnson's dominance
24%
The fact all but one Chase race is on cable
18%
Unhappiness with the live race coverage
17%
Soaring popularity of the NFL
15%

Total Votes: 824

BRIAN DE LOS SANTOS: Let's look at the facts. The first four Chase races on ESPN opposite the NFL saw their ratings drop an average of 25 percent, while the ratings for Saturday night's race at Charlotte on ABC opposite college football and the MLB playoffs was just a notch below last year's numbers at an 8 percent decline.

That tells me the so-called backlash against either the Chase or Jimmie Johnson has little to do with the slip.

So what is at work? NASCAR has been going head to head with the NFL in the fall for years, why would it suddenly lead to such a big drop this season? Are the start times, generally around 1:15 p.m. ET for most Chase races, the culprit? I don't quite buy that. The California race started in late afternoon on the East Coast and most of the race took place when the 1 p.m. NFL games were all over -- and the ratings tumbled for that race like all the others.

To me, what makes the most sense is the move of the Chase races from ABC to ESPN. The spin from the folks at ESPN is that while it's true ABC reaches more homes (100 million to 116 million), their research shows that most of this year's drop-off comes from homes that have ESPN. I don't know, seems like 16 million homes is a fairly significant gap, considering the 25 percent decline equates to a loss of 1 million to 2 million viewers.

I wonder how many of those ESPN-less homes are in the rural South, where cable may be inaccessible or satellite unaffordable. And the nation remains in a recession, where often one of the first things cut from the family budget is cable. It's something to consider. I just have my doubts about ESPN's math because it's really the only thing that doesn't add up.

D2Moo: I think the pundits wanting to blame NASCAR for the ratings drop are missing several legitimate reasons for the decline in viewership.

One is simply the economy. There are more people underemployed and working two jobs to make ends meet. Working on Sunday leaves little time for watching any TV.

Second is the proliferation of excellent large screen HDTVs. I know of several people who used to watch by themselves at home, now go to friends and watch on their 50" TV with stadium seating. (BTW, still waiting for my invite on that one.) What used to be three or four sets is now one set with 3 or 4 people watching.

Third is simply this: the casual fans picked up in the 1990s and early 2000s are now moving on to the next popular "thing," leaving only the base to watch the races.

Finally, there is the erosion of some of the old-time fans who might not be happy with the changes in the sport over the last decade and have convinced themselves (wrongly, IMHO) that NASCAR just isn't what it used to be and don't watch anymore.

Of course, we could always blame the drop in Junior's lack of wins over the last few years, though that would be unfair. That might account for the loss of those who were more his fans than NASCAR's.

Any way it gets sliced and diced, almost all TV has seen ratings drops since the economy fell off in late 2008. NASCAR is not immune. Cheer up everyone, it could be worse. It could be the IRL on Versus. Now that's a ratings disaster. NASCAR's drop is a mere speed bump compared to that.

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