SBD/January 31, 2014/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Just Win, Baby: NASCAR Unveils Overhaul To Chase With Emphasis On Victories

France thinks the new format will attract more fan interest to the sport
NASCAR on Thursday confirmed weeks of news stories by announcing a new format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship that adds elimination and emphasizes winning. NASCAR Chair & CEO Brian France showed a series of playoff grids that started with a 16-driver postseason field and eliminated 12 drivers over nine races, setting up a winner-take-all race to end the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. France said, “This (format) checked every box. It’s going to elevate racing. It’s going to make winning the most important thing by a wide margin. It’s going to change the strategies. Everything is focused around winning and that’s exactly what our fans want.” NASCAR decided to expand the Chase field from 12 to 16 drivers and make it so that a victory in one of the first 26 races of the season almost assures a driver will make the Chase. It also set up three elimination rounds in the Chase. Any championship-eligible driver that wins one of the three races in those elimination rounds automatically advances to the next round. France is optimistic that the format will attract new fans and elevate interest in the sport, which should translate to increased attendance and TV ratings. He said, “We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think the interest level and the ability to bring in new fans ... wouldn’t be a positive thing." NASCAR initially planned to implement the change for the '15 season when its new TV contracts begin with Fox and NBC, sources said. But the sport’s leadership decided last fall that it should push ahead with the changes in '14. NASCAR briefed owners, drivers, tracks and TV partners on the plans over the last month (Tripp Mickle, Staff Writer). 

UPPING THE COMPETITION: In Jacksonville, Don Coble writes with winning "becoming so important, there already was some concern that drivers might be too aggressive at the end of races." France said that he "expects that, too, but said the sanctioning body will clamp down on dirty driving" (FLORIDA TIMES-UNION, 1/31). FS1's Jeff Hammond said the new rules are "a game-changer" and will "redefine how guys go out and race each and every week." Hammond noted a driver "may actually run over somebody now to get that win because it's going to guarantee you an opportunity to go to the big dance” ("Fox Sports Live," FS1, 1/30). In Pittsburgh, Ralph Paulk notes while NASCAR officials "insisted the playoff format wasn't designed specifically to narrow the competition gap between traditionally strong teams and smaller stock-car programs, it seemingly bolstered the chances of making the Chase for some such as Furniture Row Racing and Wood Brothers" (PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW, 1/31).

CHANGING THE GAME
: USA TODAY's Nate Ryan writes more than ever, "the sport that always has emphasized itself as 'sit and steer' wants to be more like 'stick and ball,' the derisive term that NASCAR personalities have applied to non-racing pursuits for decades." The announcement was a "tacit admission that perhaps other sports had it right after all when deciding a champion." The "guarantee of made-for-TV drama also was a major selling point" (USA TODAY, 1/31). In Charlotte, Tom Sorensen writes NASCAR "borrowed heavily" from the NFL, NBA, MLB and college basketball. Sorensen: "Why wouldn’t it?" Other sports have "found a trick that works." Playoffs "fill gyms, stadiums and ballparks," while TV ratings and attendance "rise and apathy falls" (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 1/31). In L.A., Jim Peltz writes NASCAR in recent years has "seen attendance and television ratings decline." Although still among most popular sports in the U.S., NASCAR "has been looking for ways to ignite additional interest" (L.A. TIMES, 1/31). In Ft. Worth, Carlos Mendez writes NASCAR has "long wanted to create 'Game 7' moments." Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage said that the new system is "on the way to doing that" (FT. WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM, 1/31).

GETTING THE GREEN FLAG: ESPN's Dale Jarrett said NASCAR "hit a home run" with the changes. Jarrett: "In everything that they've said, it's about winning and that's really what you want. Whatever sport it is, you advance by winning and that's what you do here." He added, "I love the elimination fact, that's what really our country has come to be. We love these brackets. We love the other sports that have that, and I think they got it exactly right. Will there be some room for tweaking along the way? I'm sure that we'll see that as we go through the years, but right now I think this the best case scenario for everyone involved" ("SportsCenter," ESPN, 1/30). SI.com's Lars Anderson wrote this move was the equivalent of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell "tearing up the rules for the NFL postseason a month before the regular season kicks off." France is a "desperate man doing a desperate thing." But the "only way for NASCAR to be relevant in the fall, when its Sunday afternoon events go head-to-head with the NFL, is to freight each of the 10 Chase races with as much meaning as possible." This new system "does that" (SI.com, 1/30).

AROUND THE TRACK REAX: The announcement was shown live on ESPN and FS1, and a number of NASCAR’s senior execs from N.Y. and Daytona as well as track presidents from around the country attended the press event in Charlotte. Many expressed optimism that it would help the bottom line. SMI President & COO Marcus Smith said, “It’s a fantastic decision by NASCAR, probably the best thing they’ve done in the past 10 years. ... Winning is the only thing that matters. That will translate into ticket sales.” Bristol Motor Speedway GM Jerry Caldwell said he expects tracks to begin touting the win-and-you’re-in system to fans in their promotional efforts. He added, “It translates into exciting races and exciting races translate into ticket sales.” Chicagoland Speedway President Scott Paddock, whose track hosts the first race of the Chase, said he expects the change to boost hospitality and suite sales. His sales team plans to approach the sponsors of the Daytona 500 winner and those for other early race winners to pitch them on buying inventory for the Chicagoland race, which their driver is almost assured to be in after a victory. Paddock said, “There’s a bigger pool of corporations now that will be part of the Chase. When someone gets in, we’ll welcome them to the party in Chicago" (Mickle).

STILL WORK TO DO? In Orlando, George Diaz writes it "certainly won't be your grandfather's NASCAR any more, traditionally based on a model that awards consistency over the course of the season" (ORLANDO SENTINEL, 1/31). NASCAR Senior VP/Racing Operations Steve O'Donnell said, "Those who may not like this are very passionate about it. What I would say is instead of dismissing them, we very much value their opinion" (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 1/31). In Las Vegas, Ron Kantowski wrote auto racing has "carved a nice little niche for itself, and you could make the argument that is has become the fourth major sport among Americans." That is why NASCAR "must quit fiddling with the rules." NASCAR "keeps altering the Chase for the Cup because it insists on trying to manufacture drama instead of letting drama develop on its own" (REVIEWJOURNAL.com, 1/30).
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