By admin | January 13, 2010
By Richard Allen
When NASCAR signed a new television deal in 2001 part of the allure was that the vast majority of Sprint Cup races would be carried on major network television. NASCAR had an exciting product and had some very marketable personalities. The sport was even able to withstand the loss of its most recognizable name, Dale Earnhardt, at the very beginning of the new television contract.
Fox and NBC aired most races and, for a while, with great success. Then, when the TV deal was renewed NBC was dropped and ABC/ESPN joined the fray.
At about the time of the renewal, television ratings began to drop. The reason for the drop may have to some degree been linked to the networks but the real fault lay with the sanctioning body itself. For whatever reason, NASCAR decided to take a new direction. Races were moved from venerable old venues to more glamorous places that had no real connection with the sport. And, major changes were made in the type of car being used and the way in which the yearly champion was determined.
Although NASCAR’s leadership remained in a state of denial for quite sometime, it was fairly apparent that the changes made in the mid to late 2000s were driving fans away.
Since 2004, television ratings have been in a state of decline. Also, empty seats, once almost unheard of at NASCAR Sprint Cup events, began to appear with greater and greater frequency.
On Wednesday, ABC and ESPN announced that the majority of the races those networks cover would be shown on cable outlet ESPN rather than the major network of ABC. Nine of the ten Chase for the Championship races will air on cable as opposed to ABC, which has previously shown those playoff type events.
Much will no doubt be made of the fact that the races designed to decide the Sprint Cup champion have been demoted by the television industry.
I contend that this is not the real issue. The real issue is that the leadership of the sanctioning body have presided over this decline and are now reaping what they have sown. Had NASCAR not made the poor decisions they made leading to this point the networks would not be changing.
If this demotion along with the sagging ticket sales and loss of numerous sponsors serves to fully get the attention of those in Daytona Beach who make the decisions this may actually be a good thing.
This sport needs real fixes, not stop-gap measures and short term hype.
NASCAR needs to get away from places where they are not wanted. They need to package their product in such a way as to fit the modern landscape but not completely turn their backs on their own past. They need to allow brand identity in the car they use and then keep their legislative hands off of it so teams can do what they need to in order to make it work. And perhaps most of all, they need to return to a legitimate system of determining a champion which will also cause drivers and teams to abandon ‘points racing’ and make winning individual races the most important thing.
NASCAR has very recently shown that they are paying attention. Decisions to use double file restarts, the likelihood of minor changes being made to the car, and the elimination of the over legislated on-track rules to have been implemented in the near past show that Daytona Beach is getting the message.
However, keep in mind those in power are not yet fully aware of reality. An example of this came last year in Talladega when announcers criticized what was an awful race. NASCAR officials opted to shoot the messenger rather than own up to their own blunders.
There is still much more to be done as is evidenced by the extensive list I mentioned above. Maybe the demotion of having their playoff events on cable may serve as yet another wake up call. It is not the network covering the sport that matters. It is the product they are airing that will ultimately decide whether this sport continues as a viable sports entity or fades into the oblivion of apathy.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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