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NASCAR: Looking for a stronger finish
A new playoff system returns only a modest ratings lift, but a big win for backwater racetracks.
October 14, 2005: 3:30 PM EDT
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money senior writer
The added drama of the Nascar's Chase for the Nextel Cup has been a big lift to the tracks holding the last 10 races of the season.
The added drama of the Nascar's Chase for the Nextel Cup has been a big lift to the tracks holding the last 10 races of the season.
SportsBiz SportsBiz Column archive Sports Illustrated email Chris Isidore

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Nascar's new playoff system hasn't resulted in a big winner in the ratings.

But it is giving a huge lift to the tracks hosting the season's final ten races, which are now used to determine the winner of the sport's championship, the Nextel Cup.

In the past some of the races on the tail end of the schedule were the backwater of the sport. In years when a driver had a big point lead at the end of the summer, the races did little to determine who would win what was then known as the Winston Cup, awarded to that season's best driver.

Last year Nascar changed the rules, readjusting the points of the top 10 drivers with 10 races to go, in order to give them all a decent shot at being the point total winner at the end of the season.

Some race fans and even drivers objected to the change. But the move was at least a step toward giving the sport the one thing crucial to team sports' financial success -- a season-ending playoff.

Measured by ratings, the bump would seem to be modest -- only a 12 percent rise in ratings for the 10 "chase" races, compared to the last 10 races of 2003 which meant little.

By comparison, the 26 non-chase races saw about a 2 percent rise in 2004 over the previous year's ratings. And unlike the other sports, the ratings for the last 10 races -- just under 5.0 on average for eight chase races on NBC rather than cable -- was less than the average 5.9 rating that the non-chase races got when they were broadcast on Fox or NBC. Every other sport sees its playoff ratings dwarf its regular-season viewership.

But where there's been a big jump is in corporate entertaining and ticket sales at the chase races. The sponsors who are already a key component of the sport's finances are making the year's final races a much bigger part of their plans.

Homestead Miami Speedway, home of the last race of the year, is seeing the biggest boost.

The home of the season's last race had seen the Cup title decided before race day in five of the six years prior to 2004. Last year the Cup winner wasn't decided until the race's last lap.

The increased drama for the race has resulted in a corresponding increase in interest. Homestead has been busy adding luxury boxes to meet the increased demand for corporate entertaining.

"Before the Chase, we were barely selling the suites out," said track President Curtis Gray said of his previous inventory of 50 suites. "Last year we had to bring in 12 temporary suites. This year we're building 16 new suites, and those are sold out. We'll be putting up some new temporary suites too."

Gray says his race is now second only to the sports' premier event, the Daytona 500 that kicks off the racing season, in terms of corporate entertaining at Nascar. He could see the last Nascar race becoming one of the nation's leading corporate entertaining events, along with the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four and the Masters golf tournament.

"It was at one time difficult to entice customers to come to the event. Now these corporate hospitality tickets are like gold," he said.

One advantage that the 10 chase races have is that their date and event is known well in advance, unlike the professional team sport playoff games other than the Super Bowl.

It's one of the keys to an event becoming a major destination for companies to entertain their own customers and executives.

Nascar's chase races will probably always have a hard time going head-to-head in the ratings battle with the still more popular National Football League. The lack of NFL games earlier in the summer is a key reason for Nascar's stronger ratings before the chase begins.

But Nascar says it's hopeful the ratings for the chase races will continue to build as it becomes more established.

"We realize it will take time to build equity and meaning into the chase," said spokesman Andrew Giangola. "In 1967, when they held the first Super Bowl, America did not come to a halt to watch the game the way it does now."

The chase could get an additional lift in 2006 when NBC, which has the rights to late season part of the Nascar schedule, will start airing Sunday night NFL games, it's first football broadcasts since it started showing racing. Nascar could get a lift from any cross promotion that NBC does on what will be two of its major sports properties.

"Whenever you're in the same breath as the market leader and a brand as venerable as the NFL, that's a good thing," said Giangola.

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