|Empty seats at Indy--a common sight|
The Brickyard 400 used to be the unofficial peak of Nascar’s summer season—big crowds, big special paint schemes, and big announcements for the future. Well, we got one of them this past weekend (Alex Bowman going to the 88 car, in case you missed NBC’s documentary on the subject during the rain delay). Lately Indy weekend has become the time for the media to talk about how far Nascar has fallen, and which a massive venue 20% full at best, they sure have the right to do so.
But what CAN Nascar actually do to improve itself, both with fans and with its financial stakeholders (TV partners, sponsors, etc.)? And more-importantly, what are the chances of these things actually coming to pass?
Well, that’s where I come in. Here’s 10 things Nascar can do to turn itself around—and the likelihood of them actually happening.
1.) Do Nothing—since Brian France took over, Nascar’s been like the weather—if you don’t like what its doing now, just wait a little while and things will be different. Fans (especially hardcore old-school fans) have a major case of “change fatigue”, where one can’t get used to a new format, points system, or car-type without another change coming along to get used to again. Even if you don’t like the way things are right now, you’d have to admit that barring a full-scale rollback of every single change (which is NOT going to happen), simply leaving things alone like the Cha—er, Playoffs, points system, stage setup, etc. would give the sport something it hasn’t had in a long time—stability. But let’s be honest—is there ANYTHING in Nascar’s current leadership that gives you any confidence that they’d be able to sit on their hands for more than a few years? CHANCES OF THIS HAPPENING—POSSIBLE, BUT NOT GOOD.
2.) Change of Leadership—much like Roger Goddell is the target of football fans’ ire and Gary Bettman is a wanted man amongst hockey fans, Brian France has come to represent all that is bad and evil about Nascar today. To some fans, removing him from power (either voluntarily or otherwise) would fix everything that ails the sport. Of course there’s two innate problems with this—Brian France owns Nascar, with an ownership structure that keeps him in power pretty much no matter what, and there’s the old problem of “the devil you know, and the devil you DON’T know”. While we could argue all day about how there COULD be someone better than Brian France out there to run the sport, its meaningless, as he’s not going anywhere. CHANCES OF THIS HAPPENING—NONEXISTENT.
3.) Shortening Races—its been said for years that Nascar races are too damn long. One would have to think that while it wouldn’t solve everything, simply making “500”s “400”s and making “400”s “300”s would do a lot of good to improve things. The problem here is the almighty tv dollar. Fox and NBC aren’t buying rights to Nascar races because they like the sport personally—they do it for the advertising dollars it brings. More racing means more commercial time, and more commercial time means more money. While you could postulate that down the road they would work out a three-pronged agreement between car sponsors, tv partners, and the teams to share advertising revenue from showing the cars on-screen, thus lessening the need for commercial time, this is a long way off. The TV tail is wagging the on-track dog, and its highly unlikely anything will change anytime soon. CHANCES OF THIS HAPPENING—NOT GOOD UNDER THE CURRENT TV DEAL.
4.) Shortening the Season—its also been said for years that the Nascar season is too damn long. 36 points races and two non-points events make it the longest season in major professional sports. Unfortunately, there’s even more issues with eliminating races than shortening them, since this would involve track owners as well. Sure, Nascar (via ISC) controls a majority of the schedule, but could you ever see the head honchos in Daytona turning down money? On the flip-side, moving a handful of races to the middle of the week, while exhausting for teams, could help to avoid the next problem on the list, although it would likely chase more fans away who would be unable to watch a Wednesday night race with work on Thursday morning. CHANCES OF THIS HAPPENING—ALMOST CERTAINLY NOT IN THE WAY MOST FANS WOULD WANT IT.
5.) The Football Problem—football rules in the USA, and the NFL is the king. IndyCar has done its best to get out of the way of the pro football behemoth, ending its season in early September. As stated prior, shortening the season is unlikely (and impractical), so could Nascar ever truly compete with the NFL? Well, not in its current state. But 2016 was the first year in, well, years that the NFL showed a decline in ratings, and outside of the sport’s Midwest and Northeast strangleholds, attendance has gone from hard to soft sellouts. The NFL’s freeze on the fall could be thawing, and IF (and its a big if) Nascar can get its house in order, it could be ready to pounce. CHANCES OF THIS HAPPENING—DISTANT, BUT POSSIBLE.
