- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

Even a postponed race couldn’t stop NASCAR from being the most-watched sport last weekend, as Fox Sports’ rain delay programming from Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama beat out broadcasts of hockey and basketball playoff games on competing networks.

Fill-in programs, including driver interviews, features and clips from previous races recorded a 4.5 rating Sunday according to Nielsen Media Research, representing about 5 million households tuned in.

By comparison, NHL playoff games on NBC scored a combined 2.2 rating, and Sunday’s NBA matchup between the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls pulled in a 2.8 rating.

“This proves that NASCAR, like the NFL, is appointment viewing,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “People make plans to watch, and won’t change even if it’s not on. They set themselves up to be in a NASCAR frame of mind. This does underscore that the NFL and NASCAR have the benefit of people who build a day around their events.”

The Aaron’s 499 race at Talladega always is one of the more popular races on the Nextel Cup schedule because of the unusually long track and restrictor-plate requirements that are often blamed for multi-car crashes. About 130,000 fans stayed for the race in Talladega on Monday.

“When you think about it, all of those people had to change whatever arrangements they had,” NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. “I think that, in and of itself, is a remarkable story. I think [Talladega] is one of the races people most like to watch. It’s a great track, it’s compelling and its fast. ”

NASCAR credited Fox for finding a way to keep viewers tuned in despite no on-track action Sunday. Fox’s rain delay programming included interviews with 13 different drivers, a conversation with actor Will Ferrell and a replay of the final laps of last year’s race at Talladega.

“Fox did a great job,” Poston said. “People tune in and get a lot of what the booth guys are saying, whether there are cars on the track or now.”

Fox is in the last year of an six-year television contract with NASCAR that it shares with NBC, TNT and sister network FX. Next year, it begins an eight-year, $4.48 billion contract that it will share with ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and TNT.

Last weekend marked the second time this year that NASCAR rain-delay programming beat out all other sports.

On March 19, Fox’s broadcast from the rain-delayed Golden Corral 500 from Atlanta Motor Speedway topped all other sports broadcasts, including the much anticipated NBA matchup featuring Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

But the success of the broadcast doesn’t mean Fox Sports will be hoping for rain every weekend. The network said it would have landed a Nielsen rating of at least 7.0 if the race had been run Sunday. Without the race, it will be difficult for the network to reach its ratings goal for the year. So far, its average rating for the season is about 6.0, flat compared to last year at this time.

Last year, NASCAR’s Nextel Cup races averaged a 5.8 Nielsen rating, second only to NFL games and more than twice that of NBA and Major League Baseball broadcasts.

NASCAR Nation continues to impress us, and we were bullish from the start,” Fox Sports spokesman Tim Buckman said. “Since coming to Fox in 2001, the sport’s viewership has risen 20 percent and in today’s television landscape, that is nothing short of remarkable.”

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