The Frontstretch: Dollars And Sense: The Roadblocks In Front Of A Shortened Schedule by Jesse Medford -- Thursday May 31, 2012

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If you are a race fan, you have heard about Rusty Wallace’s recommendation for NASCAR to shorten their schedule. If you haven’t heard about it, you must have been enjoying your extended Memorial Day Weekend under a rock at the beach somewhere. Just in case, here’s the gist of what Rusty said Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, taking out the virtual knife in claiming the schedule must be cut from 36 races to 32.

“It’s the classic case of supply and demand,” Rusty said. “Too much supply and not enough demand.”

The NASCAR Hall Of Famer to be has a great idea in theory. Is it any coincidence that the decline in interest of the Sprint Cup Series started shortly after they increased to 36 races in 2001?

“Hey Kyle, I talked to NASCAR and they said they’d love to lose four races of television revenue, sponsorship money, as well as ticket sales! At least, that’s what I thought I heard… I really wasn’t listening all that close…”

However, contraction, like in many sports will simply never happen. NASCAR gets paid by the tracks to bring the Sprint Cup events to them, raking in even more dough by the networks to televise these races. Cutting back just wouldn’t make as much money for this sport. Why would NASCAR give up the big checks that the track owners are paying them, not to mention all the other tangible and intangible sources of revenue they get over the course of a race weekend?

But let’s play Devil’s Advocate here, just to see how Rusty’s plan would play out. If NASCAR was to take away a supply of races, so a fan has fewer options, it could spark more demand and increase the odds that when a fan has the option to attend a race, or even watch on television, he or she will take advantage of the opportunity. In this case, an 11 percent cut, opening up a full extra month of weekends is significant enough to make a difference.

As a small example, when a race was taken away from Auto Club Speedway in 2010, they received a little bit of a spike in attendance at the Fontana, California racetrack for their lone remaining date. It could also be argued that a West Coast race being taken away from an oval, especially one with two stops during the season could increase attendance at other facilities close by. With less options to choose from, yearly travel would be redirected for fans in between multiple locations who still wanted to attend 2-3 races a year.

“Ultimately, the decision on race dates is up to NASCAR,” David Talley, Auto Club Speedway Director of Communications told “We’d hate to see anyone lose a date, as less dates means less exposure.”

Is that really true? Of course, track operators will never get excited about taking a race off the schedule. But with empty seats approaching 50% at some tracks, that supply and demand scenario seems like a good idea on the surface. How could you argue against the possibility of any idea that would put more fans in the seats on one race day?

There’s more advantages that could be gained with more off weeks. Most race viewers would have extra weekend afternoons to enjoy time with non-NASCAR fan friends and family. Some would instantly yearn for a race to watch on those off-weekends, making them less likely to miss the sport when it returns. A small handful of Über fans would even go to their local tracks, helping keep the roots of the sport healthy from the ground up.

Economies would be better in The Caribbean and Charlotte, from all the vacation and stay-cation money spent by the race teams while off. Fans’ local economies would see a little bit more money from the extra shopping for the barbeques going on and non-NASCAR related weekend daytrips. The local tracks would sell more tickets and concessions.

Who stands to lose, you may ask? The track owners, silly!

Do you think Bruton Smith would take this loss of race dates so easily if he lost an event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway or New Hampshire Motor Speedway? He would no doubt start a lawsuit the day of the announcement. And don’t forget about the local economies taking a hit around the track. Smaller towns like Bristol, Tennessee and Martinsville, Virginia depend so much on the race coming to town. Larger cities like Phoenix, Arizona or Indianapolis, Indiana wouldn’t be affected nearly as much, but if their politicians got involved in lobbying to keep the date, it could get ugly.

Team owners also would side for an extended schedule in the long run. Yes, four less races gives them more time to fine-tune their cars and line their pockets with the sponsorship money saved on less travel expenses. But they, too, would eventually complain after hearing pushback to their sales pitch about not enough races for the money they are asking to sponsor the stable of drivers they have mired in the middle of the pack.

More off weeks would give Brad Keselowski more time to spend with his rabid fan base… maybe?

Based on Brad Keselowski’s tweet from the last few days, he likes the idea of shortening the season. Don’t feel sorry for those millionaire drivers, though; instead of working, they’ll have more weekends off to spend money on their hobbies and rich lifestyles that they so desire to spend more weekends doing. If anyone has a true case for needing more time off, it would be the lowly crew guy working all of those early morning and late hours in the shop. Feel for them, as you should, but anybody who believes a professional race car driver is in need of sympathy should think again. A guy that works about the same number of hours as an elementary school teacher during the course of a year, but makes a thousand times more money isn’t exactly hurting for time off.

