With a very displeasing, sneezing and wheezing,
The calliope fell to the ground…
It’s a natural part of any human enterprise, I suppose. At the onset, one must be able to articulate the plans, hopes and dreams of the venture. At the conclusion, one must reflect on how those plans worked and whether those hopes and dreams were realized. If not, one must start over again on a different tact.
This time of year, you’ll probably receive a bunch of holiday cards containing family newsletters chronicling the lives of some folks you likely haven’t talked to one-on-one in years. (The old McLaughlin family newsletters tended to chronicle my four sisters’ academic achievements, engagements, marriages and births. The section about me? It noted that once again, I’d been able to stay out of prison though I seemed incarcerated in an endless adolescent fantasy of beer, bikes, and blondes.)
In the case of the 2016 Cup season, Brian France chose to hold a state-of-the-sport-type press conference at Homestead on Sunday morning. What ensued was a 17-minute train wreck that was so embarrassing to watch it was almost painful at times. To sum up France’s words, “All is well with the state of the sport. Couldn’t hardly be better. Stay the course. Steady as she goes. Ignore the man behind the curtain. Don’t change horses midstream. A thousand points of light.”
What contradicted that theme was the panicky expression on his face for most of the news conference. France was clearly ill at ease and sweating profusely even as he tried to appear upbeat. We’re not talking a sweated brow here; it was right into the class of what David Letterman used to call “fat guys making their own gravy” on the hot summertime sidewalks of New York City. He constantly mopped at his face with a handkerchief, or alternately fumbled with the button on his ill-fitting suit jacket and seemed at times to be fighting a strong compulsion to readjust his package.
I’ll try to give France the benefit of the doubt. NASCAR, after all, had ventured into the third world realm of Miami and it’s possible he had contracted Zika or Malaria from a mischievous Miami mosquito the size of a turkey buzzard.
While I’ve never been a fan of Brian France, watching him yesterday raised my degree of panic about the future of the sport. This guy is someone supposed to be leading a high-profile, multi-million dollar sport into the future? That physical appearance made me feel like I wouldn’t trust him to guide my granny across a crosswalk. (Although Grandma would likely be safer if he did that than if he encountered her on the way home from Happy Hour in his Lexus.)
Right off the bat, France adopted a combative attitude toward the press. I suppose such an attitude is in vogue right now. He flat out lost it when asked to reconcile his celebration of Mexican-born XFINITY champion Daniel Suarez and his endorsement of Donald Trump earlier this year. France abruptly cut the questioner off, noting that absolutely nobody in attendance cared a whit about his personal politics.
France was a day late and a dollar short in reaching that conclusion, which would have served him better back in March when he went on the record. He went on to note his strong championing of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Program, which sounded a whole lot like the infamous line “some of my best friends are….” He went on to say that his commitment to the program was so solid that even questioning him in that regard was a “ridiculous thing to do.”
That’s the thing about press conferences. They tend to yield equal parts insight and ridiculousness unless the host is moister than and as spineless as a slug.
As far as the replacement series sponsor to replace the phone folks, France wasn’t able to go on record with any new information. He admitted that given it’s been 23 months since the search started, he’s a bit surprised it’s taken as long as it has though he added NASCAR was “in a good spot with that.” Rumors are swirling that while the sponsor is found (the cardiac-in-a-can folks at Monster Energy) negotiations have dragged into extra innings over the dollar amount and length of the commitment Monster will make to the sport. Both will likely be far below the ten-year, one billion dollar commitment that NASCAR allegedly was initially seeking.
Curiously, despite the fact in every poll I’ve seen, an overwhelming majority of fans dislike or even despise the Chase format, France labeled it and its introduction to the Truck and XFINITY series as overwhelming successes. He went out of his way to praise that and Drive For Diversity often during the presser.
Please allow me a tangent here. When have I ever made it this far into a column without venturing off the trail at least once? Major success, huh? Under the old points system, Jimmie Johnson would have finished seventh in the standings. Kevin Harvick would have defeated Joey Logano for the crown. That seems somewhat fair given that Johnson’s season-long finishing average was 14th, Logano’s ten and a half and Harvick’s 10th.
I’ve got to call into serious question at least whether a caution flag needed to fly for the Dylan Lupton incident late in the race when it became apparent Carl Edwards held the upper hand in the title fight. “Dag nab it!” you could almost hear someone in the control tower scream, “We said it was going to be exciting right down to the last lap and we’ll just see that it is.” More contrived excitement. Even the uber-diplomatic Edwards went on record as saying he hoped the reason for that caution was legitimate, because it sure messed up his evening. Even if you accept the Chase and the likelihood it will make the last race of the year entertaining, it’s sad that the system tends to make the first 26 “regular season” races less meaningful. Anyone remember what happened at Talladega a few weeks ago? No, I didn’t think so.
