Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Is it time to change NASCAR's traditional race day?

   Is it time to change NASCAR’s traditional race day?

   For the second Chase for the Sprint Cup in the past three seasons, NASCAR is seeing a significant ratings decline during the 10-race playoff.

   In the 2010 season, every Chase race except for the season finale at Homestead, Fla., saw a ratings decline over the previous season.

   So far in 2012, in the six races run on the same day as the year before – one was rained out in 2011 – TV ratings have been equal or in most cases significantly down from 2011. The worst was this past Sunday’s race at Martinsville, Va., which was off 22 percent from a year ago.

   Small ratings increases and decreases happen all the time for a variety of reasons, but anytime a sport loses one-fifth of its audience, it should be a cause for concern.

   In the last several years, NASCAR has tried a variety of methods to recapture some of the TV audience lost in the past five to eight years.

   There have been numerous “tweaks” to the Chase format and its rules.

   Common race start times were tried, and then abandoned.

   NASCAR even loosened its authoritative grip by allowing drivers to settle more of their issues between themselves on the track.

   While certainly the economy has seen significant problems in the past four years, the NFL – NASCAR’s competition on Sunday – has seen no similar significant declines.

   So, the question arises, is it time to yield to the NFL juggernaut rather than continue to compete against it side-by-side?

   The NFL isn’t going anywhere, folks. In fact, even during the time NASCAR grew dramatically in appeal and ratings, it wasn’t because the NFL went south. The NFL grew, too, just not as much.

   And there are no signs America’s fascination with the gridiron will change.

   Hence an idea: Why not make Saturday afternoon the traditional race day for the Cup series?

   Yes, there are lots of college football games in the fall, but only the biggest games – a relatively small number – even come close to bringing in the number of national viewers that NASCAR Cup races do.

   While this change may be inconvenient for ESPN/ABC as they broadcast dozens of college games on Saturdays, the network would still benefit if, in fact, the audience for NASCAR grows because some fans are no longer torn away by the NFL.

   One other thing to consider: Fans and particularly those who work in NASCAR generally enjoy Saturday day or night races because it frees up a weekend day. It would be difficult to imagine at least those in the industry not enjoying many Sundays off.

   It would be a bold step. It would also step on tradition.

   But if the long-term success and vitality of NASCAR itself would be better off, would it really be so bad?