Finley Factor: Is This What We Really Want?
by Michael Finley On Mon, Jan. 23, 2017
On Monday evening, NASCAR held a press conference that announced dramatic changes to its race and points format.
Races will now be split into three different segments, with the top 10 drivers in the running order receiving regular season points at the end of the first two segments. There are now playoff points, which will carry through to the playoffs. No more Chase name, now it’s just “the playoffs” (Which, granted, is a good thing).
Brian France said at the beginning of the press conference, “I’m proud of the unprecedented collaboration from our industry stakeholders, each of whom had a common goal – strengthening the sport for our fans.”
Is this what we really want as NASCAR fans?
It wasn’t a desperately needed change. No current race fans were clamoring for scheduled cautions and points being rewarded mid-race, but that’s what they got. Regular season points have become more irrelevant to the season at large due to how many are awarded now, and adding in playoff points just makes a convoluted system even more convoluted.
The saddest part of Monday evening’s press conference was that the goal of these “enhancements,” appealing to a younger, casual audience, will not succeed because of constant fundamental changes to the sport.
Casual fans like to sit down on any given Sunday and watch fast cars go around in circles. They don’t want to listen to commentators try and calculate where their favorite needs to finish at in this segment relative to another driver in order to make it to the next round of the playoffs. Simplicity is the key of the game.
One thing I like about the current playoff system is that simplicity. You win a race, you’re (practically) in the playoffs. You win a race in the playoffs, you advance to the next round. You make it through and win at Homestead, you win the championship. It’s that simple. If NASCAR could have held off from fundamentally changing the sport, in a few years fans would grow accustomed to the change and the fan base would more than likely be on the upswing again.
But coming together every couple of years and fundamentally changing aspects of the sport has probably done more harm to NASCAR than just about any other factor. It reaches a point where a NASCAR fan has to really be involved and study the sport to get the maximum enjoyment out of it instead of just tuning in on Sunday.
By the time most fans have figured out the sport, a change in the points system, car template, whatever, here comes NASCAR making a huge change to the fundamentals of the sport. If a fan of football in the 1970s went into a coma and came out of it last week to watch Sunday’s NFL games, the game may have changed dramatically (as far as the action on the field), but the fundamentals of the sport would still be intact enough to where said fan could keep up. Every game has four quarters for 15 minutes apiece, the basic team make-up is the exact same, the best team in the NFC faces the best team in the AFC to determine the world champion in the Super Bowl, etc. If the same were to occur to a NASCAR fan from the ’80s, it would be so substantially different to where said fan would have to spend hours online trying to make heads or tails of it.
NASCAR brass will point to all manner of excuses as to why the ratings are falling and grandstands are being torn down, such as the weather or the wide assortment of entertainment options or the economy or whatever. The reality of the situation is that if a product is good enough and familiar enough, there will be fan demand regardless of the situation. I’m a big Green Bay Packers fan. The NFL routinely sells out games in the snow or in single digit degree weather at Lambeau Field because there is still a demand for the product. There was never a noticeable problem for the NFL during the 2008 financial collapse like there was for NASCAR. Part of that may be due to the over-reliance on corporate sponsorship, but that wouldn’t explain declining attendance and TV rating numbers in the years since.
Some may say I’m comparing NASCAR too much to the NFL or other prominent stick-and-ball leagues. NASCAR itself has been trying to evolve into a variation of these sports for years now. If they want to make NASCAR like these other leagues, they need to be compared to them. It isn’t a one-way street.
These changes aren’t going to change much in the grand scheme of things due to the Chase structure. The best teams will rise and perform in the Chase as they have for the last four years. But these “enhancements” serve as a quintessential example of unneeded NASCAR change. If these are the last major changes for the next 10 or so years, that would be great. But at the rate NASCAR constantly changes its structure, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Watering a plant five times a day or moving it out of its pot isn’t going to make a flower bloom. It takes time, patience, and stability for it to bloom. Let’s hope NASCAR figures this out someday.