How NASCAR can capitalize on a potential NFL lockout
Half the nation woke up Wednesday to some combination of snow, ice, sleet, or a wind chill so cold two winter coats wouldn't cut it. Outside my Northeast window, I see snow mounds piled higher than my 5-foot-6 frame, a car ready to be shoveled out for the tenth time this season and temperatures hovering right around freezing. At this point, I really don't care if Punxsutawney Phil says we'll have an early Spring, because unless it comes tomorrow, virtually everyone east of the Rocky Mountains isn't happy.
There is, of course, one exception to the rule -- the lone state in the union that's avoided wintry precipitation through it all. I present to you the forecast for the start of Daytona Beach Speedweeks on Friday, Feb. 11, NASCAR's Super Bowl that's got Mother Nature on its side for once:
Sunny, 68 degrees, zero percent chance of precipitation.
Don't be jealous! That's Florida weather even the NFL Super Bowl can't claim, with Dallas buried in snow and ice closing the airport and hampering travel. If Daytona's new president, Joey Chitwood III, can't get fans in the stands with that weather (and I have heard through the grapevine ticket sales are up) then stock car racing might as well sign its obituary before the season starts.
Of course, sunny skies and perfect weather don't guarantee an upswing season for a sport that's been on a downhill slide. But at this point, I'd take the worst Daytona 500 in history over Snowmageddon XXV coverage on my television, and I bet half of America would, too.
On to your questions and comments.
On the biggest week of the NFL, makes sense to start with a football question related to NASCAR. Based on the latest news, it's a near certainty NFL owners will lock out players as soon as a March 3 deadline passes that ends the current collective bargaining agreement. How long the impasse will last is unknown, with some prognosticators claiming the battle could cost the league half its season.
Certainly, if the NFL lockout lasts just a few short months, ending before the start of their training camp midsummer NASCAR has nothing to gain. If anything, it'll lose a bit as the negotiations dominate the headlines during a time football should be out of the limelight. It's a weird short-term boost, as angry but interested pigskin supporters will want to know whether both sides can work it out.
But if the lockout lasts 'til Fall, sure, NASCAR could come out a winner as sports fans will suddenly have one less option on Sundays. Privately, I've heard rumblings Daytona officials are crossing their fingers for it, ready to ramp up advertising dollars and go all out to win fans back through an opportunity they might not get again for decades. The sanctioning body had already moved its Chase races back to a 2 p.m. start in 2011, recognizing the disaster of competing with the NFL for the 1 p.m. start times and trying to establish its own window for people to tune in. That's perfect in the case of no NFL, as sports fans are creatures of habit. At some point during the afternoon, whether it's in the 1-4 or 4-7 time frame, they'll search around for something else to occupy their time when the cold weather kicks in and mowing the lawn or doing the "honey-do" list is no longer an option.
The problem is for NASCAR to capitalize, it must improve the on-track product and give people who might have never followed the sport a reason to tune in. Why? Keep in mind at the height of NASCAR's success in 2005, the start of the NFL season didn't matter because ratings were still holding solid around a Nielsen 4.0 (compared to the 2.3-2.8 being pulled in these days at the start of the playoffs). If drivers race around single-file, waiting for the last 20 laps like they're driving on the highway, disenfranchised football fans will have a better chance of turning on the Food network instead.
The key will be for the sport to be proactive: if the racing is still struggling and the lockout remains, will the powers that be make a major handling change to the cars pre-playoffs to make the racing more competitive? Will Sprint be willing to throw an extra $1 million dollar bonus for anyone who wins three of four races in September? They'll need to get creative, making news in the void of the NFL for people to switch the channel and check them out for more than a few short minutes. Here's hoping the marketing department has some ideas in the can ...
Mike, you raise a great point I don't think anyone's talking about. There were rumors back a few years ago Sprint was going to bail on its NASCAR contract during the Nextel merger, and those have since died down (the $750 million contract runs through 2013). Still, the sport wants to bend over backwards to keep them happy, and something it's done which previous sponsor Winston didn't was put a special focus on the title, failing to support old programs like Winston's No Bull 5 (offering $1 million bonuses for winning specific races) in favor of a Chase system where Sprint is front and center for nearly the final third of the season.
You could make the argument that despite declining ratings, Sprint doesn't need the early-season doldrums -- or the Chase for that matter -- to be fixed, because the mere at-track exposure, both on television and with fans in attendance, makes the investment worthwhile in the boardroom. Eliminating those final 10 races would take away that focus, making business executives jittery in a shaky economy about their bottom line. You remove the key maneuver that helped define their NASCAR entrance in 2004, and there's a risk involved -- a risk they're likely unwilling to take.
I think the same line of thinking could also apply to Nationwide and why they fought tooth and nail for Cup drivers to still be eligible to run for their "AAA" championship. When you see business booming and your advertising is built around Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, of course your bottom line is going to take a short-term hit. The move may have been good for the long-term future of the sport, but what business wants to take a seven-figure loss in the name of "doing the right thing" when it doesn't have a 20-year contract to see the fruits of its labor? (Nationwide's runs through 2014, although depending on whom you listen to there's an out clause after 2012).
