Digging farther into their seemingly bottomless bag of tricks NASCAR (at the behest of network overlords) has come up with their latest “can’t miss” trick to bolster sagging TV ratings and dwindling attendance. Beginning in 2017, they’re going to start races later in the day. This weekend’s Pocono event, as an example has now been pushed back to a 3 p.m. ET green flag.
Really. I’m serious. If I could make up stuff this stupid, I’d be working for one of the presidential campaigns.
In the days of yore, you still needed to figure out which network the race was on (as you still must today in this era of races seesawed between broadcast TV and the digital wasteland of their startup satellite channels.) But back then, if someone asked me what time the race was on, I’d reply “one o’clock” without devoting much thought to it.
Oh, there were a few night races and an occasional west coast date. But by and large, not too long ago the traditional start time was 1:00 real…er, I mean, east coast time. During those boom years of NASCAR’s popularity, fans fell into a Sunday rhythm many still miss. You went to church services, came home, had breakfast with the clan and then switched on the race. (Often literally. Some TVs still didn’t have remotes back then.)
By one o’clock, you know I really mean one o’clock. As opposed to today’s seemingly endless pre-race procrastinating, prognostication, pontificating, promoting and horribly failed attempts at comedy back then if the TV Guide (which was still available in paper form) said the race started at 1 p.m. well gosh, ten minutes after the hour there’d be cars circling the track driven in anger. The race was over by four o’clock, worst case five, leaving fans plenty of time to enjoy some afternoon leisure activities before sunset. No, this column isn’t me viewing prelapsian rewrites of history again. This is the way race fans, myself, so many people spent their Sundays.
Compare that to next year, when all of three races are scheduled to start before 2 p.m. ET. There will be Texas in the spring, Dover in June, and Martinsville in the fall. That’s three out of 36 points-paying races, slightly less than 10 percent of the schedule. For comparison’s sake, there’s seven “night” races next year, events which to date have been some of the lowest rated in the sport’s history.
Why the change? Well, some NASCAR spokesperson (who deserves an Oscar for keeping a straight face while saying it) says it’s better for the fans. Of course it’s better for the fans. Everything NASCAR does is better for the fans, which is why they need to use firehoses to keep the stampede of fans trying to get into all the sold out races lately.
One start time change that immediately grabbed my attention was for both Pocono events. As previously mentioned, those races will “start” at 3 p.m. ET So let’s say that the race actually begins roundsabout 3:30. Say the race itself runs about three hours in length, about average for a Pocono Cup race since they were shortened to 400 miles.
We’ll next be optimistic here and say it only takes fans an hour and a half to get out of the parking lot and clear local race day traffic to get to a major highway, one where traffic flows somewhat freely. (And that’s being overly optimistic. It’s the most confounded thing I’ve ever seen. Even with race attendance less than half of what it used to be, the traffic around most tracks hasn’t gotten any better.) It’s another three-hour trip home to the suburbs of Philly or Long Island, Pocono’s two biggest markets.
That means the race fan family (two-and-a-half badly sunburned kids screaming because their phones need to be recharged; Dad, just slightly tipsy to the point he’s slipping up and using an occasional profanity you only hear on TV during presidential debates; and a thoroughly irritated Mom whose wondering if its time to slip that cute barista at Starbucks her phone number) pull into the driveway, it’s closing in on 11 p.m. That’s well past the little monsters’ bedtimes, Dad (and probably Mom) need to be at work the next day and it’s too late for Mom to call her sister and wonder aloud how her life had degenerated into such a loveless living hell.
But, someone might say, that’s only two hours later than the happy family would have gotten home had the race still started at one like God and Dr. Joseph Mattioli intended! Well, sir, I have limited experience dealing with kids based on babysitting (and later nieces and nephews). The levels of irritating depravity they are capable of ratchets up exponentially between nine and 11 which might explain why I don’t have kids. On the other hand, I have practically limitless experience dealing with drunks (or as I fondly call them, my social circle.) The difference in the level of intoxication between nine and 11 at night is dramatic. It’s like going from “forgetting to use a coaster” buzzed to “laying face down in the front yard with his pants around his ankles and the cops checking for a pulse” polluted.
