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NASCAR’s Generation 6 car, which will make its Sprint Cup Series debut at the Daytona 500 next month, is expected to bring tighter and more competitive racing to the sport, NASCAR Chair & CEO Brian France said yesterday during his annual state of the sport address. He said the Car of Tomorrow, the fifth generation car that ran its final race last year, helped bring cost control and safety to racing, but also hurt the sport. France: “Obviously we got away from some things that historically had worked well for us: The manufacturer rivalry, which we're excited about; the relevance issue with the car manufacturers. And then I think we put a lot more focus in the new car into the rules package surrounding the car that we didn't put nearly -- I can tell you we didn't put nearly as much science into the old car as we tried to achieve better racing.” He expects the new Gen 6 car, which replicates the showroom look of Toyota’s Camry, Chevy’s SS and Ford’s Fusion, to rejuvenate fan interest in manufacturer rivalries and help boost automakers’ sales. But he added that the real success of the car will be measured by the number of lead changes this year, what drivers say about it and how the competition on the track looks. France: “Everything is designed to have closer competition, and we'll see.”
HOT TOPIC: Talk of the car has dominated every session of the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour that began Monday, and it was the subject of six of the 15 questions France fielded from media during a Q&A session. That session was far less combative than the Q&A held two years ago. At that time, TV ratings were still in a freefall and reporters wanted to know what was being done to fix the sport. France even rebuffed a question from the AP regarding what else NASCAR considered changing because "the list of things wrong with the sport is very, very long." He said that the sanctioning body was setting itself up to "take the sport in a smart direction for many, many years." Between the Gen 6 car, the launch of a new website, a five-year plan to boost interest in drivers, attract young fans and improve the at-track experience, NASCAR is doing exactly that. NASCAR in recent years even spent time developing a new track-drying system capable of drying Martinsville Speedway in 15 minutes, an innovation that should shorten rain delays considerably.
TUNING IN: France said that NASCAR has begun TV rights discussions with Turner and ESPN, which have the rights to the final 23 Sprint Cup Series races of the season through ‘14. Fox last year renewed its rights for the Camping World Truck Series and 13 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, signing a seven-year deal through ‘22 that is valued at $2.4B. Turner and ESPN have an exclusive negotiating window with NASCAR through late this summer. If they do not come to terms on an extension, then NASCAR can take the TV package to the open market and accept bids from others like NBC, which said it would be interested. France said he anticipates getting renewals done with ESPN and Turner in the coming weeks and months. He added, “We have great partners now. My hope is that we'll be able to extend those relationships. But those negotiations are alive and well, going fine” (Tripp Mickle, SportsBusiness Journal).
PARKING VIOLATIONS: SMI Chair & CEO Bruton Smith yesterday began a campaign to prevent start-and-park cars from participating in NASCAR races. Start-and-park teams typically begin a race, run a few laps and then pull off the track. They can collect as much as $2M a year by doing so, and Smith said that their participation in Sprint Cup races damages the credibility of the sport. Smith: “It’s a joke for the race fans that a car runs five laps or 15 laps and parks. ... I’m not gonna use the word ‘fraud,’ I guess you could, but it’s a joke.” Smith encouraged NASCAR to decrease the field of Sprint Cup races from 43 to 36 cars and shift the money being awarded to start-and-park drivers to the drivers who finish in the top 10 (Mickle). Smith added of start-and-park teams, “I'm going to try my best and I hope you'll join me and see if NASCAR can't do something about this. Because it's certainly not adding anything to our sport and it does take away.” Meanwhile, Smith said, "These race cars are too fast. ... If you go back and look, 70, 80 years ago, and I'm mostly referring to what Indianapolis was doing, racing was made better every time we slowed them down." Smith acknowledged that he “has a challenge on his hands with those initiatives.” Smith: "Will I win? We'll find out later. But we're going to certainly try to slow them down" (AL.com, 1/22).
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's decision yesterday to reinstate Saints coach Sean Payton following a season-long suspension for the team's bounty scandal was "another important step in bringing closure to one of the most scandalous episodes in league history," according to Jarrett Bell of USA TODAY. While some fans "might forgive," they also "won't forget anytime soon." That the reinstatement "came two weeks early was a nice olive branch for Goodell to extend as part of the healing process -- and a shrewd way to erase a distraction" prior to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Goodell "undoubtedly was swayed by the notion that next-season began for the Saints at least two weeks ago, when the 2012 season ended" (USA TODAY, 1/23). SI.com's Peter King reported Goodell and Payton "met for four hours on Monday afternoon, and it was totally under the radar until the announcement" yesterday that Payton had been "reinstated with full privileges and authority to run Saints business immediately." Payton has "never been one to be schmoozy with muckety-mucks, and I don't expect that to happen now." King: "I am sure he'll always feel Goodell was way over the top in his discipline of the Saints, and him. But he knows how to be political. You can bet in his meeting with Goodell he emphasized nothing like a bounty program or a pay-for-performance system would ever happen with the Saints again" (SI.com, 1/22). ESPN's Ed Werder said the “league insists it’s coincidental" the reinstatement comes as Goodell and other league execs "will soon be travelling to a very hostile environment in New Orleans for the Super Bowl.” Werder: “Basically, they say that the season is over, that it’s time for preparations for next season to begin, and so they’ve allowed Sean Payton to be reinstated prematurely” ("NFL Live," ESPN, 1/22).
