The view from my couch

Not Really a Playoff
by Sally Baker
January 21, 2004

After reading Jeff Owens' article about the playoff system in the January 15 issue of the Winston Cup Scene, I feel compelled to speak out.

Brian France and Nascar keep saying the fans "don't understand" about the new system to determine the Cup championship. Yes, I get that it's not a "best of 5" playoff they are trying to sell me. Changing the championship from being the best over a 36 race schedule to who can do the best over a 10 race "mini" season just isn't going to fly for me, no matter what the format.

The reasons given for this change have been quite varied. So far, support has come from the wireless company who is the new series sponsor. At least, I assume they support it, because their presence has been, to say the least, discreet so far. There has also been huge support from the TV networks who are still trying to make their $2.4 billion contract pay off and commentators employed by said networks (job security, Benny?), and some newspapers that appear to have discovered racing after Daytona 2001. For instance, one in New York, a market that Nascar has lusted after for years.

I've heard many rationalizations for making this change. One Roanoke, VA columnist used the statistic that football ATTENDENCE grew by 6.6% last year, and NASCAR's only by .02%. Since I know of only two stadiums that seat more than 100,000 (Michigan and Tennessee), I think the actual numbers could be quite close. Also, since many, if not most, of the races are sold out, how much more can attendance grow without more seating?

Then there's the lack of excitement argument. NASCAR really shoot themselves in the foot here. They claim that because the point championship, over the past 15-20 years, has been determined before the last race, NASCAR is losing viewers. Excuse me, but isn't that the same period of time NASCAR has used to show how much it has grown in popularity? You can't have it both ways. Either the old system has been attracting fans, whenever the champion has been decided, or growth has happened in spite of the points system.

In a brief E-mail exchange I recently had with Ryan Smithson of nascar.com, he stated that Kenseth had "manipulated" the system, so it had to be changed. With so many multi-car teams out there, does he really believe the new system can't also be manipulated? Who's being naive here? He didn't have an answer to that when I asked. How hard cars race each other for spots on the track could easily be influenced by who's in the running for the championship, and multi-car teams with which they might be affiliated. Personally, I wonder how "flexible" NASCAR will be about who qualifies for the top spots, just to be sure their most "marketable" drivers are in the hunt.

My least favorite reason is for entertainment value. Golly, all these years I thought I was watching racing, not a Broadway show.

On the other side, skepticism runs rampant among fans, drivers, owners, and much of the media that has covered racing for more than 5 years.

I've been honestly surprised at how many drivers, "old school" and "young guns" alike, have been willing to speak out against the new "not a playoff" format. Since NASCAR has been known to make life fairly difficult for anyone who disagrees with them too publicly, it makes me believe that opposition must run quite deep. Even the media needs to be cautious, for the same reasons, yet so far, many reporters have spoken out against the system. It seems they are doing so despite the danger of having their media credentials pulled by NASCAR. We all remember where ESPN ended up, don't we?

How about the argument that fans just can't deal with change? Have fans of any other sport seen more changes through an entire season, than NASCAR fans have recently? I think we should be congratulated for our adaptability, so I don't buy that, either.

So why so much opposition? For me, it's because the "not a playoff" format changes the entire philosophy of what it takes to win a Cup championship.

Unlike other sports, racing demands a sustained standard of excellence to become a champion. NASCAR, with a 36 race season, demanded the most. Race teams compete against each other during every race, not just once or twice a year, as in other sports. They have to bring their "A" game every week, not just the one time they play the league leader. Now, NASCAR is proposing that 25% of the season will determine the champion…a "mini" season, to crown a mini champion. I believe that's what so many fans find unpalatable, and it brings racing down to the level of other sports.

How, then, do I account for the drop in TV ratings when football starts? Using myself as an example, quite easily. When racing ends in November, I watch basketball. It helps fill the time until racing starts at Daytona again. I'm sure many football fans use racing as a "filler" until their sport starts again. Will the new format keep them watching racing instead of football? Maybe. But for me, no matter how well my beloved Pistons are doing, I don't miss a race to watch a basketball game. Even if they make the playoffs. Perhaps a more reliable way for NASCAR to keep fans watching is to do as much as they can in the first 26 weeks to have more Darlington type finishes instead of fuel mileage yawners. Then people would watch just because the racing is great, regardless of the championship race.

See, I do understand! If, as I keep being told, advertising dollars and TV contracts aren't fueling this change, then why isn't NASCAR changing things in the Busch and Craftsman Truck series as well? Either it works, or it doesn't, across the board.

I say that NASCAR, and Brian France in particular, don't understand fans very well. If he's making changes to appease TV, just be up front about it. Don't treat fans as if we're stupid. Our objection is to making a change for "entertainment value" and market share instead of for the sake of better racing. A change that undermines the basic philosophy that set NASCAR apart from every other sport.

As a fan, I'm not against reasonable changes. As a long time supporter of NASCAR and Cup racing, who spends money to attend races, I'm being made to feel irrelevant. As a long time fan, I guess I'm the wrong demographic. Being one fan, I only know one way to make my feelings known. I will be listening to the last 10 races on the radio, withholding my dollars and ratings in protest. Maybe some other fans have the same idea.

You can send Sally email right here.

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