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Daytona 500 Popularity: TV Viewership Has Crashed

Daytona 500 TV Viewership

The biggest race in the NASCAR Cup Series each season is the opening race, the Daytona 500. There are several reasons why this race gets so much attention – the fact that it is the first race of the campaign, the full-throttle action for the entire 500 miles and of course the prospect of the “Big One,” an accident that wipes out a large portion of the field.

Many NASCAR fans will throw Daytona 500 parties with snacks and drinks and in some cases folks will choose a driver out of a hat so they have someone to root for. All that said, though, the viewership for the Great American Race has dramatically fallen in recent years.

Daytona 500 Viewership Plummets

The above graph provided by Statista shows that the 2021 TV viewership for the Daytona 500 hit a low of 4.83 million viewers based on data since 2000. Outside of a slight increase in 2017, there has been a steady decline in viewership since 2015, with a viewership drop of over two million in each of the last three runnings of the race.

Daytona 500 viewership spiked to 18.78 million in 2002, one year after Dale Earnhardt died on the final lap, and hit a high of 19.36 million in 2006. From 2000 until the early 2010s, viewership remained consistently above 13 million and usually was considerably higher. 

Why Has the Daytona 500 Lost Viewership?

Of course, there are various issues at play that would impact the Daytona 500 viewership. First and foremost, I think, is the fact that more and more people are cutting the cable cord and switching to streaming platforms. That would skew the numbers such that while TV viewership is down, actual viewership may in fact remain relatively unchanged if you include streaming.

Furthermore, the narrative around NASCAR is that drivers simply drive in circles, drive fast, turn left. Meanwhile, a popular Netflix docu-series about Formula 1 has sparked some interest in that sport, which may have swung people away from NASCAR and over to F1.

Lastly, and perhaps this is a tougher topic to address, but there were negative issues that followed NASCAR last season when it comes to race relations. One such incident occurred when a driver uttered a racial slur during an iRacing event. Though that driver was suspended indefinitely, he did return to NASCAR this season, which surely would turn some viewers away.

There was further controversy when a garage door pull-down rope was found tied in a knot in the form of a noose in the stall of Bubba Wallace, the lone Black driver in the Cup Series. The FBI investigated the situation and concluded the noose had been in the garage for over a year and didn’t constitute a hate crime. The story nevertheless generated negative publicity, especially in today’s climate.

The incident came just a month after the George Floyd murder in Minnesota and after NASCAR had banned the Confederate flag from its venues. For those reasons, I can see why people would look elsewhere for their sporting entertainment.

Will There be an Uptick in Viewership Again?

It’s hard to say. One area that would certainly help would be getting on a large sports network such as ESPN, which would definitely create an uplift away from FS1.

This season, there have been 10 different winners in 11 races, an indication of the competitiveness in comparison to past years when a few drivers might run away from the pack with four or more wins, making it clear early in the season who would be competing for the championship.

A more competitive lineup could draw in more viewers but my gut feeling is that NASCAR simply isn’t attracting the younger fans it needs to continue to evolve and, ultimately, I don’t see things ever trending in a positive direction again.