Editor’s Note: This is Jeff Meyer’s final week of vacation. Look for Voices to return with an all new edition on Thursday, February 1st! This article was originally run in August, 2006.
Ever since Brian France assumed the helm of NASCAR, it seems that his main goal has been focused not on the race amongst cars every Sunday, but rather on a popularity race against another professional Sunday sport; the NFL. In fact, Brian has concentrated on this issue so much that in its current state, the whole complexion of NASCAR is changing.
Since the “Chase” format was introduced as an unabashed attempt to compete with fall NFL TV ratings in 2004, it has had a direct effect on race strategies, how a team is run as a business and even the driving styles of the drivers themselves.
Nowadays in NASCAR, depending where a driver happens to be in the current standings, one guy may be just cruising around protecting his spot, settling for a “good” finish, while another guy may be driving hell bent for leather, desperate to make up ground for the all important playoffs, not caring who gets in the way in his attempt to make it. There is simply no denying that the new format has drastically changed stock car racing. However, the new format will dismally fail to do what France hoped it would and will, in the end, even with proposed “tweaks,” start a downward spiral in ratings and popularity in the very near future.
For the first two years of the Chase, ratings did increase. They didn’t best the NFL, but they were up. Now, in only it third year, ratings have been down all year, and will get no better in the future. There are a few simple reasons for this.
While NASCAR claims to have 75 million fans, most of those fans also have a favorite football team, and let’s face it, there are a lot more NFL games to watch on Sunday during the fall than there are commercial fests interspersed with bits of racing. NASCAR’s attitude toward television coverage is probably the biggest reason it will never win against the NFL. The NFL is still about the game, while NASCAR is about the advertising dollar.
In football, they have special timeouts especially for commercials during a televised game. It is called a network timeout. There is a set amount of time and when the commercials are done, they resume play. When was the last time you were watching an NFL playoff game and when the commercial got over, they came back to a player dancing in the end zone after catching a game-winning pass? No, they come back before the snap of the ball. You can count on that. You have to hurry to make a sandwich during a commercial break in the NFL. With NASCAR, you can spend extra time digging in the fridge looking for the horseradish sauce because the commercial is what is important.
NASCAR cautions are infinitely longer than network timeouts. There is NO reason a restart should ever be missed.
Another reason the NFL will prevail is because it has been around longer than the car itself. Not necessarily the NFL per se, but professional football has been around since at least 1892, when Pudge Heffelfinger was paid $500 to play in a game. (Still waiting to hear if Pudge is any relation to Frontstretch‘s own Toni Heffelfinger). While NASCAR itself has been around a long time, football has a 50-year head start; it is ingrained in the American psyche a bit deeper. Usually, a fan of a team is a fan for life. The essential game does not change.
NASCAR, on the other hand, while experiencing exponential growth in the last 10 years, seems bound and determined to abandon the very fan who stuck with the sport through its formative stages. The popularity surge that NASCAR has enjoyed recently is based on three things: marketing, gimmicks and sex. None of those have anything to do with the quality of racing. The very market that NASCAR sought to bring in to sustain the growth will, and is, abandoning the sport in droves. Attention spans are short these days. Don’t believe me? Look at the ratings in this, only the third year of the “Chase.”
Then there are the rules. Football has definitive rules and penalties. NASCAR has rules and, well, decisions! Decisions that seem to suit the mood of whomever is in the white trailer on any given week, sometimes to the point of being laughable.
Another culprit of slipping fall ratings is the racing season itself. By the time the “Chase” rolls around, the same tired old commercials, and the amount of them, as mentioned earlier, really wears on a guy. There is simply better coverage and more of it in football. Combine that with the aforementioned fact that most NASCAR fans are also football fans, AND you got a remote in your hand, click! Out goes snoozefest commercials/race, in comes several NFL games where you see ALL the action.
I know a lot of you will write and say that you cannot compare NASCAR to the NFL, that it is apples and oranges, and you may be right. But remember one thing; I didn’t start this comparison; Brian France did. He is the one changing your sport in an effort to directly compete with the NFL. That was his publicly admitted reason for the change.
NASCAR can, and needs to stand on its own merits and stop trying to compete with the NFL. Brian France needs to realize that he will never win. An apple, no matter how many times you bite it, will not taste like an orange. Both are good, but hardly interchangeable.
Stay off the wall,