Viewers were not inclined to wait out a near six-hour rain delay to watch the 2021 Daytona 500.
The Fox’s coverage of the race won by Michael McDowell on the last lap averaged a 2.8 rating and 4.83 million viewers per Sports Media Watch. That’s the lowest TV audience ever recorded for the Daytona 500.
The average audience of 4.8 million is 2.5 million fewer viewers than coverage of the rain-delayed 2020 Daytona 500. That race, run mostly on a Monday after the race was rained out on Sunday afternoon, had an average audience of just over 7.3 million.
If there is a silver lining to the numbers it's that Fox's audience for the portion of the race run as scheduled was up from the corresponding TV audience in 2019 and averaged nearly 8.5 million viewers. The first part of Fox's 2020 Daytona 500 coverage received a significant boost from the presence of President Donald Trump. Rain delayed the race right after his pre-race appearance and the race was eventually pushed to a Monday finish after just 20 laps were completed on Sunday.
Why were ratings so low?
Sunday night's race finished after midnight in the Eastern Time Zone. The late finish coupled with Valentine's Day on Sunday is the easy explanation for why viewers didn't want to watch the majority of the race after it restarted around 9 p.m. ET.
But is that the correct explanation? A 9 p.m. restart is less than an hour after NBC begins Sunday Night Football broadcasts. And SNF routinely draws strong ratings during the NFL season. Fans are willing to tune in late in the eastern portion of the country to watch the NFL.
Of course, comparing the NFL to NASCAR is foolish. The NFL is sports' ratings juggernaut while NASCAR has been dealing with declining television ratings for years. But it shows that the time of the race's restart can't solely be blamed for people not tuning back in.
Did they choose not to tune back in because of a huge crash on lap 15? Sixteen cars — including McDowell — were involved in a wreck less than five minutes before thunderstorms delayed the race Sunday afternoon. Did viewers see a host of contending cars taken out right before a rain delay and decide the rest of the race wasn't worth their time whenever it restarted?
Sunday’s race means that the audience for the Daytona 500 has declined in each of the past five years. Here’s how the audience has trended.
2017: 11.9 million
2018: 9.3 million
2019: 9.2 million
2020: 7.3 million (rain delayed)
2021: 4.8 million (rain delayed)
NASCAR ratings had seemed to stabilize in 2020
Let's be blunt. NASCAR has had some awful weather luck at Daytona in recent years. Sunday's race was the fourth Daytona 500 in 10 years to have a significant weather delay. The 2012 Daytona 500 was pushed to Monday because of fog and rain and then delayed further on that night because of the fireball that resulted from Juan Pablo Montoya's crash into a jet drier.
Two years later, the 2014 Daytona 500 won by Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended late on Sunday night after a rain delay. While it's easy to blame the later Daytona 500 start times for the rain delays in each of the last two years, the timing of the delays meant that they would have still happened had the races started at 1 p.m. ET and not at 3 p.m. ET. And Sunday featured rain in the morning. That precipitation would have made a 1 p.m. start a tenuous proposition.
Outside of the ratings struggles that the Daytona 500 has experienced in recent years, NASCAR was one of the few sports organizations to not deal with massive ratings declines in 2020. While weeknight races scheduled in an attempt to make up all 36 races in the season weren't ratings hits, regularly scheduled Sunday races didn't see significant dips relative to their 2019 counterparts.
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