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Monday, November 17, 2014

THINK BASEBALL WHEN PONDERING NASCAR 2014

To explain the NASCAR season, I first have to talk about baseball.

Bud Selig's long tenure as Commissioner of Baseball (I've always thought that, and Heavyweight Champion of the World, are the two most impressive titles in all of sports), will officially come to an end in a matter of weeks. But Selig's time effectively concluded with the World Series, determined by one run in Game 7.

And the Series featured a traditional winning team in the San Francisco Giants and a small market Cinderella Kansas City Royals. (The last thing I did before leaving the Philadelphia Daily News in 1980, for CART, was cover the Phillies winning the WS over the Royals.) No doubt Selig enjoyed the matchup, which short of Yankees vs. Dodgers or Red Sox vs. Cubs, was about as good as it could get for what Selig's tenure was all about. (Except for smaller market team translating to down TV ratings.)

By the way, let's note that WS competition was exactly the sort of "Wow" and "Game 7" type moments Brian France has been saying he wants for NASCAR.

Anyway, Selig's commissionership was certainly controversial. Even more importantly, though, it was CONSEQUENTIAL. Think about it: Wild card teams, play-in games, inter-league play, revenue sharing, drug testing, cancellation of a World Series due to a players' association strike followed by a long period of labor peace, refusal to reinstate Pete Rose, Congressional hearings, steroids, Barry Bonds, massive player contracts, doing away with separate league presidents and umpires, moving Milwaukee and Houston to different leagues, selling the MLB-run Montreal franchise to owners in Washington, D.C., new stadiums, rich TV deals, instant replay, a former team owner becoming President of the United States, having the post-Sept. 11, 2001 Series fall into November, specifying the playing of God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch, pitching domination, slow pace of play, All-Star Game determining WS home-field advantage, Alex Rodriguez suspension, successful enough to hand-pick his successor. Baseball is a fundamentally different sport as Selig leaves than it was when he entered.

Whether that's good or bad is up to you, the fan -- and history -- to decide. My point is Selig became one of the Top 10 most influential people in baseball history. He was CONSEQUENTIAL. And will, unquestionably, have his own place in Cooperstown.

Which brings me to France, the NASCAR chairman.

Even if France left the stock car sport today, his time as CEO, starting in September 2003, mirrors Selig's as controversial, historic and consequential. 

Among the things to consider: Creation of the Chase format and its evolution to this season's "elimination" format, management restructuring, pressure for more side-by-side racing and exciting finishes, TV contracts which guarantee NASCAR's financial stability for a decade, digital and social media expansions, the Winston-to-Nextel-to-Sprint, Busch-to-Nationwide-to-Xfinity, Craftsman-to-Camping World series sponsorships for the three national series, relocation of the Cup championship celebration from New York City to Las Vegas, offices in Los Angeles, New York and Charlotte, broadening the mandate of the research and development center, Car of Tomorrow to the current Gen-6 vehicle, double-wide restarts, green-white-checker finishes, steering the sport through the 2008 national economic crisis, diversity programs, penalty structure, handling of the 2013 Richmond race manipulation mess, drug testing, creation of the Hall of Fame, retooling of the souvenir business, industry growth initiative. 

All is not perfect. The formation of the Race Team Alliance, born of escalating costs and continuous rules tinkering, tells us that.

Both Selig and France benefitted from good timing as the creation of Fox Sports 1 and 2 and NBCSports cable network increased demand for content to fill those thousands of hours of airtime. And that jacked-up the price from what either sport would otherwise have been able to demand.

Most could agree nothing has been more discussed and debated than the Chase. France's attempt to bolster NASCAR's season-ending stretch to better compete against college and especially pro football was copied by NHRA, the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup, and others. He took it to perhaps its ultimate extreme this season by boiling the marathon 36-race championship season (and a couple of meaningless exhibitions, which should be done away with) down to a Final 4 and highest-finisher at Homestead being crowned as Cup titlist.

Winning, we were all told, was now the emphasis and would be rewarded. Yet winless Ryan Newman had a chance to claim the Cup at Homestead. Don't doubt for a second France and NASCAR dodged a bullet on that one. Kevin Harvick's superb winning drive at Homestead not only clinched the championship but all four finalists ran competitively for most of the race. Which was about as good as it could get for the NASCAR Powers-That-Be.

I predict a rule change will come, maybe not for 2015 as it obviously would be a slap at Newman, but it will come, to where all Final 4 drivers must have at least one points-paying victory during the season. That would have put Jeff Gordon in, and eliminated Newman coming out of Phoenix, and avoided a week of national mainstream media sniping at the prospect of a winless Cup champion which would defy the basic common sense of the American sporting public. And have no doubt France knows, if not publicly admits, that what the national media influencers say is important. To be prosperous in the long run, NASCAR must make new fans, and a key process in that is attracting attention via non-racing and non-sports media.

Virtually everyone agreed France's new system ramped-up intensity. And that helped lead to the post-Charlotte and post-Texas brawls. Which fed into the changing short-attention span American society's taste for conflict and instant gratification. It is very worthwhile to ponder the impression that leaves with America-At-Large.

One thing NASCAR not only doesn't do well, it doesn't do at all, is understate its presentation. Baseball has understood for generations how attractive that can be but NASCAR goes to the other extreme. I'll never forget, years ago, during the original Chase rules, when California Speedway was the season's second race. An MRN voice said during the pre-race show that Cal was very important because, afterwards, there would only be 24 more races before the Chase. Only 24 more races! The breathless and absurb hype of the meaningless All-Star race (which ceased to be an "All-Star" event a few years ago when Kenny Wallace got in) and Sunday's Final 4 introductions perfectly illustrates the true and real mindset in the NASCAR executives offices, especially under the current management.

Like it or not, what we got in NASCAR 2014 was not only what Brian France wrought. It was what he wanted.

My caution, going forward, is: Be Careful What You Wish For.

[ the year's last blog here mid-December . . . ]