Race Weekend Central

Fanning the Flames: The BCS vs. NASCAR’s Chase, V8 Supercars & Yellow-Line Flak

Another great batch of emails this week. Typically, your enthusiasm wanes as the season winds down, but I guess a tight championship battle has kept the adrenaline pumping.

Three to go, crew.

Q: Love your column, Matt! Sorry, this is kind of a long point/question.

I find myself wondering about ratings lately and what makes us NASCAR fans so determined to constantly debate the rules of the sport. My husband is a huge college football fan and while you hear him and his friends complain about their team’s performance, their coach’s decisions and occasionally the officials’ calls, you never hear them say, “Whose stupid idea was it to award six points for a touchdown? It should be 20.”

Or “I hate that uniform they’re wearing today, I’m turning off the game.” (The fact that fans hate the look of the CoT is one of the reasons cited for low ratings and declining interest in the sport.)

But there is one glaring exception: the BCS Championship. The decision for the change 12 years ago was apparently money and power driven. The networks, the conferences and the bowl venues want it over a fan-preferred playoff system, so it stays, even though fans universally hate it and media members cry every year that it’s time for a change. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Yet the interesting thing is that this much-maligned move by the NCAA hasn’t affected its sport’s ratings or interest or economics. Football fans are still glued to the TV every week, they flood the stadiums, still get season ticket holders to renew – and they’ve been RAISING prices over the last few years at the successful schools, economy be damned.

(Case in point: the season tickets my husband gets for Florida — and have been in his family for 80 years — will double in cost for the 2011 season from what we paid in 2009.) Fans still buy merchandise and remain staunchly loyal to their team, even when they’re crappy and some SEC team with a nice guy hottie poster boy (Tim Tebow) has dominated several years in a row. (Being Florida supporters, our family and friends are like the Jimmie Johnson fans of college football).

All these “negatives”… yet we have no ratings slide (much less freefall) for college football. No empty stadiums. Ticket prices rising instead of lowering? Sounds UNfamiliar, doesn’t it?

I wonder if the Chase is the problem? Or is it the dizzying changes over the last few years and the resulting alienation of old-school fans? Or is “the product” (and don’t you absolutely HATE that label furnished by The Powers That Be) truly broken? Am I reaching too far for this correlation? Any thoughts? —Wendy in SC

A: Good points all around, Wendy. You’re correct in that any major sport is bottom-line based, but in college, the football and basketball programs have to carry the programs that fail to turn a profit (which is pretty much every other sport out there). Therefore, the university presidents are hell bent to milk every dollar they can out of the money makers. So yeah, in the case of the BCS and the NCAA basketball tourney it is about money and power.

Another issue I think NASCAR faces is that, in relation to the stick and ball sports, very few fans grow up participating in motorsports. Now, that doesn’t hurt a sport like NASCAR so much as it helps baseball, basketball and football, because those that once played the game can identify with it more. It’s easier for a sport I played or play to get in my blood than one I merely observe. Some may not agree with that statement — and I’m not saying it’s a wholesale truth — but I believe it factors into what sports people choose to follow religiously.

And to your final point, I agree that the ratings and attendance slide has its roots in a number of changes to the sport — rules, cars, venues, etc. — that was once so appealing because of its uniqueness. It wasn’t like other sports and that piqued curiosity. The fact that the “fans” who jumped on board eventually saw it as a fad and went back to whatever had their attention before is no surprise. And the fact that NASCAR lost many staunch supporters while pandering to the like surprises me even less.

See also
Voices from the Heartland: Hats Off to NASCAR For Finally Capturing the "Casual Fan"

Now NASCAR finds itself stuck without the Johnny-come-lately, a sizable portion of the old guard and unable to fill overbuilt grandstands. Thus, you have an attempt to go back to a bygone era with its “Have at it, boys” doctrine and a sheepish departure from the Car of Tomorrow.

The water found its level. The bubble burst. Condense it down to one sentence and pick your cliché. Or, we can all just accept the fact that America, as a whole, likes football more than auto racing.

Q: Hi Matt. I watched some amazing racing on Sunday — but only when I switched to the SPEED Channel after the conclusion of the Alabama lottery. They were showing last week’s Australian V8 Supercars Gold Coast 600, and [the] final three laps featured a heart-stopping duel between the leaders, beating and banging their way through a city course with the third-place car waiting to pounce on any mistake.

Best racing I’ve seen this year, this side of Martinsville. Any idea why they programmed this directly against the Cup race, and why on earth they are not promoting the heck out of the Supercars? — Kevin in NY

A: In my best estimation, SPEED doesn’t sell the hell out of the Australian V8 Supercars because they’re Australian V8 Supercars. “Australian” being the key word, there.

Sports largely conducted on foreign soil don’t typically translate into ratings bonanzas in America. Think rugby, cricket, Formula 1… even professional soccer, tennis and cycling have a difficult time garnering interest — much less ratings — in the States. We Yanks just can’t get behind devoutly following something that isn’t “ours.”

That, and when Speedvision relaunched in Charlotte as SPEED, the niche audience they sought was the NASCAR fan. In fact, over time there was hope their creation would become to NASCAR what the NFL Network is to the NFL. That, of course, did not happen, but the foundation of the channel was built on catering to the NASCAR crowd; and with FOX’s David Hill and Patti Wheeler now calling the shots, expect more NASCAR-centric programming – not less.

John Daly over at The Daly Planet did a very informative piece that touches on the history and direction of SPEED. You can read it here.

As for why they aired the V8 Supercars opposite a live NASCAR event, I’d think because SPEED was simply filling time between NASCAR Raceday and The SPEED Report.

By the way, if you’re bored during the Texas race this Sunday, you can click over to SPEED to watch the F1 Brazilian Grand Prix, some D1 Grand Prix Drifting and MotoGP from Valencia.

Wendy II’s turn:

Q: It is who you are and who your sponsor is that determines if passing below the yellow line is legal. Dale Jr., Smoke and Kyle is OK and if Johnson, Gordon, Harvick or Hamlin did the same it would be OK, too. But if Regan Smith, Aric Almirola or Johnny Sauter tries it, it’s illegal. Will NASCAR get consistent on the passing below the yellow-line rule? Ever??!! — Wendy H., Huntersville, N.C.

A: Nope. By the way, NASCAR made the right call this time, but should move to an “anything goes” rule concerning the yellow line on the final lap.

And finally, Beth is in to keep me honest:

Q: Come on Matt, no updates on your fantasy football team this year? You already missed giving your Kentucky Derby and NCAA basketball tourney picks. Are you slipping? ;) — Beth Hawkings

A: Apparently so. Randy Moss is on both my fantasy squads, so let’s hope Vince keeps that long ball flying with purpose after the bye. My Derby pick got lost in the Nashville floods that hit us that same weekend and I didn’t want to jinx my ‘Cats in the tourney this year. That Elite 8 loss is still a tough one to think about… Huggins has Calipari’s number.

On that note, I’m getting out of here. Thanks for hanging around until the end. For the video clip of the week, let’s harken back to Texas Motor Speedway’s first race in 1997. New track, new audience, big trouble. Credit Bruton for spending the cash to fix the joint, though. And tell me Dale Jarrett didn’t jump the start… or that DW’s chrome Western Auto Chevy didn’t have the coolest damn paint job you ever saw.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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