Sunday, October 4, 2009
The Island Of Brian France
In contrast to the growling and hands-on style of his late father, Brian France continues to appear in the media as an executive completely insulated from the reality of the world around him. Readers of TDP have seen France offer public words on topics from Mauricia Grant to NASCAR's drug policy.
Despite France's public assurances that Grant's allegations were completely false, NASCAR subsequently fired multiple employees and then settled with Grant out of court.
After Ryan McGee's interview on ESPN.com with former Camping World Truck Series driver Aaron Fike shook the sport, France defended the existing NASCAR drug policy. As we all know, NASCAR eventually changed to a modern system of testing that has resulted in multiple suspensions.
In 2007, France and NASCAR began a new TV contract that featured Fox Sports, TNT and ESPN splitting the Sprint Cup Series pie. Fox filled vacant weekends early in the year, TNT paid dearly to keep its toe in NASCAR and ESPN returned to fill the ABC Sundays without NFL Football.
Now, we are in the third season of ESPN covering the Chase for the Championship. This version of the NASCAR playoffs is the invention of just one man. Here is an excerpt from a Boston Globe story on the topic.
“It was actually Brian France’s idea,’’ said Jim Hunter, NASCAR’s vice president of corporate communications, referring to NASCAR’s chairman and CEO. “He and Mark Dyer, who was working for us at the time, were at dinner one night and they were talking about different scenarios of some sort of playoff system. And Brian sort of said, ‘How about if we did this?’ and Mark says, ‘Well, it might work.’ ’’
“The biggest thing was that once we reached this part of the season, we fell off the radar as far as coverage,’’ Hunter said. “Once Labor Day hit, and a race would be big, it’d be page 8, three or four paragraphs, no big deal. TV would or would not even mention it. So the last third of the season, we were just nowhere.’’
“Brian started floating it with Mike [Helton, NASCAR president] and me and everybody else and we said, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ ’’ Hunter said. “Then his dad [the late Bill France Jr., NASCAR’s former chairman and CEO] was like, ‘Are you nuts?’ But he hung in there with it.’’
Now firmly entrenched, the Chase has resulted in some TV issues that are affecting the fan base. Teams not in the top twelve, no matter how high-profile, simply cease to exist on ABC unless they are in contention for the win.
There was no Chase when ESPN was last in NASCAR, but the company is familiar with all kinds of different playoff formats from the other sports carried on the ESPN family of cable and broadcast networks. Then what could be the problem?
There is one fundamental truth that France and ESPN have overlooked. NASCAR fans do not change their allegiance simply because their driver did not make the Chase. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth fans do not put on Jeff Gordon t-shirts and pull for the #24.
The focused coverage and media hype on the Chase drivers forces fans of non-Chasers to abandon their NASCAR TV viewing and wait once again for the Daytona 500. The fundamental problem with that is there are more drivers outside the Chase than in it.
France's recent comments about the TV ratings and the Chase hold the key to his disconnect.
"It wasn't what we thought it was going to be, but that was just one race," France said. "The reality of it is the racing was probably the best that we've had at Loudon in a long, long time. The Chase has got the right storylines, the right things going on and the racing is very good. So we're very happy with it.
"We were up in August for almost every event and up in Richmond as well (last year's Richmond race was rain delayed). So we were a little bit surprised at that. It's one race. But if we keep having this kind of racing and the Chase unfolds the way I think it's going to, that will take care of itself. It just will. I'm not concerned about that."
Well, fans of the drivers and teams outside the top twelve are speaking with their TV remote controls. This Sunday the race from Kansas starts at 2PM ET, one full hour after TV viewers have been drawn into the early NFL games.
Should the NASCAR on ESPN team again structure the entire telecast around the Chase drivers, it may continue the run of poor TV ratings as fans walk away from a telecast that may never show the driver they have supported since February.
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