NOTHING MORE THAN A PR MOVE? NBC Sports Network’s Ross Tucker asked, “How can anybody look at this as anything other than a PR move by the NFL to try and get ahead of this?” (“NBC Sports Talk,” NBCSN, 1/22). ESPN's Tim Hasselbeck said he was not surprised by Payton’s reinstatement because the NFL “has been just so PR-conscious, and that’s exactly what’s going on” (“NFL 32,” ESPN2, 1/22). Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio said getting Payton reinstated "before the NFL goes down to New Orleans for the Super Bowl was critical." Florio: "It still won’t be friendly, but it won’t be as bad as it would have been if Payton’s status was still undecided" ("PFT," NBCSN, 1/22). ESPN's John Clayton noted Goodell did not want the suspension to be a “distraction” during the Super Bowl. Clayton: “There was no reason to try to continue to have Sean Payton and the fans be angry about not having Sean Payton back” ("Outside The Lines," ESPN, 1/22). But in New Orleans, Mike Triplett writes the decision "reeked of 'too little, too late.'" Triplett: "Slicing two weeks off of Payton's sentence certainly won't appease the Saints' fan base. So all of those suggestions that Goodell did this the week before Super Bowl 2013 comes to town to curry favor with the locals seem a bit silly" (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 1/23).
FORGETTING ABOUT THE PAST: In New Orleans, Jeff Duncan asks, "Have people forgotten all of the good Goodell did for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina?" SMG Senior VP/Stadiums & Arenas Doug Thornton, who manages the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, said, "Roger was with us when it counted. He worked and sweated here. People don't realize how granular he was down here. He was in the weeds with us." Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said, "He was a major player in executing what we had decided was going to be the policy to keep the Saints in New Orleans, in Louisiana and in the Gulf Coast region. He was the guy who managed the process." Duncan writes, "If anything, New Orleans owes Goodell a thank you" (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 1/23). ESPN’s Michael Wilbon said Goodell “worked relentlessly” to keep the Saints in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Wilbon: “Without Roger Goodell, the Super Bowl could be played in San Antonio right now, and people there should know this.” ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser said to Wilbon, “You are 100% right, and it will have no effect because Roger Goodell killed the Saints this year” ("PTI,” ESPN, 1/22). CSNBAYAREA.com's Ray Ratto noted Goodell "worked hard to keep the team from San Antonio in the aftermath of the hurricane, but that was yesterday’s news." New Orleans is "back in the Super Bowl rotation for the first time [in] 11 years because of that, and that is yesterday’s news as well" (CSNBAYAREA.com, 1/22).
STICKING IT TO GOODELL: In a special to the N.Y. POST, Peter Finney Jr. reports Saints fan Robert Wilson following the Saints' 0-4 start to the season decided to make "10-inch voodoo dolls with a likeness of Goodell and five handy stick pins." Sales for the voodoo dolls are "approaching 3,000 at $15.99 apiece." Wilson said, "We can't make enough to meet the demand. It's just fun" (N.Y. POST, 1/23). In N.Y., Gary Myers notes it may be "coincidence, but Goodell didn’t attend one Saints home game this season." It probably was a "good idea to limit his trips to New Orleans to just the one that he can’t miss" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 1/23).
FOXSPORTS.com’s Jason Whitlock writes, "What's wrong with the NBPA, and what’s not addressed in the carefully crafted and manipulated, $4 million FIRE BILLY HUNTER report, is the lack of engagement in union affairs by the overwhelming majority of NBA players in general and the league’s top players in particular.” What is wrong with the NBPA is that "players who matter don’t care enough to get involved.” Until the NBPA is “led by an executive director with the necessary passion and intellect to push a vision strong enough to capture the engagement” of the players, the union will “always remain a toothless, dysfunctional mom-and-pop operation at best or an exploited puppet regime of power agents at worst.” The NBPA is the “most underachieving organization in all of sports” (FOXSPORTS.com, 1/23).
IMPORTS & EXPORTS: SPORTING NEWS' Brian Straus noted MLS is “stepping in and holding up a transfer agreement between one of its teams and a foreign club.” FC Dallas MF Brek Shea “now wants to play in England.” FC Dallas not only is “willing to sell the winger’s rights, it is understood to have agreed to a transfer fee with Stoke City pending the player’s return to full fitness following foot surgery.” The fee reportedly “was around $3.2 million,” but MLS “thinks Shea is worth more” (SPORTINGNEWS.com, 1/22).
RIGHT DOWN THE LINE: The AP's David Ginsburg reported the first-down line that appears on NFL broadcasts “could one day become part of the in-game experience at all 32 NFL stadiums.” First Down Laser Systems Developer Alan Amron said that the system “projects a first-down line across the field that can be seen in the stadium and on TV.” NFL Senior VP/PR Greg Aiello said, "We have not been convinced that it would work for us, but we are open to further discussion after the season." Amron created his system with “financial backing from former NFL player and broadcaster Pat Summerall” (AP, 1/22).