If you’re a fan of any modern sport, the one thing you’ve been certain to see in recent years is change.
Every sanctioning body is playing a balancing act between tradition and entertainment – and right now entertainment’s winning.
The question is whether they’ll eventually go too far in that pursuit.
Fueled by surging streaming leaders and eager TV giants, in a time when live sports are their one saving grace, nearly every discipline within the modern sporting world has undergone one or more significant changes in recent years.
The NFL’s added another regular season game and extra playoff teams. College football may not be far behind, though the current format is on hold for now. Spring football leagues keep rising up with hopes that one will stick. NBA fans now tune in to play-in games before their postseason even begins and may eventually have a midseason tournament. The MLB’s expanded its playoff field, too.
Some of soccer’s biggest teams tried to form a Super League. Though it failed, the concept will surely arise again in the future. Others want to make the World Cup a biannual event, though the concept also seems dead for now. The NHL hasn’t expanded its postseason field yet, but there are calls for action that could see it occur soon.
Motorsports hasn’t been immune from the shift, either.
Formula 1 has trialed shorter sprint qualifying races to give TV another race to market on Saturdays. Only three are being ran per year at the moment, but it’ll shift to six if the relevant parties can quit squabbling over money. The NTT IndyCar Series hasn’t succumbed to adding extra races or playoffs yet, but it has tweaked its qualifying format for the Indianapolis 500 again, hoping to keep viewers lured in with the fight for pole with bumping appearing unlikely this season.
The biggest proponent for change in racing, NASCAR, continues to go full bore after anything that may entice extra eyeballs. From stage racing and elimination playoffs through a dirt race, stadium event and rumors of a street circuit in the future, the sport’s leaders seem keen to make the tour more of a variety show than a standard racing series. Each move has found some level of success, but it collectively makes for what seems like a completely different series than even 10 years ago.
Change in life is constant and that premise extends to the world of sports. But the sheer rate of alterations at the moment have been dizzying, making it difficult to adapt old records and even just follow along for more casual fans.
Why has it gotten this way?
The answers vary. But to distill things to the simplest point – we’re all in the content business now. And the networks need as much of it as they can get.
With most TV shows going to Apple TV+, HBO Max or one of the other seemingly-endless number of streaming services out there, traditional television has been forced to adapt and focus on the few products it still has to draw viewers. The leader, by far, is sports.
It’s difficult to make an award-winning show, or to hit on a viral phenomenon like Game of Thrones. Playing in the casual entertainment world also provides added competition from the various other entertainment platforms- YouTube, TikTok, Instagram.
The same is true for sports. But fans carry a certain passion for their sport, and no other network is going to take basketball from the NBA or baseball from the MLB.
Live sports come with the certain guarantee of viewership at a basic level, with potential to add even more eyeballs for a big game. So networks are happy to go for a sure thing at a time of flux for the industry.
By expanding schedules and trying to make existing events matter more, each sport gives the TV networks additional marquee events that they can market. As the streaming giants catch on and enter the fray, having varied options also gives sporting bodies a chance to place content on streaming services for additional fees – some which could start to surpass standard TV budgets in the near future.
Just look at Amazon, which is reportedly paying $1 billion per year for 11 years in order to become the home of Thursday Night Football. Or Apple TV+, which recently entered the game with the acquisition of rights to air Friday Night Baseball.
We’re seeing early examples of this in racing, with NBC Sports choosing to air one IndyCar race on Peacock, much like it does with Notre Dame football and other properties.
Streaming content isn’t relegated simply to live action, either. F1 is eager to expand its schedule, but it also has the wildly successful “Drive to Survive” docuseries on Netflix.
All of these changes in programming come at the same time that tours look to bolster their presences on social media. Check the internet at any given time and it’s likely you’ll see everything from Instagram Reels and TikTok’s to old-school Facebook posts and live interviews on Twitter Spaces.
No matter how much content exists out there, we all want more. More podcasts. More videos. More games.
More. More. More.
It’s no longer enough to own the usual broadcast slots. Sporting entities and their participants are all collectively trying to make every event feel grandiose and keep every star on the minds of any possible onlooker.
They want to own every second of your waking life – no matter how many changes, gimmicks and pieces of content it takes. It’s an attention economy, so anything that can grab more attention without significant detriment is encouraged.
I suppose that’s fine. It’s just part of the modern world we live in.
But it does make one wonder when, if ever, it’ll all become too much.
About the author
A graduate of Ball State, Aaron rejoins Frontstretch for his second season in 2016 following a successful year that included covering seven races and starting the popular "Two-Headed Monster" column in 2015. Now in his third year of covering motorsports, Aaron serves as an Assistant Editor for Frontstretch while also contributing to other popular sites including Speed51 and The Apex. He encourages you to come say hi when you see him at the track.
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