In the Truck Series, stalwart Johnny Sauter claimed the title by four points over Matt Crafton. Had the old points system been used Sauter would still have been champion. William Byron would have finished second, perhaps a bit more fitting in that the kid did, in fact, win seven races in that series this year. And the margin of victory in the title hunt would have been three points, not four. More exciting, huh? Yes, in the old days under the old points systems sometimes a driver would clinch the title with several races left to run. Thing is, I seem to remember some of those post-title races as among the best I have seen with everyone running for pride and bragging rights, not points.
In the XFINITY Series, Elliott Sadler would have won the championship over Daniel Suarez. And yes, the gap between the two would have been pretty substantial. Sadler’s average finish was 6.8 this season, a pretty astounding number. Suarez managed a still-stellar eighth-place result. Draw your own conclusions here.
France also interrupted and dismissed a question by ESPN’s Bob Pockrass. As best I can interpret, Pockrass had a perfectly valid point. With TV ratings and at track attendance both down, some teams are having an increasingly difficult time landing adequate sponsorship to compete for the entire season. This question is different than how the search for NASCAR’s title sponsor is going and perhaps even a more important one regarding the future health of the sport.
The marketing types don’t commit huge amounts to race sponsorship because they covet hot garage passes to the big events. They want their corporate logos in clear focus before a set number of eyeballs watching the races, both in the stands and on TV. They divide that amount of eyes (usually divided by two, since most of us are bi-ocular) into the dollars they are committing and decide if it’s a good fit. If not, they allocate those marketing dollars to commercials during Seinfeld and Friends reruns on those upstart cable networks in the 400 tier.
Having quite enough of any Negative Nellie questioning of his regime France, by this point looking like a mermaid with a bad combover, used a whole lot of words not to answer the question he refused to hear out. Yes, while it may appear that TV ratings are not only down but down substantially (even during the Chase) that’s simply a result of the still engaged and loyal fans “sliding” (What, are they driving on Goodyears in the rain?) over to new electronic mediums to consume the sport they so dearly love. NASCAR’s digital ratings are “off the charts,” France assured everyone, without offering any proof that is the case.
Of course, the medium is still in its infancy, so when you start at a level of zero any presence at all can be hyped as huge growth. France noted he had recently “watched” a Duke basketball game digitally in about seven minutes and he thoroughly enjoyed it.
Bully for him. The difference is the various players in the game weren’t wearing logos on their jerseys that some sponsor hoped were clear and in focus. My guess is the two TV networks that present the sport to those who still prefer to watch on TV aren’t enamored of the idea of fans choosing a seven-minute digital highlight package that also conveniently bypasses the incessant commercials. And finally, given NASCAR’s average demographics of hardcore fans (to put it politely, we’re “graying”), as a member of the more mature set I can assure you most folks my age have an innate distaste and distrust if not outright dislike for internet programming. I couldn’t tell a Hulu from a Zulu or a Netflix from hot chix and like most folks my age, I didn’t drop a ton of coin on a big screen high def TV to watch races on a two-inch screen that locks up constantly and requires me to download nefarious malware to access it.
Again, only as an aside, but I’ve determined Google is the most effective weapon Satan has in his arsenal. This whole “ratings are down because people are accessing content in new ways” argument stinks of the Gillian Zucker Defense. When she ran the track in Fontana, Zucker was asked about all the empty seats in the stands. She opined that wasn’t a result of unsold tickets but so many fans being under the grandstands doing a little shopping and lining up for delicious track food.
France did note that right now, all major sports are facing the same ratings challenge. Remember how effective a strategy it was to tell your parents “everyone else is doing it” to explain away whatever you’d been caught doing?
The issue here is that NASCAR itself is doing just fine thanks to that eight billion dollar TV deal with NBC and FOX. (Or more often these days, NBCSN and FoxSports 1). But people don’t tune into races to see a sanctioning body or a TV broadcast. They tune in to watch a race. More money needs to trickle down to the team owners and drivers to make for better competition.
Remember the “Rule of Holes”? When you find yourself in one, stop digging. Mercifully, the “media availability” slated to last thirty minutes concluded in 17. Last year, it dragged on for 38 minutes.
Am I being too tough here? Watch for yourself…if you dare.
In the end, my takeaway from those 17 minutes is that this sport is in big trouble and it’s unlikely to get better anytime soon. The first step to solving a problem is to admit there’s a problem that needs solving. Maybe France ought to appoint himself NASCAR’s Pharaoh because right now he’s the King of Denial.