The Grand Tradition Of Gimmickry Rolls On
This week, news broke that NASCAR appears to be on the verge of announcing major, radical changes to its season-ending, championship-deciding Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship playoff system.
A story published in the Charlotte Observer said changes will include an increase in the number of Chase drivers (from 12 to 16) and a driver elimination process after three of the 10 races, with the end result being a four-driver, winner-take-all format in the season’s final race.
Reaction was quick and brutal. There is a sizable sector of racing fandom which hates everything that has happened in NASCAR since 1990. Some of those folks still want the Chase gone and ropes as lap belts returned.
Also checking in on the move has been the media. Respectable media, even. One of the absolute best of that shrinking bunch is Bob Pockrass of the Sporting News. He wrote an opinion piece, the nut of which is that the alleged changes to the Chase represent little more than a gimmick.
Pockrass was not only grittily honest in his piece, but 100 percent correct in his assessment – as far as it went.
See, as long as we’re at least attempting to be honest here, let’s get this out in the open: All of professional, collegiate and so-call amateur sports are a gimmick.
Sports at all levels above that of the playground have become all about separating fans from their money and gimmicks are the most-used tools in the bag to do that. Those tools are used by every entity from individual athletes to the media.
The Super Bowl, Major League Baseball, the New York Times sports section, the Final Four, the BCS, SportCenter, the Little League World Series, the Sporting News, RacinToday.com and even high school varsity sports have evolved into gimmicks designed to turn fans’ money into somebody else’s money.
Tradition and good taste have no chance in their battle with greed in sports: The Olympic creed of “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well” lies in a long-covered landfill.
The question has become: Just how much gimmicking can the stomach handle?
For some very interesting (though debatable) reasons, traditional NASCAR fans have long had weak stomachs. They have been resistant to gimmicks like the Chase, the Car of Tomorrow, the increased wealth and gaudy lifestyles of competitors, the gopher cams.
No mater how slickly those things have been packaged as fan-friendly upgrades, NASCAR fans have listed them as reasons why they have become former fans.
Meanwhile, over in stick and ball, fans can’t get enough gimmickry – no matter how big of a beating that gimmickry deals to tradition and the original concepts of sports itself. Dump bowl games for an NCAA playoff? Wild card games? Games in Europe? Vapid weather girls on sidelines with microphones?
Games? What games?
By implementing change after change to its sport, NASCAR is just trying to keep pace. It has too.
In the end, it won’t be stubborn adherence to tradition that will allow it to compete for increased access the public’s wallets.
It will be NASCAR’s ability to attract and keep new fans that will allow the series to carry on, let alone, thrive. It needs to restock the shelves in the “key demographic” aisle in order to keep the checkout lines moving.
NASCAR’s traditional fan base, the one that could care less about TV numbers and bonus points, is aging and getting crankier. And the American car culture which gave birth and then nurtured stock car racing, it died 35 years ago.
Cars that are really stock, drivers mixing with fans in the garages after races, television broadcasts that show more than 10 minutes of continuous racing, driver wives and kids remaining in the background, racing for trophies instead of points are gone, gone, gone, gone and gone respectively.
The changes which made news over the weekend – if they are indeed implemented as there’s always the chance it was all a trial balloon – won’t be the last gimmicks issued by NASCAR. Gimmickization in these high-dollar times, has become an unstoppable process.
But there is no way critics can single out NASCAR for being gimmick-crazed. The history of the Super Bowl, to take a topical example, is the history of gimmicks.
The thing is, the word “gimmick” has become little more than a negative connotation for the words “change” or “tweak” or, even, “improve”.
There are younger race fans out there who don’t remember when there was no Chase. Many probably wonder why the hell it took NASCAR until 2004 to come up with a playoff in the first place.
The guess here is that like the designated hitter in baseball and the three-point shot in basketball, a Chase along the lines of what was talked about over the weekend will become accepted and even enjoyed by future fans.
It’s just that queazy feeling in the stomach right now that is giving some fans and media members gas.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org