ATLANTA -- It's hard to figure out which number is more mind-boggling: The amount Fox Sports paid for NASCAR racing or the current ratings. Either way, the figures exceeded all expectations.
Television executives are giddy about the NASCAR Busch and Winston Cup series. The racing circuits have delivered everything the sport promised and more. A $2.8 billion investment now looks like a good deal because one thing is glaringly clear a month into the season: When it comes to stock cars, fans aren't touching that dial.
Ratings for the popular racing series are up 26 percent nationally and 32 percent in the Atlanta market over a year ago, according to figures released by Nielsen Media Research.
''The ratings impact have been dynamic,'' said Gene McHugh, general manager at Atlanta's Fox affiliate WAGA. ''We knew it would be big, but nobody thought it would be this big.''
Fox's live telecasts of the first five races of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series season have been the most-watched sporting events in McHugh's market. They have surpassed the NBA, the NHL, the NCAA basketball tournament and the XFL.
Generally considered a baseball town, Atlanta has become a greater haven for gear heads and speed freaks, McHugh said.
''The numbers are bigger than the Braves','' he said.
Even during Sunday's sports-rich schedule, the broadcast of the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 from the Darlington (S.C.) Raceway attracted a local share of 11.2, meaning there were more than 208,000 homes in the Atlanta area with stock car racing on television.
The second most-watched sporting event was the Georgia State-Maryland NCAA basketball tournament game, which drew a local share of 7.4.
Fox, along with its cable partners Fox Sports Network and FX, bid $1.6 billion to show the first half of the NASCAR season during the next six years. NBC and TBS bid $1.2 billion to televise the second half.
Numbers provided by ESPN, TNN and CBS the networks that dealt directly with each raceway for broadcast rights in the past hint that stock car racing is the second-most popular sporting event. Only the NFL has better overall numbers.
With races now being shown primarily on network television and not cable, the numbers are more reliable and revealing. They also prove what the sanctioning body and network officials couldn't have hoped: NASCAR can compete with football, basketball, baseball and hockey.
Ed Clark, president and general manager at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, said he was shocked to see Atlanta's numbers grow when the series made a stop at his raceway March 11. A springtime record crowd of 120,000 didn't hurt the amount of fans watching on television. In fact, a share of 13.3 in Atlanta was better than races at Darlington and Las Vegas.
''We've long known that we have some of the most loyal and dedicated fans in the nation,'' Clark said. ''But even we were surprised at how our local fans blew the national ratings out of the water.''
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