The television contracts bring in another huge dilemma when it comes to shortening the schedule. These same networks, which at times have acted like they don’t have interest in the sport they are paying millions for would suddenly care enough to cry foul. Don’t believe me? It has happened elsewhere. When the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins were facing contraction from Major League Baseball in 2001, FOX SportsNet Minnesota sued and earned a ruling in their favor which forced the league to back off. The Expos later moved to a new home in Washington, D.C while the Twins built a brand new stadium and are doing well.

As a lifelong Twins fan, I followed this saga with great interest and was very concerned at the development of the team dissolving into oblivion. It’s the same dread any serious Sprint Cup fan living near Atlanta Motor Speedway would feel if the prospects of not being able to go to an event near home were to come true. It’s exactly how someone who lives near the tracks in North Wilkesboro or Rockingham felt when the series left them behind – only their nightmare became reality.

How can that type of contraction change a fan following? In hockey, when the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993, I quit following the NHL entirely. NASCAR could count on that effect many times over if the dates they cut removed tracks off the schedule completely. Fans are losing patience with the perceived decline of the sport, so when the resentment hits home in your own community, that becomes the final straw for many people.

The NBA discussed contracting the Charlotte Bobcats, Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Hornets basketball teams as part of their labor talks last year. The player’s union proved to be too much for the NBA to handle, especially when it comes to the chances of the league reducing the number of jobs available. Not only does it cost top level roster slots, it decreases the opportunity for new players to break into the league. Shorter schedules would affect racing in a similar manner, as NASCAR would be faced with fewer opportunities for the already challenged “young guns” to cut their teeth.

None of the big four in professional stick-and-ball sports have ever reduced the number of games played in a non-strike or lockout season. If you are thinking NASCAR has already set a precedent, by reducing the number of races with the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series, remember those are far smaller in scope. The second-tier divisions, more like support series don’t have track owners willing to give them money, hand over fist, to bring their cars into town. So if you truly believe that NASCAR will shorten the Sprint Cup Series schedule, think again.

It isn’t happening, Rusty.

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05/31/2012 12:38 PM

Nobody is likely to ask me, but I would prefer the season end Labor Day weekend. Whole sport just gets lost once football, the baseball playoffs and the NBA (not to mention the NHL — which I do follow) get going.

Aside from that Rusty is looking in the wrong place. There is a problem of supply and demand but it is not related to the number of races. It is related to the demand for a Dale Earnhardt and the lack of supply of same. NASCAR has tried mightily and continues to try mightily to invent one as the big studios used to invent Movie Stars, but it has not worked and every week you can see why they keep trying in the empty seats.

05/31/2012 02:37 PM

I’m in favor of contraction but you’ve got some strong arguments there.

So let’s expand! No ovals over a mile! More road courses! Dirt tracks! Powderpuff derbies! Monday night!

C’mon, we have to do something to relieve the lack of racing. With a wider variety of tracks, we’ll get ringers in a few times through the year while the regulars go off on a two week vacation. Crews can work alternate weeks but still work a similar amount of hours and get paid the same.

It’s an idea so prone to failure that I can’t believe NASCAR hasn’t tried it.

05/31/2012 10:23 PM

Someone ask Rusty if he is willing to take a pay cut from ESPN for covering less races I bet he changes his mind.Nobody makes these guys work in auto racing if it is to much for them let them go do something else I’m sure someone will take any of their places. If you think they race to much pick the tracks you don’t like and don’t watch that weekend. As for stopping the season when the NFL starts it never was a problem before why is it now. If it is run the fall races on Saturday night then watch all the casual fans start complaining about College football. Fix the racing and all the problems will take care of themselves. The problems all started when Brian France stopped racing back to the yellow. This brought us a parade around the track for a minimum of 5 laps the closing of pit road the lucky dog and the wave around to get all the undeserving drivers back on the lead lap. It changed the whole sport with one rule change and rule changes to fix the problems it caused.

06/01/2012 10:35 AM

Nobody is saying to completely leave tracks off the schedule, but places like Kansas, Talladega, Daytona, Michigan, Phoenix Pocono, New Hampshire, Martinsville all have 2 dates on the schedule. You could reduce those tracks to one race with a few exceptions and have the schedule reduced that way.