SRX looks to 2022 after crossing the finish line in strong debut

By Adam Stern
This month’s season finale at the Nashville Fairgrounds drew a sellout crowd of 14,000.getty images

CBS hadn’t aired major league auto racing in decades before the Superstar Racing Experience made its debut this year, but after the inaugural season, Chairman Sean McManus is already feeling like the network is back in the groove.

 

“We produced auto racing as well as anyone else this year,” McManus told Sports Business Journal last week, days after SRX wrapped up its inaugural six-week campaign. “I would put our coverage up against any other TV coverage [for racing], and we more than held our own.”

SRX still has room for improvement. The series and media partner CBS will use the offseason to look at ways to boost viewership, attract more marquee drivers, build out its sponsor roster, find more cooperation from other racing properties, and determine if changes are needed to its mix of races.

The July 17 finale of the season came at the Nashville Fairgrounds before a sellout crowd of 14,000 in the grandstands along with another 1.27 million on TV. The series averaged 1.25 million viewers overall across six consecutive weekends on CBS, a respectable number in motorsports.

The average viewership for SRX was down from comparable six-week prime-time windows on CBS in recent years — 1.91 million last year and 1.51 million two years ago. And SRX partners initially projected that the series would draw close to 3 million.

When the series was announced, CBS stressed that SRX would fill the Saturday evening slot and hoped it would outdraw traditional programming. Saturday night is typically the lowest night of television viewership.

Crunching the numbers

The first season of the Camping World SRX series averaged 1.25 million viewers over six races. The July 17 finale from Nashville averaged 1.27 million. The best audience came with the third race from Eldora in Ohio on June 26 with 1.37 million. Last year in the same six Saturday night windows from 8-10 p.m. ET, CBS averaged 1.91 million viewers for nonsports shows (primarily true crime programming). Two years ago, the 8-10 p.m. window on CBS during those six weeks averaged 1.51 million viewers with some sports-related programming such as Big3 basketball and the Tim Tebow-hosted “Million Dollar Mile” reality show (co-produced by LeBron James).

But McManus and series co-founder Sandy Montag pointed to the postseason competition SRX saw from the NBA and NHL, which had their seasons drift later into the calendar year than usual, as well as competition from the Olympic trials, as mitigating factors. Montag also noted that household television use is down markedly this summer, and that the original projections were made during the beginning of the pandemic when homebound consumers were craving live programming.

Montag: “There may have been higher projections based on a normalized world, but where we are now, you have to think it’s a huge success.”

For his part, McManus said CBS would like to see growth in ratings next year, but that “no one is hanging their head worried about it because we think they will grow.”

“We hope to grow the ratings, keeping in mind that next year, we’re not going to be up against the NBA, which really hurt us,” said McManus. “Our second race was up against a [playoff] Game 7, and the Olympic trials also hurt us one week. As the series develops and more people begin to learn about it, I think we can hopefully grow our ratings.”

Throughout the season, CBS and SRX continually innovated with the broadcast. That ranged from a basic move such as implementing uniform car colors so that viewers could easily identify drivers each race, to showing drivers’ heart rates via Whoop bracelets.

The series’ financial performance and whether it was profitable in 2021 was not clear; SRX declined to disclose how much it cost to put on its inaugural campaign.

But those who did tune in or sit in the grandstands this year seemed to enjoy what they saw. Ticket sales were strong and social media sentiment around the series was markedly positive. “You can’t fake social [sentiment],” said George Pyne, the founder and CEO of Bruin Capital and a co-founder of SRX.

Tracks paid SRX a sanction fee to host a race and sold the tickets. SRX marketed the events and shared in ticket revenue.

SRX has targeted action-packed short tracks in two-hour television windows and that seemed to have resonated with some racing fans who have complained about the level of competition in established series such as NASCAR. Sports properties can work to grow ratings if they have a good product, Pyne said.

McManus expects SRX to continue racing on Saturday nights, and he and Montag both felt like six was a good number of races. Still, there could be some changes next year both in terms of drivers and where the property holds races.

Bringing in new drivers is something that in particular could unlock added value for SRX. While the series had a strong cast this year, fields mainly consisted of older or even retired drivers such as co-founder Tony Stewart, Bill Elliott and Michael Waltrip. Chase Elliott was the only active Cup Series driver to complete, and he did so for only one race.

Rising NASCAR star Hailie Deegan, who competes in the third-rung NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, did run three races. Other drivers in NASCAR are known to have attempted to race this year but ran into hurdles such as not being given permission by their team owner or sponsors.

SRX also has to evaluate whether its deal with title sponsor Camping World will continue, but company CEO Marcus Lemonis has appeared pleased with the series and made a reference to next season on social media. Lemonis was not at Nashville.

SRX has worked with Shamrock Sports & Entertainment on sponsorship sales, and it’s now looking to hire a chief revenue officer. Other key first-season sponsors included Progressive and Valvoline, and the series had around a dozen sponsors overall, although some were for value-in-kind rather than cash.

The series will likely announce its 2022 schedule in the fourth quarter of this year.

“My feeling is that next year there will be a minimum of six [races], but I’d rather have one or two fewer than one or two more; you want people wanting more and you don’t want too much of something out there — I thought six was the perfect amount,” Montag said. “I don’t think there’s any shortage of drivers — we have a lot of opportunities — and we’ll have to make some smart decisions on where we take it from here.”

“But we seem to be in a pretty good spot.”

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