by Tony Basilo
You'll have to excuse 44-year-old NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Brian France. The new impresario of emissions has a headache. A real strong, wicked headache. The kind that Tylenol, â“the official pain reliever of NASCAR,â” can't solve. France needs a Goody's Headache Powder. That's the strong stuff that, until this year, was NASCAR's official pain reliever. So like a lot of NASCAR's heritage, it was eschewed for something bigger but not necessarily better.
Now the '07 season is a quarter old, and France is lording over a major crash in the front stretch. It's the kind of wreck that would be spectacular if only someone was watching. Unfortunately for NASCAR, viewers and spectators are disappearing quicker than their â“sportsâ” credibility. After all, what can you say about a â“sportâ” when one of its most visible drivers, Tony Stewart, compared his profession to pro wrestling?
Here's the skinny on NASCAR. It left its own long before its own started to leave it. It was a matter of time before NASCAR felt the sting of a decline. Stewart made his statement recently on his satellite radio show after a race in Phoenix when he felt track officials were manipulating a close finish by declaring a caution flag due to â“debrisâ” on the track. Only the TV cameras couldn't find any â“debris.â” Stewart ended up losing the race to Jeff Gordon, who tied the immortal Dale Earnhardt in career wins with the â“victory.â”
Though Stewart was ranting, he was right for the wrong reasons. â“It's like playing God,â” he said. â“They can almost dictate the race instead of the drivers doing it. It's happened too many times this year. I guess NASCAR thinks, â‘Hey, wrestling worked, and it was for the most part staged, so I guess it's going to work in racing, too.' I can't understand how long the fans are going to let NASCAR treat them like they're stupid before the fans finally turn on NASCAR. I don't know that they've run a fair race all year.â”
NASCAR is like wrestling, but only in the fact that it believed the hype. NASCAR is huge business, but it is a huge niche business. Wrestling is week in and week out the most highly rated cable TV show. It has even beaten Monday Night Football head to head at times.
NASCAR is, get this, a $3 billion annual enterprise after revenues from tickets, television, sponsorship, souvenir sales and any other way the sport can pimp itself to its loyalists who can't seem to get enough. The only problem is that NASCAR was expecting this take, which peaked a couple years ago, to continue to grow. That's what the sport sold to ESPN/ABC, who coughed up a 40 percent increase over NBC for the rights to a bulk of the sport's races.
The season isn't yet through the first turn and you can already see the smoke. Television is the lifeblood of any sport that fashions itself as a close No. 2 to the NFL. Remember the wrestling analogy when you try to comprehend how NASCAR is off 15 percent over last year's already diminishing TV ratings. (In 2006, a whopping 21 of 26 races were down in viewership from the year before.)
In what were once considered â“growthâ” markets by Brian France, the sport is getting beaten by bad Sunday movies. In major markets like Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, viewers are vanishing in the fumes. So France and NASCAR can spin this reality to the point of a brush with a soft wall. Where the rubber really meets the road comes with the sobering news that heritage racing TV markets like Atlanta, Ga.; Greensboro, N.C.; and Greenville, S.C. are also way down.
Spin as they might, it will be hard to get out of the first turn without facing the facts. Last year, NASCAR tried to blame NBC's lack of support as a TV partner for the dropâ"now what? Not even the World Wide Leader in Sports can save the day for France's empire that reported a 4.5 percent drop in revenue from the first quarter last year. That from the New York Times , which also recently reported that NASCAR is down 19 percent in earnings compared with the first quarter of '06. Wow!
Sooner or later, when you alienate your base, as NASCAR has by forsaking its heritage in leaving towns like North Wilksboro and Darlington for places like Vegas and Chicago, Kansas City, Texas et al., while eschewing hard racing in box cars driven by Ken Dolls strapped with plates while navigating boring tracks littered with phantom cautions, with repeated phony looking finishes, you're going to pay the price.
Tony Stewart didn't mean what he said, when he said what he meant. Still, NASCAR is like wrestling. Someday all those replica hoods, die-cast cars and cheezy driver wife-beaters will go into junk closets in towns like Chicago, Philly and Kansas City. Right next to that Hulkamania No. 1 Foam Finger, the Sting Mask and that Macho Man T-shirt. Hey Brian France, put that Tylenol down. To quote the Hulkster, â“You're going to need something stronger, brother!â” m
Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.
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