In case you haven’t noticed, sportscar racing is a niche sport. With many different series, classes (and similar cars racing in different classes), driver rankings, Balance of Performance, seat time requirements, etc, there’s a lot to take in. Information overload at times, and one of the reasons why most fans are pretty hardcore about the genre and casual fans are hard to come by, if they exist at all. The rise of NASCAR and F1 through the 1990’s and 2000’s and their simpler formats have pushed sportscar racing – for the most part – off of the major TV channels: NBC, CBS, Fox and ABC and onto their smaller pay-tv channels like NBC Sports, CBSSports Network, Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2.
With the internet came Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu – streaming services that allowed households (like your author’s household) to “cut the cord” – drop cable and move to strictly internet-based show viewing, saving $75 or more each month. At the same time, sportscar racing series saw this and made the move to live streaming for their races – Pirelli World Challenge, WEC, TCR, SRO’s Blancpain GT series, ELMS and others have made it pretty easy for fans around the world to live-stream their races for free or at a respectable cost to the viewer. This has even sparked websites like MotorTrendOnDemand.com and FansChoice.tv to launch and give racing and automotive fanatics a new outlet to watch live racing and more for $5/month or free. Live online streaming has even influenced the biggest sports company in the United States, the NFL, to test the waters and allow Twitter to buy the rights and show the Thursday night game via the social media power’s website.
Here’s one reason you’re seeing more and more cord-cutting and streaming. A channel like ESPN, the worlds largest sports channel, costs cable providers over $6 per month per subscriber. The most by a long shot and this graph is two years old. Some experts say it’s now over $6.40. These costs trickle down to the subscriber, and as mentioned above, who get sick of that and have been dropping the cable box from their entertainment center.
Why is the above graph important? The largest cable sports company in the world lost 7.2%, down to nearly 93 million subscribers in 4 years. Neilsen also recently reported ESPN lost 621,000 subscribers in a single month. At the same time, the once rapidly growing NASCAR series has been seeing viewership drop drastically. During the 2016 season NASCAR saw a 12 race streak with lower viewership compared to those same races in 2015, by double-digit points. 21 of 29 races that can be compared to 2015 saw drops. It’s declines like this as to why NASCAR created The Chase and is looking at mid-week races to drum up interest and get viewers back. It isn’t helping.
This is important to sportcar racing fans because our favorite series are re-embracing the TV model and paying to get on channels like CBSports Network, Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports. If ESPN can’t keep subscribers and NASCAR ratings continue to see massive drops in viewership, what’s the point of IMSA, PWC, Blancpain GT and others going back on TV – live or tape delayed? After seeing disappointing ratings numbers on FS1 and FS2, IMSA is strengthening it’s relationship to get more coverage on Fox itself, and make it easier for fans to stream. The first three hours of the Rolex 24 will be shown on Fox as will the entire race at Long Beach. This is better, obviously, but for the races not shown over the air on Fox, NBC, CBS or ABC and are solely on FS1, FS2, CBSSports Network or NBCSports, you still need a cable subscription to stream. Sometimes that doesn’t even help as CBSSportsNetwork only lets four cable providers live stream. At the same time sportscar racing series are looking to get more races on cable sports networks, more and more cable subscribers are leaving for greener online pastures each month.
You can look at TCR International as a success story. Launched in 2015, TCR International has streamed every one of their races for free, without geoblocking. The touring-car category has blown up in popularity throughout Europe and Asia and come 2018 is moving Stateside with PWC adding the class and IMSA likely to add the class to CTSCC. Was this quick expansion completely caused by their free streaming? No, but it did play a major part in letting people experience the cars, see how they race and most importantly get the word out about this up-and-coming class quickly and effectively.
I completely understand that sponsors want and demand that Series get on TV and the series are between a rock and a hard place on the issue. While sportscar racing series should go to a strictly streaming format, for whatever reason some sponsors believe that TV, even on smaller, pay-tv channels, is the place to be. The series obviously need that ad revenue and need to listen to their sponsors wants. I’m hoping those sponsors wake up in the very near future and finally see what is happening with digital distribution and the direction cable tv is headed. It’s a huge shift from what has been the norm, but all sports, especially a niche one like sportscar racing, need to make it as easy as possible for their fans to watch and interact and this is now through online streaming. TV is dying a slow death, internet is king.