Certainly, the later start times could benefit the tracks. Along with plunging ticket sales we’ve seen precipitous declines in concession revenues. The longer people are at the track, the more likely it is they’ll bite the bullet and buy a nine-dollar hamburger and a five-dollar soft drink to wash it down with. Multiply that by 4.5 members of our fictional family of no-longer-quite-so-happy race fans and you’re talking some major coin, especially when Junior is wider than he is tall and his epic sunburn is measured in acreage.
Of course, nobody wants to see weather delays at a racetrack, not even fat kids. Scheduling start times later in the day, especially at places without lights gives NASCAR less wiggle room when it comes to delaying a race rather than postponing the event to the following day. At tracks with lights, there lays an even more troubling scenario wherein we see a race allowed to run until 3 in the morning again like the 2015 Firecracker 400.
I’d be willing to bet my scoot at least once next year we’ll see a race that could have run at least to halfway if it started at one o’clock delayed until the next day by foul weather. Of course, we could also see a race that starts on time due to the later start that would have been delayed if it started at one o’clock. But while some people see the glass half full, I still see it as half empty, containing vile pus drained from a boil on an ailing pack mule (or Budweiser, as some people term it).
So if the tracks are going to lose ticket sales and the fans I’ve spoken to embrace the idea of later start times like a rabid porcupine, who wants this shift to happen? This one has got the TV partners (FOX and NBC’s) fingerprints all over it. There’s apparently a school of thought that having the races conclude just prior to primetime will somehow boost ratings both for the races themselves and that network’s primetime lineup. Yep, I can see how having casual and even some more devoted fans figuring out not just what network the race is on but what time a race begins boost TV ratings.
Intelligence doesn’t matter here though; money does. With the majority of their revenue, and the only source of income NASCAR has not subject to the vagaries of fan interest, there’s no way the powers that be in Daytona Beach are going to say “no.” Naturally, when a race runs long, creating an actual overlap between the race and primetime things will probably not work out well for race fans. Even our TV pals at ESPN once tossed us under the bus and cutaway from a Busch race to jump toward the pre-event festivities for the Kentucky Derby.
Yep, I tend to be a bit harsh on the TV types. I have little patience with anyone in any endeavor who produces sloppy and shoddy work then stands there beaming, waiting for their “participant” trophy. Way back in the days of yore, before many of you were likely born, most NASCAR races weren’t on TV at all. In the few cases they were shown on TV, it was several weeks after the event and only portions of the race were shown between segments of other sports.
Then along came ESPN, a blip-on-the-radar-screen cable TV sports outlet in the 1980s with more air time to fill than it had stuff to show. They decided to gamble on stock car racing to fill up the afternoon time slots on Sundays. Of course, the experiment worked out splendidly. If one will argue NASCAR was very, very good for ESPN it also must be noted that ESPN was very, very good for NASCAR. Other cable channels like TNN, TBS and others latched onto the bandwagon and viewership exploded.
In fact, stock car racing became so popular FOX and NBC came in and outbid all players for exclusive rights to their respective halves of the season. Back then? NASCAR said it was better for the fans. The ruling France family was practically giddy announcing all 36 races were going to be on network TV starting in 2001.
How’d that work out for ya’ll?
What’s always confused me is the new TV networks saw what was working with the previous network’s broadcast of our sport – you know, stuff like starting the races at 1 p.m. – and yet they decided they knew better how to get the job done. A look at the difference in ratings between 2000 and today, though seems to indicate rather strongly they were wrong. Wrong sort of like the way Captain Edward Smith got a little behind in his steering of the HMS Titanic….
I’m sensing a growing trend amongst race fans that stock car racing is no longer what they used to call “appointment TV” they planned their lives around. More and more people are choosing to use the trusty DV-R to record the race and watch it when it’s damn well convenient for them, not when some mid-level Wharton business school marketing network exec thinks they ought to be glued to the couch. Most importantly, they’re wearing the paint off the “FF” keys of their remotes skipping the incessant and insane commercials, plus the boring stretches of races (which at some tracks comprises everything other than the first three laps of the race and the first three laps after restarts.) I think I could have seen everything I needed to see of this year’s Brickyard 400 in about ten minutes.
So to all the champions of the later start times, sure, you go right on ahead and try it. We’ll catch up with ya’ll in a bit or if not, we’ll see you later.
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