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Part 3 in a five-day series that chronicles the issues facing NASCAR
As the 2011 NASCAR season approaches, Athlon Sports examines 10 controversial issues alive within the sport in the annual five-part, 10 Tough Questions feature, running throughout the week.
by Matt Taliaferro and Tom Bowles
5. Are tweaks to the Chase format needed to bring interest back into NASCAR’s playoffs?
At this point, it’s tough to unequivocally say yes or no. NASCAR CEO Brian France’s fascination with “Game 7 moments,” repeated throughout 2010, drove talk of elimination rounds in the Chase that would encourage (read: engineer) a paper-thin title battle. When drivers, fans and media nearly universally decried the idea, an alternate concept was hatched.
An Associated Press report earlier this week suggested the sanctioning body is looking at a completely revamped points system that simplifies the points-payout structure and places a premium on both winning and consistency for Chase qualification. With the idea successfully leaked by NASCAR to the press, only time will tell how it’s received, thus the trial balloon is still in its ascension stage.
Regardless of whether this latest concept is enacted, the bottom line is the Chase has never found true acceptance in NASCAR fandom, despite France’s feigned ignorance to that very basic fact. As in any sport, the proverbial walk-off home run can never be guaranteed, no matter how much a ruling body attempts to manipulate the system to allow for it. And the more said body attempts to finesse the system, the less legitimacy is paid to the title. In this case, the governing body has made multiple changes not with the worthiness of the championship in mind, but with television ratings and ad revenue as the sole guiding factor.
So while there are a few modifications that may be welcome — ones that should have been a part of the Chase from the beginning, such as a bonus for the regular season champion or more points awarded for race wins — what’s truly needed is a revamped schedule that takes the circuit to the most exciting and electrifying venues NASCAR has to offer in the Chase. The 10 most exciting tracks should be showcased during NASCAR’s 10 most important weeks, not facilities grandfathered in due to their pre-Chase dates on the schedule or because they are struggling financially and need a boost (we’re looking at you, Chicagoland).
After all, great racing will always trump hokey pleas for ratings and half-hearted excuses for racetracks that do not provide the quality of racing deserving of a playoff date.
6. Could ESPN bail on NASCAR’s television package?
It was a horrible year for NASCAR on ABC/ESPN, both in the Nielsen ratings and behind the camera. Only one of 17 races had a ratings increase (Bristol, August); average viewership was down by more than a million; and its supposed “crown jewel,” the Chase, had its numbers tank a whopping 21.3 percent over the 10-race playoff. In the middle of it all, longtime producer Neil Goldberg was discharged in October over a “peeping tom” arrest that went national and embarrassed the network.
Clearly, all is not roses at the Worldwide Leader In Sports when it comes to NASCAR, which holds the biggest chunk of the sport's behemoth eight-year television contract worth $560 million annually. With sources claiming private unhappiness, budgets deep in the red and the sport’s unwillingness to give a discount (Why should it? The networks were the ones stupid enough to sign it), all eyes now focus on ESPN’s bid for the Olympics. If it wins it, the rights fee could be $500 million per two-year event, a gargantuan price that necessitates budget cuts elsewhere. And with their racing leader on the sidelines for good, losses in the millions on a contract halfway over and no end to the ratings disaster in sight, guess who could be first in line to take the fall?
Can TV just break a contract like that, you ask? It’s as simple as not showing up. Already, they’ve thrown nine of the 10 Chase races to cable, expanding post-race programming on SportsCenter to show the sanctioning body that, “Hey, we hyped this racing thing on Sundays more than ever before – and it’s still not working.” The next step, it seems, would be to give up and let someone else take the reins … likely for a much cheaper price tag.
Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro