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FORD 400 | CHASE FOR THE CUP

It's Not Just a Car Chase

Other sports have followed NASCAR's lead, tweaking their schedules to gain drama, money and TV ratings.

November 20, 2005|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

NASCAR pit crews know the risks of tinkering with a perfectly tuned racing machine. So NASCAR Chairman Brian France took a chance before the racing circuit's 2004 season by fiddling with a proven racing formula that has generated ever-increasing television ratings, popularity and profits.

France created the Chase for the Nextel Cup, an effort to turbocharge the final 10 weeks of NASCAR's lengthy season by guaranteeing drama at the very time when competition for television viewers is fiercest.

Last year's initial 10-race chase fared well against the autumnal glut of NFL and college football and the Boston Red Sox's curse-busting postseason run. This second Chase concludes today at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with four drivers, including a newcomer who celebrates victories with a back flip, still having a mathematical chance of winning.

Amid NASCAR's success, other sports are examining ways to enhance late-season drama, and in the process create what media industry people call "appointment television." Even the ratings-dominant NFL is tweaking its calendar, seeking to create more attention for its opening weekend by tying the first game to concerts in several cities.

Golf is poised to make the next big leap in season reconfiguration, as the PGA Tour tries to reverse the viewer tail off that follows the PGA Championship in August.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem is preparing a new schedule that will seek to avoid head-on collisions with other sports broadcasts. He wants to give golf's lengthy season the very elements -- a clear beginning, an enticing middle and action-packed finale -- that make sports contests so appealing to fans and such a good fit for broadcast partners and corporate sponsors.

Though details haven't been released, golf apparently will recast its season by creating a four-tournament finale that will culminate in the fall Tour Championship, which is likely to be relocated to September.

Much of what Finchem is considering comes from the NASCAR playbook. Despite enjoying increasingly strong ratings in recent years, the racing circuit overhauled its season in 2004 by replacing a 36-race point system with a 26-race regular season that launches 10 top drivers into a playoff series.

Some sports have shifted their entire seasons to fit into television's available windows. But it's a risky business for established sports; imagine if the drivers showed up on Labor Day weekend to run the Indianapolis 500.

"You want to offer consistent, reliable television," said Casey Wasserman, an Arena Football League owner whose league has moved its season to fit into the most lucrative television window available. "But that's difficult to come by. It's not as if there's some sort of magical three-month period available."

Arena football played its championship games in August and September before moving the game to June in 2003.

"NBC told us that if we moved our season up we could get consistent, weekly exposure on broadcast television," Wasserman said. "It made getting arenas more challenging, but it clearly was a decision that was easy for the league to make."

Television holds such sway because broadcast and cable rights deals provide most of the sports world's revenue. The PGA Tour's $850-million deal, which makes possible golf's $250 million in annual prize money, expires next year. Negotiations for a new deal are underway, and Finchem knows it might take radical surgery on the PGA Tour schedule to close an equally rich deal.

"There's just so much entertainment and sports programming going on today with all of the various leagues, tournaments, sanctioning bodies and whatever," said John Saunders, chief operating officer of International Speedway Corp., which owns or operates 11 tracks where NASCAR stages its top-tier Nextel Cup races. "You're continually challenged to expand fan interest in your sport. And we're no different."

Though NASCAR created its Chase to keep fans focused late into the season, the series also has reinforced interest in the circuit's regular season. Drivers now feel increased pressure to "be there for the first 26 races to get one of the 10 slots," Saunders said. "The next 10 races become extremely high profile ... and gives our broadcast partners something to compete with the NFL season."

The Indy Racing League also is reworking its schedule by trimming its season and getting drivers off the track by Labor Day. A bumpy schedule had left many viewers guessing as to when the next open-wheel race would be broadcast.

"We'd open in Miami and then take three weeks off, and there were other huge gaps in our schedule," IRL spokesman Tom Savage said. "We're a growing league, so clearly the television package is important to us. Our changes were TV driven."

The shorter season, however, meant abandoning a race at the California Speedway in Fontana, the circuit's only stop in the nation's second-largest media market. Savage said that the IRL hopes to make a quick return to Southern California.

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