Over the last couple of weeks, ever since the rumors started flying about the demise of Tony Eury Jr. as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief, the ‘media’ has reported several times, in various ways, that “studies have shown that when Jr. isn’t running well, NASCAR’s ratings are down.”
NASCAR of course, actually likes to hear that because it shifts the blame from where it really lies; Brian France. As much as the media (with the exception of this media) and NASCAR would like you to believe their standard party line, I’ve done some ‘studies’ of my own which point to the fact that, believe it or not, NASCAR is full of it, and we all know what ‘it’ is. (For those more sheltered readers out there, here is a hint: it rhymes with ‘scoop’ which, oddly enough, is what you need to dig yourself out of ‘it’ whenever Brian France starts slinging ‘it’!)
First of all, NASCAR has always said that ‘no one man is bigger than the sport itself’ so why, all of a sudden, is the recent demise and the apparent future of NASCAR so dependant upon Dale Jr.? The truth is it is NOT. Yes, Jr. is the ‘most popular’ driver and he has millions upon millions of followers, to the point that they have seceded from the Union and formed their own ‘nation,’ but they are not culprits here.
Let’s face it, most of this ‘nation’s’ populace would tune in to see their leader take a crap, which as fate would have it, is exactly what they have been seeing most Sunday afternoons anyway. No, the Jr. Nation is not the problem as NASCAR would like you to believe. Let’s look at some other cold, hard facts.
Brian France became the head of NASCAR in 2003. In 2004, he instituted his brilliant idea of the Chase playoff system because well, other major sports had that type of system and he wanted to go head to head against the NFL on any given Sunday.
During the 2004 season two things happened that are purely coincidental and independent of one another. The first is NASCAR’s ratings did in fact rise, partly because fans wanted to see how this new system would work and partly because they already had been rising at an almost exponential rate since the tragic season of 2001. The second thing that happened was that 2004 was Dale Jr.’s breakout season of his career where he scored six wins, 16 top fives and 21 top 10s.
Technically speaking, I will say that 2004 was the zenith for both NASCAR and Dale Jr. and that is probably where most of the recent studies have stopped. My study does not. Let’s look a little deeper.
Up until the year 2000, television coverage of the races was brokered by deals between the networks and the owners of individual tracks. Despite this unruly hodge-podge system, all the races were being televised and NASCAR’s popularity was growing. In Dec. 1999 however, NASCAR, sensing a dollar to be made, allowed their then-head of marketing genius, Brian France, to negotiate a centralized, six-year television deal between NASCAR, FOX Sports, FX, NBC and TNT, which he did to the tune of $2.4 BILLION!
As we all know, since Brian successfully brokered that colossal deal, other major changes included naming Brian as the head of NASCAR and a Cup Series name change (from Winston to Nextel/Sprint) which resulted in yet even more BILLIONS pouring into the sanctioning body’s coffers.
As a result of that first centralized TV deal, longtime fans began to become disenfranchised from the sport mainly because of an increase in commercial breaks, emphasis on the more popular drivers and teams to the total and blatant exclusion of others, and the de-emphasis of actual racing coverage in exchange for an increase of hype, fluff and general BS!
Late in 2005, with first deal’s expiration looming and the announcement of NBC’s desire to ‘get the hell out’, France was able to fleece a whopping $4.8 BILLION, eight-year contract out of FOX, Speed Channel, ABC/ESPN and TNT! As one might expect and we all have had to endure, with a price like that to pay, the networks have relied on even more commercials, more fluff, more hype and all around bigger heapings of non-race related BS the likes of which would make a billy goat puke!
Other unpopular contributions that Brian has brought to the sport include (but are not limited to) the SPECtacular and hated Car of Tomorrow, the quest for the casual fan and the insistence of two races a year in Fontana, Calif.! I could go on but I don’t think I have to. The point is that since its peak in 2004, NASCAR ratings and fan satisfaction have been dropping in almost the same exponential way they rose.
Meanwhile, what has Jr. been doing since his peak in ’04? In the last five years, he has amassed (to date) three wins, 35 top fives and 61 top 10s. No, it’s not what I would call lighting the racing world on fire, but there are guys out there that never reach those numbers during their whole career.
When you lay it side by side, I defy anyone to logically tell me that Junior’s less than stellar performance is more responsible for the drop in ratings than the dealings of Brian France. If anything, NASCAR should be grateful for the fanatical tenacity of the Jr. Nation, without which the ratings would be even lower.
I have never personally heard a diehard No. 88 fan say that they are not going to watch the race because Jr. has been sucking as of late. I HAVE heard numerous once diehard NASCAR fans, myself included, say they don’t care if they see the race because NASCAR in general has been sucking (for various reasons) of late!
The truth of the matter is is that there IS one man bigger than the sport itself, but it is NOT Dale Earnhardt Jr. That honor squarely belongs to the man that sits behind the CEO’s desk in Daytona, Fla. A desk upon which you will NEVER see a ‘The buck stops here!’ sign!
Stay off the wall,
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