Has any major sports competition lost more luster than the Indianapolis 500? Once the most popular event in its sport, Indy might not even be the most-watched auto race Sunday.
For the past two years, NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 on Fox beat the Indy 500 on ABC, although the two races don't compete head-to-head. The ratings margin was 5.1 to 4.8 in 2002, and 4.7 to 4.6 last year, with one ratings point equaling 1.08 million homes.
Twelve years ago, 14.1 million viewers watched the Indy 500. That number plunged to 6.7 million last year. The Daytona 500 permanently passed the Indy 500 as America's most-watched auto race in 1996.
The ratings confirm not only rising interest in NASCAR, but also diminished interest in open-wheel racing. Even so, ABC on Thursday extended its IRL and Indy 500 contracts through 2009.
"It surprised me when NASCAR came along as fast and strong as it did," said ABC's Jim McKay, who will do a piece Sunday on ABC's first 40 years of Indy broadcasts.
NBC'S Odd Approach: While CBS, ABC, Fox and ESPN spend lavishly for the NFL, NBC remains unwilling to drain the coffers of parent company General Electric.
Although NBC spends a bundle on the Olympics and NASCAR, its unique approach to pro team sports was reinforced the past nine days with its decision to acquire NHL rights and extend its contract with the Arena Football League.
Few properties draw smaller ratings than the AFL and NHL. In fact, when Tampa Bay and Calgary play Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals on ABC today, it likely will draw viewers in less than 2.5 percent of all U.S. homes, which would rank it among the lowest-rated programs on network television this week.
So why did NBC agree to carry as many as 18 NHL games next season, including Games 3 through 7 of the Cup Finals in prime time?
And why did the network exercise a two-year option on the AFL, despite a poor 1.1 average rating? Simple: NBC doesn't have to pay a rights fee for either.
"We are going to make money on this deal," NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer said of the NHL contract. "I will be surprised if ... other leagues don't arrive at the same place on the non-cable side."
Still, that type of arrangement will never happen with the NFL, and probably not baseball, either.
NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol defends his network's decision not to pay huge money to keep the NFL, NBA or baseball.
"I know what it is to make a profit, and the idea that somehow you are considered a winner because you have a property and you lose hundreds of millions of dollars a year just doesn't resonate very well with me," Ebersol said.
"Shareholders of GE have an expectation they are going to get a return."