Last week at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., NASCAR’s CEO Brian France along with President Mike Helton sat down with reporters to give what you might call its “state of the sport” address. Expected announcements were the changes in the points system and how the field for the Chase would be set as well as the expected tweaking in qualifying.
It may seem odd that NASCAR would make so many changes following a season that was the most competitive in recent years and provide a championship chase that saw the leader being overtaken for the championship in the last race of the year. NASCAR wants to ensure that the level of competition on the track doesn’t slip and most of the changes made actually add a little more drama to the season-long hunt to become one of the 12 drivers that makes it into the Chase with the opportunity to run for the title.
The job of the sanctioning body is to also produce an on-track product that helps the tracks sell tickets and its television partners see the kind of numbers in the ratings that they want to see. Unfortunately, the last couple of seasons have produced a large number of empty seats at most stops on the schedule and the sport’s broadcast partners are seeing numbers that seem to drop with every passing season.
NASCAR can only do so much, and making sure that the competition that we see each and every week is as good as it can be should go a long way in selling tickets and help prop up the sagging TV ratings. That may or may not be the case, but NASCAR is more than willing to work with both the track owners and its broadcast partners to find ways to help each of them.
It was only last season that NASCAR addressed the problem of the different start times that had made catching the race on TV diffi cult as every track and network seemed to be starting the races at a different time. The sanctioning body stepped in and announced a uniform start time for races. All of the “eastern” races started at 1 p.m. while those west of the Mississippi started at 3 p.m. The only exception to those times were the night races.
That was good news for the fans that had to drive home from the track after a race, as well as those watching on TV. It was very easy to get into a regular schedule on Sunday if you were watching at home, but that is going to once again change beginning this season. Don’t look for the changes to begin immediately as most races leading up to the Chase will remain 1 p.m. starts.
The change comes when the TV-friendly NFL kicks off its season in September. The NFL starts its games at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Sunday, and it has always been tough for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series to go head to head with the NFL. Most of the races beginning in September, which includes the 10-race Chase schedule, will move back an hour to 2 p.m. in hopes of attracting more fans. The final race of the season in November at Miami will have a starting time of 3 p.m., and I’m sure that NASCAR hopes that it can repeat the drama of having three drivers enter that race with a legitimate chance of wining the championship.
Another area that comes up when trying to make a race broadcast more exciting for fans is the length of a race. Five hundred miles can seem short at some tracks while at other tracks it can seem like a marathon. The Sprint Cup season begins with coverage by Fox and that network has been vocal in wanting to see the length of races cut so it can be covered in a three-hour broadcast window. Fox chairman David Hill says that there are just too many entertainment options to hold a fan’s interest over the time that it now takes to complete a race in the series.
Of course, before any races are cut, there have to be discussions with the tracks that put on the races and any discussions would have to eventually involve the impact that it has on the fans. If a track owner cuts the length of his 500-mile race to 400 miles, that’s a reduction of 20 percent. The question immediately comes up about cutting ticket prices to match the reduction in racing. Do you really think that a track owner would be willing to slash his ticket prices 20 percent? That’s a tough call, but NASCAR needs the revenue that it gets from the networks so don’t be surprised if the length of a race is the next area that NASCAR addresses.