IndyCar picked up a new viewer this season. In a year in which ratings for the open-wheel series sagged by any measure, that's a positive, even if she led some old customers away.
"Oh, yeah. I watched that last race. Heck, yeah," said Danica Patrick, who raced seven IndyCar seasons before making a full-time switch to NASCAR this year. "I felt so bad for Will [Power], though. That sucked, I really wanted to see a race to the end."
While it is statistically verifiable that television ratings have worsened for IndyCar after the departure of its most popular driver, and improved for the Nationwide Series with her full-time commitment this season, it is unclear how much impact Patrick has had on Nielsen boxes. Perhaps the dynamic is a happy coincidence or perhaps it's the validation of her business plan.
In a compelling but imperfect IndyCar season, the title again came down to a last-race contest, with Power's crash allowing Ryan Hunter-Reay to capture his first championship. The question remains whether the departure of Patrick, the series' most popular driver and mainstream standard-bearer, was a net loss as the series gropes for market share and relevance.
"No doubt, you're better off with her than without her," said Zak Brown, CEO of Just Marketing International, the largest motorsports marketing firm globally. "There's no way you can say it's a good thing she left because she's such a rock star.
"Personality-wise, she's been good for NASCAR, so it's certainly not a positive she left, but I think the series, any racing series, is stronger than any one personality. It would be no different than if Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. left NASCAR. People would be bummed, but I think generally, people are fans of the sport first."
Patrick has maintained an understandable amount of interest in IndyCar and a form of racing to which she has devoted more than half her life. She watched Indianapolis 500 Pole Day in her coach on the Iowa Nationwide race weekend, and caught snippets of practices as she could. Still, she said she has not formed an opinion on how IndyCar is doing in her absence.
"I haven't had [much] time being a consumer," she said. "It's hard for me to know much other than what it was like from a spectator point of view. Sometimes it was good, and sometimes it was boring. But I think that applies to all racing: sometimes good, sometimes boring. Sometimes it depends on who you're cheering for."
ESPN director, programming & acquisitions Dan Ochs said a collection of events could have offset potentially positive ratings momentum, or at least skewed the ability to make an assessment of Patrick's effect. There were positive storylines: the debut of a new race car and an American manufacturer in Chevrolet, and the arrival of popular Formula One veteran Rubens Barrichello. But there also were stumbles: a race scheduled to be run in China was canceled, the race in Detroit was abbreviated because portions of the track degraded, and there were constant rumblings of internal turmoil with owners.
"There's many variables, obviously, that factor into viewership increase and decreases --action on the track that given day, current storylines, or even competition with other networks," said Ochs, whose network broadcast six of 15 races, including the Indianapolis 500. "We have really no research to suggest that her departure has had a direct effect in the IndyCar ratings. This year was a relatively tough year to compare, quite frankly."
Tough in many regards. According to IndyCar, ratings fell in eight races from 2011 to 2012 and improved in five, including a 4.34 share for the Indianapolis 500 (representing 4.9 million households) that was the best for the race since 2008. But the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (0.9 rating) was the only other race to draw a million viewers. The race at the Milwaukee Mile on June 16, which coincided with the PGA's U.S. Open, attracted only 112,000 viewers.
Overall, ESPN drew a 1.9 rating over a five-race schedule in 2011 and a 1.6 this season over six. Both figures included the Indianapolis 500.
The final race of the season on Sept. 15 at Fontana drew about 229,000 households on NBC Sports Network, which broadcast eight races, none of which drew higher than a 0.25 rating. NBC Sports representatives did not respond to interview requests.
"There's not a very scientific way to put a figure on the Danica factor," Brown said. "The ratings were obviously soft, but is that a Danica thing or not?"
Ochs said research reveals Patrick's thing is a power to drive viewership to her milestone moments, such as her first Indianapolis 500 bid in 2005, first Nationwide race in 2010 and first Daytona 500 in February.
"[Those] delivered a really big number for us," he said. "There certainly seems to be a curiosity factor when she makes her debut appearance at these key races."
Nationwide's ratings on ESPN, Ochs said, have increased "about 3 percent on the year" in her first full-time season there but said the movement cannot be attributed to Patrick.
"On the Sprint Cup side, where she is doing just a handful of races, at least on our air, none of the increases or decreases for those particular races we feel like are really directly attributable to her participating," he said. "We like her storyline she generates and certainly the media attention that she garners. We feel like our viewers are certainly interested. We do a lot of Danica coverage, but to take the leap to suggest that the ratings have increased because of her, unfortunately, isn't something we've yet been able to do."
If Patrick's management team is able to complete a deal for her to race in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Sprint Cup Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, however, the ratings yield could be tangible and sizeable, Ochs said.
"I would certainly hope that her return to the Indy 500, if she does pull that off in the coming years, would rank in the same territory as that first Indy 500 or that first Daytona 500," he said. "That return, I would hope, would see a measurable increase. Data suggests people like to view her, and see her doing things for the first time. I really feel like that return to the track that made her a household name, we could see some significant increases for that."
Brown said a "Danica Double" theoretically "would be a good thing for IndyCar," because it would likely entice NASCAR fans to sample open-wheel racing, if only on Memorial Day weekend. In theory, if Patrick has siphoned fans from IndyCar, she could return with an even greater number of potential customers.
"She does have a great ability to take audience places," he said.