NASCAR, oh NASCAR. You never change. You’re constantly stirring the pot and causing people to alternately wax poetic about your beauty or take extreme umbrage at your hideousness. (Read about the changes to NASCAR's playoff system here.)
First of all, bravo, NASCAR, bravo, I say! You’ve played this situation with surgeon-like skill. Either NASCAR leaked (or arranged for a third party to leak) details of its proposed change to the Chase to Jim Utter of the Charlotte Observer in mid-January, or they just got lucky that someone spilled to Jim. Either way … BOOM … three weeks of free publicity during which NASCAR could say “no comment” but read all the reactions.
Whether the trial balloon was launched on purpose or not, the entire NASCAR media horde rushed in, reporting what Jim was reporting. The resulting mix of news and opinion spawned hundreds of stories worth millions of dollars in FREE publicity for NASCAR an opportunity for them to gauge reaction.
Cue the Festival of “It’s Official!” Stories. Ka-ching ka-ching goes the NASCAR free publicity register. It’s a case study for PR, really. Masterful. My hat is officially doffed to you, NASCAR.
Second of all, the Excitement vs. Purity debate. It never really goes away in racing. The Purity argument in re: crowning a series champion says drivers should be given points for each race based on how they finish. Add the points up after the final race the driver with the most points is the champion. Everyone is still in the hunt for the championship until mathematics rules them out. This is how IndyCar decides their championship today. And, for all the years I can remember, the championship has gone down to the last race between at least two drivers with legit shots to win it, and maybe a third who would win if the top two crashed out early or even have a crappy day.
The Excitement argument is that the Purity way is too boring. Not action-packed enough, especially when you get one driver who just mauls the field and stomps his way to victory, draining the exciting unpredictability from the event, which loses you audience, which loses you money. Excitement is powered by randomness. Excitement wants the 32nd seed in the NCAA basketball tournament to beat the undefeated first seed.
In 2004, when NASCAR introduced the framework for the current Chase for the Championship formula, it introduced one elimination race that comes at the end of the regular season when all but 12 drivers are artificially eliminated from contention for the championship. So people who are not in favor of this most recent change are in the position of arguing that one elimination race is good, but four are bad.
You can read all about the NASCAR playoff changes here. Just Google “NASCAR championship changes” and you’ll see all the many articles from established journalists who pretty much hate the change. Why? Because it funnels the championship down (artificially, they contend) to the last race, a winner-take-all showdown between the four cars that are still eligible for the championship. It sets up the possibility that the fourth-highest car in points could beat the number one car for the championship in a single race. The term “artificial” is floated a lot. Since there are elimination races, the possibility of teammates doing crappy stuff to help teammates avoid elimination is elevated.
This elimination setup will require more active refereeing in NASCAR, in my view, to try and guard against gaming of the new, more game-able system. This increased officiating need is in contrast to the virtually no officiating in the “Boys Have at It” era. I think that will be a BIG challenge for NASCAR in having this new format last.
First, the average fan, I don’t believe, cares that much about the points championship. This is just me guessing, but my gut is that the average fan who tunes in does so to see how his or her favorite driver or drivers do in THAT RACE. So Dale Jr. fans tune into see how he does. Maybe he gets 17th, maybe sixth, maybe he wins. But after that race, you’re like “get ‘em next time!” and go about you business until the next race. Same deal if you have four drivers you like, you tune in to see how each of them does. Or maybe you tune in to see who will emerge from the pack and win this race.
I admit to doing this in both IndyCar and NASCAR. In NASCAR, I tune in to see how Danica does, primarily. I get excited based on what Danica does in the race, primarily. Oh, it’s also fun to see how others do, see who’s hot today and who’s not, but it’s all about the race at hand. Maybe if Danica was I contention for the points championship I would follow it, but she’s not (and probably won’t be this season as well) so I really don’t pay that much attention to who is. Oh, I’m vaguely aware, but it’s very ancillary to my enjoyment.
So a fair question is, if people don't care that much about the playoff as is, why change it? Mainly to try and get them to care more about the playoffs. Adding "excitement" to the playoff format could increase interest in the Chase (is the argument).
Second, “purity” in racing is a tough sell. The centrality of the machine to the sport, and all the variables the centrality of machine introduces, and all the changes that are caused by changing technology, and all the rules that are available to be bent and massaged, kind of makes “purity” a tough sell for me to begin with. You can find people who think sprint cars with wings on them are impure, for example. Purity can also come into conflict with natural evolution. If you're too into purity of sport, you're pissed about the forward pass being introduced in football. Or a 12-team football playoff. Why not just make the team with the most wins champion? Or if there are two or more with equal records at the end of the season, then they play it off? You can see how the purity thing can be taken to extremes, which proves there is wiggle room there. How much room is the source of raging debate.
Third, (and most importantly to me) this ain’t curing cancer. The fans who are most passionate about NASCAR are the fans who have the strongest feelings about things like this, and therefore have the loudest responses to this. That’s logical. But if you say … “I just watch it to see what happens” or “it’s just racing; what’s the big deal?” then you are less likely to get FREAKED OUT over a playoff change. My journey has been from super passionate fan to far more casual fan, so my freak out level is lower now over such things than it would have been five years ago. You could tell how invested people were in the sport by the level of histrionics in their anticipation of and reaction to the official announcements. Tweets yesterday prior to the announcement about NASCAR “changing as we know it” and “breaking my heart” in three hours … that’s a lot of investment in a sport. I don’t ridicule it, but neither do I share it.
The worst that can happen -- the racing equivalent of an 8-8 NFL playoff team winning the Super Bowl against a 16-0 team on some fluke play or a shanked extra point or something. That wouldn’t crush my soul, in fact that would be interesting. It would suck for the 16-0 team and its fans, but for me it would be Cinderella Story time, and a big old "welp, that's football" moment. If you are worried about the righteousness of the champion, then that bugs you. I am not so worried about the righteousness of the champion and am more concerned about being entertained, so it doesn’t worry me as much.
So, my predictions:
Most of the people who say they are DONE with NASCAR because of these changes won’t be DONE at all. They’ll watch. Maybe hold out for a couple of races, then be back in there.
IndyCar could offer these disaffected NASCAR fans who claim they are DONE with NASCAR due to the changes an alternative racing product, one that decides its champion based only on points, with no artificial sweeteners like the Chase or elimination rounds. Maybe they could pick up some new customers (fans). But they won’t do that because they don’t do non-PR marketing that I can see and said action won’t do anything to attract attendance or TV viewership to races held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is where IndyCar’s focus is right now.
Fans, in general, will like these changes. The bracketizing of the NASCAR playoff will attract fans for the same reason the stick-and-ball playoff tournaments attract them. We want our team (driver) to qualify for the playoffs (via winning a lot of games). Then we love the win-or-go-home format of the tournament. People will fill out brackets once the 16 driveres are known. There will even be NCAA-like bracket pools. TV viewership for the NASCAR playoffs will rise, and that means revenue for all involved will rise.
The media will cover the crap out of the new playoff. I would in their shoes. It's new. It's of interest to their readers. That's what you cover in sports. There will be floods of stories before and after every elimination race. They will cover it because the millions of NASCAR fans will reward them for covering it via viewer and readership.
By this time in 2015 there will be a lot of people saying “Huh, I didn’t think it would work when they first announced it, but …”
And, at the end of the day, we’re not talking about curing cancer.