After five years of covering NASCAR for the excellent websites That’s Racin’ and The Frontstretch, my passion for the sport is completely gone.
I am, of course, not the only one. NASCAR is plummeting in popularity and there is no end to the freefall in sight. Ratings have been steadily dropping and recent numbers show that NASCAR has lost a quarter of its viewers in the last six years. At races, entire swaths of grandstands are covered with advertisements where there used to be fans. Sponsors are leaving. Teams are disbanding. It is now entirely conceivable that NASCAR could be gone as an entity in 10 years.
There are plenty of reasons for the decline that I won’t go into on a baseball website. But if you want to look at one change NASCAR made that represented a true turning point, look no further than the Chase.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup begins after the first 26 races in the 36-race season. After 26 races, the top 12 drivers in the standings have their points reset, and then 10 points are awarded to Chase drivers for each win they have scored. They resume racing, even with non-Chase drivers on the track, and the highest scoring driver of the 12 in the final 10 races wins the Sprint Cup.
If you think this is an ill thought-out and contrived attempt to force excitement, you’re not alone. NASCAR fans who were polled on the idea overwhelmingly opposed it then and still do today. Despite NASCAR’s lavish hype and promotion of its playoff, the Chase remains wildly unpopular with fans.
When I read about baseball considering adding two more playoff teams, possibly as soon as 2012, I shudder at the thought of baseball heading in this direction. Commissioner Bud Selig was quoted as saying “Eight is a very fair number, but so is 10.” Honestly, should the 10th best team in baseball be eligible to be a champion? Should baseball go through a 162-game season to still have a third of the teams be playoff-worthy? I’m not a Selig-basher, but I surely do not like where this is headed.
The idea of 10 playoff teams doesn’t rise to the level of the NHL or NBA, where teams with losing records qualify for the playoffs nearly every season. Or even the NFL, where a dozen teams have a shot at the Super Bowl. It certainly doesn’t compare to the oddity of a format that includes non-playoff participants in playoff events like NASCAR does.
But it still reeks of discarding excellence in the name of revenue.
Ted Williams once said of all of the theories on what made him the greatest hitter that ever was, he pointedly stated, “No one ever said anything about the practice. Dammit, you gotta practice!”
Achieving excellence in any endeavor requires great dedication and sacrifice, but this is especially so in professional sports. And baseball is the toughest of all of the professional sports, as all of us enlightened fans know. A baseball player must constantly hone any number of skills through endless repetition that most people who complain about their salaries cannot begin to conceive. No ballplayer makes it to the major leagues simply by being blessed with talent.
Similarly, to put together a team of such dedicated athletes capable of being the best of them requires endless patience, extremely thoughtful evaluation of each player’s skills, and yes, money, or at least the wise expenditure of it.
Over a 162-game baseball season, it is almost assured that the injuries, bad calls, lucky breaks, and other happenings that should be anomalies, in sports and in life, will eventually cancel each other out, and the cream will rise to the top. As such it is the 162 games in the regular season, not the “games that count” in the playoffs, that are the measure of a team’s greatness. A hole-in-one, even one low-scoring round, does not a great golfer make. But adding playoff teams creates that impression, diminishing the importance of the long, difficult grind that tests the physical and psychological mettle of even the most well-conditioned of athletes.
Major League Baseball will not endear itself to the longtime and truly appreciative fan—who has stuck around through embarrassing work stoppages, PED-enhanced shattering of long-standing records, and artificial turf—by giving unqualified teams an opportunity for undeserved greatness, in a transparent grab for even more revenue than the $7 billion baseball took in last season.
Consider the possible outcome of a 10-team playoff. Any fans that don’t like the idea to begin with—and there will be many—may decide to quit following the sport altogether if their team’s exciting and successful season and the possibility was of taking home the big trophy ended prematurely by a team that should not have even been eligible in the first place. Imagine if this were to happen to the Cubs, or the Mariners, or another team whose fans have been so unfailingly loyal through decades of disappointments.
With any playoff format, occasionally undeserving teams will win. That has been the case as long as I have been alive. But this does not mean that such a possibility should be encouraged just for the sake of it.
Had NASCAR considered this, Jeff Gordon might be going for championship seven instead of five, putting him in the elite company of names like Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty and starting heated arguments over who was the best of the three. That might have created a strong buzz about the sport.
I’m speaking anecdotally, but in my experience, football, basketball, and hockey fans do not regard their sport with the reverence that baseball fans do and that NASCAR fans once did. NASCAR has dropped in attendance in a few years more than baseball did in 1995—and not for entirely different reasons. Fans of both sports definitely do not take kindly to what they perceive as unwarranted change or destructive greed.
Baseball may not think that adding two teams to the playoffs would be a disaster, and maybe it wouldn’t. But what is happening in NASCAR is a full display of the folly of attempting to contrive more excitement, and baseball should pay attention. That baseball has recovered from 1994 and appears to be surviving the steroid era offers no guarantee that there will be no backlash to more disrespect of the game in the future. There still may be plenty of baseball fans one work stoppage away from never returning.
NASCAR disregarded excellence in the name of revenue and it has cost them dearly, in both revenue and a reputation for disrespecting the sport.
Take heed, Mr. Selig.