Commentary

Chase not perfect, but sports leagues take note

How do you generate interest in NASCAR when baseball pennant fever is running rampant and the NFL is in the meat of its schedule? If you're Brian France, you devise a playoff system called the Chase for the Sprint Cup, writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: September 9, 2008, 10:10 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Because the Chase seems status quo in this, its fifth year, a look at how playoffs have changed NASCAR must begin with pre-Chase NASCAR.

Lest we forget, about this time of year the doldrums used to set in and the grousing would begin. For example, would Matt Kenseth really win the 2003 Winston Cup with only one race victory?

He would. But was that fair, when Kenseth merely drove consistently while Ryan Newman won eight races but finished sixth in points?

Last year's Chase took a media beating because the Homestead-Miami finale came down to only two drivers, teammates at that, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

But consider that the last of the late Dale Earnhardt's seven season titles, in 1994, was locked up in the backwater outpost of Rockingham, N.C., with two races left. That didn't do much for ratings and ticket sales in Phoenix and Atlanta.

In years like that, the end of the NASCAR season droned on as little more than background noise to baseball's playoffs and the World Series, the crescendo of the college football season, the meat of the NFL schedule, the startup of the NBA and NHL …

How The Chase Was Won
The Chase was new and so was the champion in 2004. How did Kurt Busch hang on? One huge break and good old-fashioned consistency. Ed Hinton

"The fall is a busy, busy time," says John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president, content. "So NASCAR needed to figure out a way to make sure they sustained interest, and I think they've done that."

Enough interest that Skipper estimates that ABC/ESPN paid perhaps "10 to 20" percent more for eight years of telecast rights to the second half of the Cup season than it would have under the old points system. That's a difference of up to $400 million in the estimated $2.1 billion rights package.

"In the old days, nobody would have looked at our fall as some kind of nice property to have," says NASCAR chairman Brian France, who birthed and pushed the idea of the Chase past even his own ruling family. "ABC and ESPN bought it in part because they got exclusive rights to the playoffs."

The success of the Chase in sustaining public interest and enhancing TV money has been enough to influence other sports organizations -- the NHRA, the PGA and the LPGA -- to create their own autumn playoff systems.

"Our structure in many ways is very similar to NASCAR," says Steve Dennis, director of communications strategy for the PGA Tour, which began its playoff system in 2007. "The two key pieces are that they are individual sports, and finishing position beyond win or lose matters. And it matters a whole lot, in both sports."

The PGA had been considering stimulating autumn interest in the Tour for years, but critical mass for action came in 2005 and 2006. "And the fact that NASCAR's Chase, implemented in 2004, was doing well gave us some level of confidence that we could put [a playoff system] together that would also do well," Dennis says.

The LPGA was weighing traditionalism versus spicing up the end of its season, and "when NASCAR broke ranks, so to speak, and created this thing called the Chase, we thought, 'That's interesting that they would step outside their roots and go do this,'" says Chris Higgs, the LPGA's senior vice president and chief operations officer. "I think that probably helped us along in the process."

[+] EnlargeVijay Singh
Michael Cohen/Getty ImagesVijay Singh has golf's version of the Chase about locked up. Like NASCAR before it, the PGA Tour was looking for a way to spice up the end of its calendar and instituted a postseason to accomplish it.

The NHRA would have gone to playoffs regardless of what NASCAR did -- but for the same reasons, says Gary Darcy, the drag racing organization's senior vice president of sales and marketing.

"A lot of the time, through the course of a long season, championships are locked up early and you lose a little excitement down the stretch," Darcy says. "We looked at what they [NASCAR] were doing, but that wasn't a driving force for us."

There is no other real purpose of playoffs, in any sport, than to stimulate interest and television ratings.

Lest we forget that the World Series used to be played between the champions of the National League regular season and the American League regular season. The old NFL championship games were between the regular-season champions of the East and West divisions.

History lost?
Jeff Gordon is perhaps the Chase's biggest victim. Under the old system, he arguably would have six championships by now and would be gunning for Earnhardt and Richard Petty's shared record of seven. The two he theoretically lost under the new system were in 2004 and '07.

