Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s move to NBC’s broadcast booth becomes official on Sunday. Will more people watch because he’s broadcasting the race?
That’s surely a hope of NBC executives as Junior makes his debut as a full-time analyst for the network. This isn’t Junior’s first TV rodeo — he did some guest analyst work while sidelined with a concussion during the 2016 season. But that was just a temporary gig while he waited to be medically cleared to get back into the car.
Sunday’s race at Chicago is Junior’s first as a broadcaster instead of a driver. And NBC doesn’t want you to forget that. The network’s ad promos for its 20 Cup Series races have centered far more around Junior than the racing he’ll be describing for fans watching at home.
Wednesday, Junior was the face of NBC’s upcoming coverage. He was on Megyn Kelly Today. He visited Dan Patrick’s sports talk show broadcast on NBCSN. He’s set to be on Jimmy Fallon’s show. He’d probably visit your house on behalf of NBC if the network thought it was a good idea.
NASCAR coverage needs all the promotion you can get. The final ratings for Fox’s portion of the schedule trickled in this week and boy, they’re terrible. The audience for the first 16 races of the 2018 season declined by more than 20 percent from 2017.
.@FoxSports averaged 2.54 million viewers for its half of the '18 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.
— Cup Series events accounted for seven of the top ten most-watched sports event telecasts on @FS1 so far in '18.
— The 2.54 million is off 23% from 3.31 million in '17. pic.twitter.com/yHE3fx43Qv
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) June 27, 2018
Can Junior’s presence reverse the trend shown during Fox’s schedule? It seems pretty doubtful. Fox went out and hired Jeff Gordon, one of the most popular drivers in the sport in his own right, after 2015. If Gordon is buoying Fox’s ratings, we hate to see what they’d be like without him on the broadcasts.
And Junior’s return to the driver’s seat in 2017 didn’t exactly boost NASCAR’s ratings anyway. Junior’s final race at Homestead last November had 23 percent fewer viewers than the 2016 season finale and had almost 40 percent fewer viewers than the same race just two years prior. If the simple presence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. made more fans tune in, it wasn’t reflected less than a year ago.
Banking on a 15-time most popular driver isn’t the worst idea, however. And Junior is used to the pressure. After all, he’s a guy who became one of the faces of a booming sport immediately after his father’s death and continues to speak originally and eloquently about every topic the seemingly fading sport deals with.
And it’s not going to be Junior’s fault if ratings continue to drop through the summer and fall. If they improve, he’ll be hailed as a catalyst and show that NASCAR fans still need their Earnhardt fix. If they don’t, well it’ll be because of any number of factors that are contributing to NASCAR’s decline.
Despite missing 34 races (and counting) over the last three seasons, Junior is still the biggest face and name in NASCAR. NBC’s ad campaign shows that. But it’s unlikely he’ll be able to do much to lift NASCAR back up.
– – – – – – –
Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Germany eliminated from World Cup with loss to South Korea
• MLB podcast: Archie Bradley reveals he pooped his pants during a game
• Human body discovered in beer cooler at Atlanta Braves’ Suntrust Park
• Wendell Carter’s parents still mad at Duke over ‘shady’ recruiting tactics