Sports Nut

Why the NBA (et al.) Laps NASCAR

NASCAR named a new president last week, and his name wasn’t France. That’s sort of a big deal. From its 1947 inception up until now, NASCAR has had two presidents: Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr. Oh, don’t worry, the Frances haven’t abandoned the sport entirely. NASCAR’s new head, Mike Helton, will be joined on a five-person board of directors by … Bill France Jr. (the former prez), Jim France (his brother), Brian France (his son), and Lesa Kennedy (his daughter). Inbred much? Wouldn’t the sport have benefited from a few hired guns instead of sticking with rule by surname? NASCAR has suffered greatly by relying on a cabal of good old boys to run it instead of bringing in some hotshot financial whizzes and proven development badasses.

Sure, everybody raves about NASCAR’s family atmosphere. The Frances are much loved. The race drivers park their motorhomes side by side in the speedway infields each week so their kids can play together in the oil puddles. Fans come as families, too, camping out together for race weekends. This is all very lovely. Some even credit NASCAR’s family style for its lack of nasty labor disputes (the kind that piss off fans of most other major sports).

But how effective has this all-in-the-family philosophy really been? Think about it: This league is as old as the NBA yet not nearly as successful. It’s always had major investment from the big car companies, and a natural set of deep-pocket advertisers (oil companies, for instance). It has boasted stars from Junior Johnson to Richard Petty up through Jeff Gordon today. And the basics of the sport haven’t changed since 1947 (go fast and turn left till you’re done). It has everything going for it. So why is it only now beginning to rake in the really big bucks while the NBA has seen the green flowing in for a couple of decades? Why is it only this year that a TV deal on a major network came through? Why has NASCAR languished on TNN for so long while even hockey (hockey! it’s Canadian!) moved onto Fox several years back? Why is NASCAR, despite all the crowing about new tracks in Chicago and Los Angeles, still pretty much a regional phenomenon? (Don’t believe me on this one? Ask your friends in the Northeast or California if they’re big stock car fans.) OK, attendance at the tracks has always been superb, but doesn’t this leave NASCAR with even less excuse for missing out on the TV gravy train until now?

I submit that NASCAR’s disappointing lack of TV dough and exposure in the past and its still-not-guaranteed future success (let’s face it, it’s been the “next big thing” for about 10 years now) stem from the fact that it’s basically run by the people who ran it in 1947. This is absurd! The NFL competes neck-and-neck with NASCAR in stadium attendance but blows it away in revenues. Why? The NFL isn’t a family business! Likewise, the NBA isn’t run by James Naismith’s great-grandson—if it were, would the ‘80s and ‘90s have been quite so fan-tastic for its owners? Baseball named a former Yale president as its commissioner, for crissakes, and the best NASCAR can do is somebody not literally related to its founder? This sport could be immense if its management were more on the ball. America loves cars—we should all be NASCAR fans by now. There could have been major network deals running for the last 20 years, renegotiated and renegotiated again for ridiculous amounts of money. NASCAR could have spread out to more than just a few, fairly limited demographics. Instead, for most of America, when NASCAR hits the airwaves next season, it’ll be starting from scratch.

Makes you wish they’d brought in a few David Sterns, doesn’t it? Or would that have ruined the family atmosphere?