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December 16, 2013

Case Study for the Playoffs: NASCAR

Reading Blutarsky's piece on the playoffs, as well as Year2's piece that inspired it, I can't help but to think about NASCAR, and what has happened to its popularity, especially in person attendance at NASCAR events. I know there are some fundamental differences, namely NASCAR being the anti-CFB with it's monopolistic control and access structure. Still, I can't help but to look at the swoon in popularity of NASCAR in the past 10 or so years and think there are some lessons there for the powers that be in college football.

Not that they'd learn them. I was struck by Blutarsky's assessment, one that I agree with:
First of all, I think that underestimates the degree to which guys like Slive, Scott and Delany are convinced they’re the sharpest people in the room. I look at them and see a bunch of 21st century Jed Clampetts who just happened to be in the right place at the right time controlling access to a product that consumers want and are willing to pay for, while most simply see the size of the contracts and are dazzled by the numbers.
Which sounds like what Bill France was doing in the late 90s. NASCAR went from 26 races to 33 races. Those 33 races don't include the All-Star race or the Bud Shootouts held the week before Daytona. They also decided to have a ten race 'playoff' designed to make the championship, and the build up to it, more interesting.

And now NASCAR is dying, or at least moving backwards in popularity. They turned their back on what worked for them. The shorter tracks and Labor Day in Darlington and fall in Atlanta and North Wilkesboro and Rockingham. And their TV partners are saying no thank you. TBS and ESPN decided they didn't want NASCAR anymore (note the irony of NPR doing a NASCAR piece). And fans aren't going anymore. Why would they? The racing is homogeneous. The only thing unique about the cars are paint schemes and name plates. The cars all look the same.

And all of that for a demographic that was merely passing a fancy at the sport.

That is the biggest red flag I see for college football. At some point, teams are going to stop worrying about the regular season, you know the season that brings in the revenue for the conferences and the teams, when the schools/conferences figure out how to milk more money from a playoff than the regular season can bring. For a good example, see Madness, March.  You think I'm joking? Just ask John Calipari:
This after an early season loss. Certainly Kentucky can survive a November loss to Michigan State (and for that matter about 10 more losses, approximately 1/4 of their schedule) and still have a shot at playing for the national championship.

You think that won't be the case when we go to 8 teams in college football? How about 16 teams?

They aren't good at leaving great alone or identifying what it is they are facing:
Well, simply, these are people who don’t handle crisis well. Heck, they don’t even identify crisis well. Remember, one of the reasons we’ve got this brand-spanking new playoff is a panic over what they thought at the time were declining postseason revenues that were causing the conferences to bleed money, and that’s turned out to be non-existent. So what happens when the next terrifying thing (another ratings drop, or an O’Bannon loss, perhaps) hits?
Thinking back to NASCAR, they were worried about two things: Growing their sport to new markets and the (perceived) problems the season faced with competition in the fall from football and the baseball playoffs. So they shunned what worked for them, went to more 'fan friendly' and TV friendly tracks, and just assumed the base would follow. But it didn't. There is nothing compelling about non-characters running the same car as 42 other non-characters around the same track they are racing at for over half the season. Yet this is the product NASCAR has designed. And if we are being honest, that is what the Mike Slives of the world are also worried about.

The message I take from NASCAR is one that many former fans, including myself, have been saying for some time: Don't screw with what is working for your current demographic in the blind hope that those who are your current fans won't bail when you take away what currently attracts them.

Because they will. There are those of us that are die hards that will always support our teams, but it is harder to say who are general college football fans who will bail on the regular season when a late September match-up is at best a seeding game for the playoffs.


Benjamin Currier said...

You make a lot of good points in here. NASCAR might be the best example, but you can also point to the current obsession with playoff expansion across many of the major sports.

Look at the NBA: Half of the league makes the playoffs. You don't even necessarily have to have a winning record to make the playoffs. And three rounds of best-of-seven games BEFORE the (best-of-7) Finals? Why even bother watching the regular season? It's essentially just Fall-Winter Training for the playoffs. And yeah, historic teams in big money markets are still doing OK with attendance/popularity, but has that helped teams like the Hawks? Bucks? Charlotte Bobcats? Have the mega-Playoffs attracted more fans overall to the NBA that weren't watching it before because the playoffs were "too short?" Rinse & repeat with the NHL.

Have more people watched the MLB playoffs because they added the one extra Wild Card game? What happens when they inevitably expand that to a three or five game series, and then we're playing baseball well into November? Is that really gonna attract more fans who weren't watching the MLB playoffs before because they were too short/there weren't enough teams, and thus the playoffs were "boring?"

No. Because you're right: the people who are already watching (and therefore, financially supporting) college football are the ones who have issues with the bowl system, future playoff problems, etc. I'd hate to see the passion, excitement & tradition of the college football regular season be washed away because the NCAA chases a mirage of dollar bills in a fancy, ever-expanding playoff system.

Alkaline said...

Expansion is certain to happen eventually, though not necessarily soon. When it does, would an 8-team playoff really be so bad if done in the manner that playoffs are supposed to be done? Assuming the power 5 conference champs are in plus the "Group of 5" champ that only leaves two at-large spots up for grabs. That's still a miniscule margin for error.

As it stands, this year's Iron Bowl would have likely resulted in only seeding changes with a 4-team playoff in place. I don't think going to 8 devalues it any further provided the 4 extra spots are used to provide a clear path to the postseason for designated conferences.

Aladawg said...

Add the fact that the "thrilling " plays in NASCAR and football have been legislated out for safety purposes and that core issue truly threatens the sports . Good hard nosed hits and defense are what we live for recognizing as players do/should that it can be a dangerous game. The same for NASCAR and the potential for wrecks at higher speeds. It's what NASCAR fans used to live for. (Tyler looks like work filters screw me posting at work, but home is now working!)

NCAA2014Playoff said...

The regular season will be important if it is the only way into the playoff. And the season & conference will be important if teams play every other member and there is some regional and traditional connection among teams. The B1G now admits 9 conference game season is the best so that means 10 team conferences are the best. Fairness requires equal strength conferences. See the Plan at
One championship game proves nothing. But 4 wins proves that the best team beat the best teams. The Perfect Playoff Plan 16 spells it out

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