Four New Year’s res­o­lu­tions to keep NASCAR rel­e­vant

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY BREN­DAN MARKS [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com isn’t Bren­dan Marks: 704-358-5889, @Bren­danRMarks

An­other new year, an­other set of res­o­lu­tions for us all to (try to) im­prove our lives.

Maybe that means you want to ex­er­cise more in 2019 — sur­vive that postNew Year’s rush at the gym for a few weeks, and you’ll be well on your way — or per­haps to cook. Maybe you want to re­duce your screen time, or take that va­ca­tion you’ve al­ways wanted.

Those sorts of in­di­vid­ual goals are im­por­tant, but that shouldn’t pre­clude groups and or­ga­ni­za­tions for mak­ing New Year’s Res­o­lu­tions of their own. For ex­am­ple, sports leagues, none of which needs more help in the year ahead than NASCAR.

As NASCAR’s at­ten­dance is­sues and dwin­dling TV rat­ings con­tinue, the once-pow­er­ful sport is in need of some se­ri­ous re­ju­ve­na­tion to re­gain its stand­ing among the Amer­ica pub­lic. So let’s fo­cus there this new year. Here are four ideas to keep NASCAR rel­e­vant — and alive — in 2019 and be­yond.

1. Leave the play­off sys­tem alone. Yes, it worked. Flaw­lessly. Now leave the darn thing alone.

NASCAR has im­ple­mented a num­ber of post­sea­son struc­tures and sys­tems in the past two decades, all with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess and con­fu­sion. Cur­rently, it has a play­off with the 16 best reg­u­lar-sea­son driv­ers in an elim­i­na­tion-style pool. Driv­ers are elim­i­nated ev­ery three races, and then the fi­nal four com­pete for a cham­pi­onship at Homestead-Mi­ami Speed­way in the sea­son fi­nale. It’s a sys­tem that not only was sup­posed to en­gen­der more com­pe­ti­tion, but also make it fea­si­ble for any driver to win if they truly are at their peak.

And it worked per­fectly. Af­ter barely slid­ing into the cham­pi­onship race, Joey Logano out­lasted the sport’s three win­ningest driv­ers from 2018 for his first Cup Se­ries ti­tle. The race it­self was dra­matic, but so was the buildup in the weeks be­fore. NASCAR’s sys­tem is still new and thus heav­ily crit­i­cized by more tra­di­tional fans, but Logano’s vic­tory at least proves the sys­tem works. Now, NASCAR should leave it alone and let fans em­brace the elim­i­na­tion style rather than re­plac­ing it in a few years’ time.

2. Make a much-needed sched­ul­ing over­haul, and skip the lit­tle tweaks. For years, NASCAR fans have clam­ored for sched­ul­ing changes to spruce up a daunt­ing 36-week slate of races. Only, to date, that hasn’t re­ally hap­pened.

In­stead, NASCAR’s “sched­ul­ing fixes” have been small, mostly in­signif­i­cant changes that leave fans with the same old rou­tine 34 of 36 week­ends. Adding the Char­lotte Ro­val — a hy­brid half-oval, half-road course track at Char­lotte Mo­tor Speed­way — was a great step, and the pos­i­tive mo­men­tum the Ro­val cre­ated should lend nicely to more sched­ul­ing cor­rec­tions in the fu­ture.

That said, enough with the tiny fixes. They’re in­suf­fi­cient, and frankly some­what in­sult­ing to the le­gions of in­tel­li­gent race fans. The 2019 sched­ule was set far in ad­vance, but for 2020, con­sider this: A 500 or 600-mile race may have been en­dear­ing and ex­cit­ing at some point, but it’s not sus­tain­able in to­day’s sports en­vi­ron­ment. Fans want more short tracks, road cour­ses, and home­town lo­cales — ditch the mile-and-a-half tracks in ran­dom parts of the coun­try, and give the fans what they want. It’s bad busi­ness to alien­ate your most de­vout cus­tomers.