6.) Lack of Rivalries—Petty vs. Pearson. Waltrip vs. Allison. Earnhardt vs. Wallace. All big rivalries which helped energize the fanbase and leave the hardcore followers thirsty for more. These days there really aren’t any rivalries of note—Kyle Busch vs. (INSERT DRIVER HERE) hasn’t materialized the way Nascar has wanted it to, and Jimmie Johnson, while the most-dominant driver of his generation, hasn’t really had anyone come along and REALLY challenge him off the track. The funny thing is, the opportunity is there. Drivers have become social media savvy almost by requirement, and there’s no place better for a beef to simmer than online. Sponsors might not like it at first, but if something is allowed to build organically (fans will spot a fake rivalry a mile away), we could be in store for some “clean, old-fashioned hate”. CHANCES OF THIS HAPPENING—MORE LIKELY THAN YOU MIGHT THINK.
7.) Manufacturer Intrigue—speaking of rivalries, it could be argued that the biggest rivalry in the sport itself has always been between Ford and Chevy, with Dodge occasionally jumping into the fray. Its hard to argue that fans’ loyalty to a certain manufacturer hasn’t helped the sport over the years, but for better or (more likely) for worse, such a rivalry is almost impossible today. The days of a manufacturer, or even a team, getting a hefty advantage over their rivals is pretty much gone, as the fabled “gray-area” in the Nascar rulebook has gone from a wide berth to a narrow crevice. Not to mention the fact that the minute a driver or team starts performing better than before, cries of “cheater!” come out from the fans. While its good to know the days of drivers lapping the field thanks to a better engine are over with, with it has gone true mechanical innovation, and with it manufacturer intrigue. CHANCES OF THIS HAPPENING—NONE.
8.) Earlier Start Times—most fans on the east coast have been complaining in the past few years about the late start times for Eastern Time Zone races. Once it was a standard for races to start shortly after lunch/church (remember 1pm, 3pm, 7pm?) but now dropping the green flag has crept closer than ever towards 3pm. As this weekend has shown, this is not just irritating for those of us (myself included) who start work early on Monday, but it get obliterated when there’s a rain delay, which is a fact of life of racing in the summer. While the later starts have been done in the name of “west coast viewers”, one would have to think that even the hardest-core Brian France sycophant would see the corollary between later start times and lower ratings. So while Nascar isn’t one to admit they’re wrong, one has to be optimistic. CHANCES OF THIS HAPPENING—POSSIBLE.
9.) More Exciting Racing—this is the most-nuanced, most-fragile, and most-difficult one to solve—and its also the most-important. Things like cookie-cutter race tracks, lack of passing, and the dreaded “aero-push” have made more and more races a follow-the-leader affair. Unfortunately, Nascar’s in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario with this one—it seems like when they fix one thing, they screw something else up. Obviously there’s a few things they can’t change from a practical standpoint (those tracks aren’t going to magically shrink from 1.5’s to short-tracks). Of course, even if they DID manage to find the “magic formula” to make racing more-exciting, some fans would simply claim that it was fixed—and not in a good way. CHANCES OF THIS HAPPENING—DISTANTLY POSSIBLE, BUT A LOT NEEDS TO GO RIGHT.
10.) Happier Fan Base—after the lack of excitement on-track, arguably the next-biggest barrier to gaining new fans into Nascar are, oddly enough, the old fans. When Nascar went from regional sport to national superpower it left a lot of its core fanbase mad. And now that the casual fans have moved on to something else, all that’s left is a bitter, aging core group of angry fans. Its very similar to what goes on in IndyCar (if you want to learn about the sport, be prepared to be screamed at about a split that happened 20 years ago) and acts as a barrier to those who honestly want to know more about Nascar—why would someone want to join a fanbase that’s always angry. Of course blaming fans is a fool’s errand, and to use a personal phrase I’ve coined, “I wouldn’t be so pissed off if you would stop pissing me off so much”. CHANCES OF THIS HAPPENING—NOT TOO GOOD.
IN SUMMARY—As you can see there’s multiple barriers to Nascar getting to the point that so many of its fans would love to see. In a way its like this—imagine you go to a steak restaurant once a week. Lately you hate the cut of steak they’ve been using. The restaurant is locked-in to buying and using this cut of steak every time for years on end. So they serve it differently, use different sauces, change up the sides—everything they can do to distract you from the crummy cut of steak. Eventually, no matter how much you like the restaurant, you’re going to stop going there unless they finally change the cut of steak. But they can’t.