"The only issue I have with [the Chase]," Gordon says, "is that we build our sport on history, and you can't compare the history of the old point system to the new point system. You can't compare a champion [the old way], even myself, to any champion today. It's just done totally different."

So has the Chase fractured NASCAR history -- drawn a line through it?

"It did when it comes to championships," Gordon says. "It doesn't change race wins any. [He is the leader among active drivers with 81.] But as far as championships, it has completely changed it."

Yet even Gordon acknowledges that the Chase has been a change for the better.

"It's made it extremely exciting, and it gives teams that have a rough first half and a strong second half [a chance] to win the championship," he says. "Where in the past if you had a really strong first half, you could ride it out in the second half and just not make mistakes, and the championship was yours. It's totally different now -- different in a positive way for the fans, for the sponsors.

"It doesn't always work out for every competitor out there," Gordon acknowledges, "but I still think when it comes down to it, the best teams and drivers still win the championship."

Chase takes off
No sooner had Brian France ascended the throne of NASCAR in 2003 than he set to work on a playoff system. Most of all, he had to sell the idea to his father, Bill France Jr., who'd been NASCAR's cautious, methodical czar from 1972 through the growth-spurt period of the late 1990s and into its current level of popularity early this millennium.

The aging czar, who died in 2007, said in 2004 that he finally decided to go along with the Chase "because if it doesn't work, we can always change it."

[+] EnlargeKurt Busch
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireKurt Busch was the beneficiary of the first-ever Chase, winning it the final weekend over Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Gordon would have won the title with traditional scoring.

But his son felt that once the plunge was taken, it couldn't be easily revoked.

"I thought you needed to be in for at least a number of years, unless there was some fiasco that eroded the credibility of the sport," France says now. "Absent something we weren't seeing, we had to be committed for a long period of time. And it was a big deal."

Yet there was no knot in his stomach, no anxiety, as the third-generation France got his way -- and all the responsibility for it.

"I didn't really feel like it was risky. If you look at it compared to the old system, it just had so many more easy-to-understand benefits that frankly I couldn't understand why we wouldn't have thought about it before."

The younger France makes no pretense that the Chase has worked ideally every year.

"We've really had the true full benefits of it only maybe one or two years," he says.

The first year, 2004, came down to a cavalry charge into Homestead-Miami Speedway for the finale, with Kurt Busch winning out over Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. But since then, there's been a relative lull in drama.

By full benefits, "I mean where it comes down to Homestead-Miami and they're really, really, really tight, three or more cars, say inside of 30 points or so -- that would be the ultimate scenario," France says. "And it's no different from what the Super Bowl wants to be. They'd like it to be like last year, where it comes down to the last play of the game. That's the goal.

"The reality in sports is, that doesn't always happen. No matter what playoff format you have, it can't guarantee [drama down to the wire].

"You ask yourself, 'Have we given ourselves the best opportunity?'" And I think we have. And time will tell, over many years, how great it can become."

France admits, "I would have thought we would have had more 'down to the last lap of the last race'" than the Chase. But that doesn't mean the next three won't be.

"And I can assure you that under the old format, you were never going to have that."

France remains open to tweaking and last year made the biggest changes yet, expanding the playoff field from 10 to 12 drivers and -- even more importantly -- seeding the playoffs according to the number of race wins in the regular season.

"When we did that, people said, 'You didn't do enough [to reward winning]. That's only 10 points in the seed." Well, as it turns out, with what Kyle Busch [eight wins] and Carl Edwards [six] have done this year … I would have hated to have 30 points [as a bonus for a race win]. So that's the balance."

Most of all, the Chase in its current format has come to reward winning races -- which purists consider the point of this entire exercise of racing -- more than at any time since the season championship became the overriding goal in NASCAR in the 1980s.

"We will do anything to strike the right balance between winning individual races and being good enough to win the championship," France says. "That's our goal.

"Frankly, the old system was one of the worst at that."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

ALSO SEE