3. Stop force-feed­ing fans the ‘next gen­er­a­tion’ of driv­ers. Whether it was Jeff Gor­don or Jim­mie John­son or which­ever NASCAR rac­ing prodigy it was, there has al­ways been some sort of young, hyped-up driver in the pro­fes­sional pipe­line. And in due time, the best of them ma­ture on the track, start win­ning, gain fa­vor, and even­tu­ally be­come stars.

What NASCAR isn’t, un­like many other pro­fes­sional sports, is a sport­ing en­vi­ron­ment where rook­ies and sec­ond-year com­peti­tors sud­denly and fre­quently dom­i­nate their older peers. As we saw with young tal­ents such as Bubba Wal­lace and Wil­liam By­ron this sea­son, it takes time for even qual­i­fied driv­ers to find their way at the Cup level. And that’s to­tally fine, and un­der­stand­able, re­ally.

What is that NASCAR keeps try­ing to force­feed these young driv­ers to fans and the me­dia. The way NASCAR is con­fig­ured, there are only 1015 driv­ers a sea­son even ca­pa­ble of win­ning a Cup race on any given day, and as the Big 3 of Mar­tin Truex Jr., Kevin Har­vick, and Kyle Busch proved in 2018, there’s a lot of cross­over at the top. It makes sense that NASCAR would want to con­tin­u­ally ad­ver­tise its fu­ture stars, but... what about the cur­rent ones? Give fans the time to or­gan­i­cally fall for driv­ers, give driv­ers time to or­gan­i­cally fig­ure out the Cup Se­ries, and give vet­eran stars the credit and cov­er­age they de­serve. Win, win, win.

4. Get to the fore­front of im­ple­ment­ing sports gam­bling: The na­tional le­gal­iza­tion of sports gam­bling was a mas­sive domino that fell in 2018, but we haven’t seen it fully im­ple­mented yet. Therein lies a per­fect op­por­tu­nity for NASCAR — and at this point, some­thing of a life­line.

One of NASCAR’s ma­jor prob­lems in terms of mar­ketabil­ity and ap­peal is that, un­like ev­ery other ma­jor sport, it isn’t con­sum­able in bite-sized pieces. As younger gen­er­a­tions trend more to­ward high­light reels and re­caps in­stead of watch­ing ful­l­length games or events, leagues have fol­lowed suit by con­dens­ing their prod­uct into 2, 5, 10-minute re­views. You hit all the high points that way, with­out ac­tu­ally hav­ing to ded­i­cate 3 hours for a whole game.

But NASCAR doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily have that to show ev­ery race. There are races with­out sub­stan­tial drama, with­out one or two key mo­ments to hone in, and fans’ in­ter­est re­flects that. By im­ple­ment­ing sports bet­ting — whether on spe­cific laps, wrecks, win­ners, stages, etc. — NASCAR can some­what avoid hav­ing to con­dense its prod­uct. Fans will pay at­ten­tion for longer pe­ri­ods of time, and even if not for full races, you’d rather have them watch for an hour than not at all.

An­other ben­e­fit of be­ing the first to go all-in on sports bet­ting is, well, be­ing first. Other leagues will ask for NASCAR’s ad­vice, want to know their pit­falls and prob­lems along the way.

But more than that, it will help NASCAR’s brand be­come more di­rectly tied to gam­bling than it would if the NFL or NBA beats them to it. Fans will start to as­so­ciate NASCAR with gam­bling, with that ex­pe­ri­ence in ad­di­tion to ev­ery­thing that comes with watch­ing or at­tend­ing a race, and be drawn to it.

Na­tional clout, plus the ob­vi­ous rev­enue and in­trigue, makes NASCAR and sports gam­bling a prime match for 2019... and for NASCAR’s sake, hope­fully much longer than that.

LYNNE SLADKY AP

Joey Logano kisses his wife Brit­tany Baca, hold­ing their son Hud­son, af­ter win­ning the NASCAR Cup Se­ries Cham­pi­onship Nov. 18 in Homestead, Fla.

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