In the second case, NASCAR bucked Nationwide's requests, but you wonder if Sprint demanded "Keep the Chase" in private meetings, whether the sport would risk a much bigger investment ($75 million per compared to less than one-third of that for Nationwide) with any potential replacement sponsor offering significantly less, considering the recent downturn.
Interesting thoughts, but I think we're making this whole issue too complicated. Since you're not a race fan, I'll tell you why the old All-Star Races were compelling: aggression, from the drop of the green to the checkered flag. There's nothing but money and pride on the line, not points, so drivers will take risks they otherwise wouldn't have taken in a regular season race.
That's the intensity that's been lost over this focus for the championship, 500 miles of pacing yourself instead of remembering what put fans in the stands for racing in the first place: drivers going all-out, on the ragged edge, by setting speed records and pulling daring maneuvers for the win. To do that again you need to remove the consequences of a DNF for drivers looking to win a title, something we've never had since the modern point system was established from 1975-2010. The new point system, where a 43rd-place finish is harder to recover from than in the old system (see
I wouldn't hold the last race at Daytona, Steve, but how about Bristol? It's good, ol' short track racing that brought this sport from the ashes of southern Moonshining and into the national consciousness. Ten drivers, all-out, at Bristol for some sort of season-ending prize sounds great to me.
I don't think it should be for the title, though. Making it solely about the most wins is too unbalanced, as battles for ninth and tenth place suddenly lose their meaning in a sport where the focus on fans has always been spread around a field of 43. How about 10 bonus points for winning instead of three under this system? And more of a gap in points between a top-5 finisher and someone in the top 10? NASCAR needs to increase the risk/reward up front for making moves during and at the end of the race, because pride and money isn't enough for drivers to always take them.
In responses from people in and outside the sport, the number one NASCAR criticism with the 2011 changes is, "Why didn't you fix the top 35?" Not only is the sport suffering from a dearth of new teams, but also lack of funding for the bottom tier means it's a virtual certainty one of those 35 positions will go to a "start-and-park" car by April or May of this year. Already last season, Robby Gordon and TRG Motorsports' No. 71 were using the comfort of their "locked in" spot in the standings to bring a skeleton crew to the track, minimize practice laps and then pull in after the first 100 laps with no worries about missing the event. It's an automatic cash cow for them, but does nothing to increase the quality of racing for fans.
Personally, I liked the old provisional system from the mid-1990s: top 38, four spots available to top-level drivers/owners who failed to qualify and a past champion's provisional if needed. There's no reason a rookie like Steven Wallace, who hasn't even qualified for a Sprint Cup event, should be locked into NASCAR's Super Bowl of Racing, the Daytona 500, which he is in RWI's new No. 77 outfit that "bought" top-35 owner points from Roger Penske. Could you imagine if Green Bay, since prognosticators thought they were the best NFC team in August, simply got "locked in" to the Super Bowl last summer? This top 35 rule is one of the silliest the sport has on the books today.
Man, by the sounds of this e-mail you might be the one to pay him back. James, watch out if any fan down in Daytona introduces himself as "Steve." I would just turn and run.
In all seriousness, though, just like Golf needs Tiger Woods to succeed, NASCAR's second-tier division could use a huge boost from Danica. There's no other rookies in the series this year, so who else can you promote who raises ratings with every Top 10 finish? Sure, I'm excited about Aric Almirola and Elliott Sadler rebuilding their careers, but both are Cup retreads. Right now, Danica has the largest swath of fan support among young drivers with good rides looking to move up. RPM's new millionaire owner playboy, Andrew Murstein, came out and said he'd love to put Danica in a Cup car for 2012, but to do that she must perform in Nationwide. Doing so is a win/win for everyone.
Too many e-mails like that one after Wednesday's announcement. Hasn't Ryan seen the weather down in Daytona Beach? That's sure to be a fix all... um... moving on.
Time to close with our "out of left field" e-mail of the week...
Oh, boy. For Milka, the ARCA Series -- think NASCAR single-A ball - means "last resort" after going so slow during races, IndyCar was ready to kick her out by the end of last season. And after seeing her results over on the open-wheel side (no top-10 finishes, one catfight with Danica in 43 starts) I would turn and run if I were an ARCA driver. Last year, she lasted six of 80 laps in a Doug Stringer Toyota before wrecking in her stock car debut, and don't expect 2011 to be any different.
Enjoy the Super Bowl, and I'll be here when y'all start paying attention to NASCAR for real next week! Nice to have Speedweeks and February finally here.
Jim from Eau Claire, Wisc., got it first and has an explanation for the special footwear: "Someone had told him in his younger days that to keep his feet cool in the car he should wear shoes made of leather, and the only leather shoes he had were his wingtips."
Often with a budget smaller than one race for most teams today, the owner of the old independent No. 71 team would slug it out with the big guns week in, week out scoring 127 top-10s in 711 starts, including a 1982 Richmond victory in self-managed equipment.