A Checkered Future for Nascar?

1. Nascar Waves the Checkered FlagAs the 2009 Nascar season winds down to its final laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and the Chase for the Sprint Cup appears all but locked up for would-be four-time winner Jimmie Johnson, Nascar Chairman and CEO Brian France is focused on image issues surrounding his down-home sport. And France's sister, Lesa France Kennedy, says goodbye, for now, to Nascar's longtime dream of a New York City track. Along with Nascar teams, sponsors, and fans, the France family will have to wait until the offseason to see if Danica Patrick will be making the move from the IRL (Indy Racing League) to Nascar's Nationwide Series next season—and bringing her legions of fans and sky-high Q-score with her. Hovering over all, however, a still-troubled economy shadows Nascar's checkered flag. Last week, France called on Nascar's broadcast partners to scale back their criticism after repeating his belief that TV announcers are more critical of Nascar than other sports. Overall, Nascar's television ratings are down 4.5% from last season, with total viewership down 6.4%. In a separate interview, France appealed to drivers to "step out a little more and bring out their own personalities" in order to help the sport grow. In Phoenix, the Arizona Republic observes that Nascar these days is "mostly a marketing and brand-building arena for automakers, not a place to develop passenger vehicle technology." Struggling automakers will take all the brand help they can get. General Motors (GM) Racing Manager Mark Kent noted that GM's market share among Nascar fans is "almost double that of our national market share." A Commitment from ToyotaToyota (TM) and ExxonMobil (XOM), however, are taking their product technology straight from the track to consumers. Toyota Racing Development and ExxonMobil just unveiled a new partnership in which the oil giant will provide its Mobil 1 Racing products to Toyota's Nascar teams. (Despite Toyota's withdrawal from Formula One last week, the manufacturer remains committed to competing in Nascar. Toyota Racing Development President and General Manager Lee White said the F1 decision would have no impact on their Nascar program.) The economy, and Nascar's new car restrictions, have proved insurmountable this season for many Nascar teams. Richard Childress Racing and Rousch Fenway Racing will start under enormous pressure in 2010 after lackluster seasons. Front Row Motorsports still isn't sure who will be the manufacturer and drivers for its two full-time Sprint Cup Series teams. So many teams are having financial problems, in fact, that some Nascar watchers like ESPN's Terry Blount are calling for racing to go to a shorter field than its current 36-car format. Says International Speedway (ISCA) CEO Lesa France Kennedy about Nascar and the economy on this week's edition of The $ports Take on Versus: "I think everybody obviously is affected by the economy. But the one thing that we have is that direct connection with the consumer. We can put a product or a message in front of so many fans each week just here at the track or on television. That's been a great benefit for our sponsors, and how we're able to get the message out." Five years after purchasing it for $114 million, ISC just sold a 676-acre plot of land on Staten Island for $80 million, effectively ending plans for Nascar's first New York-area racetrack. Local resistance forced ISC to drop the project in December 2006. Says Kennedy: "[We are] always interested in the No. 1 media market, but we're not pursuing the current project that we have, which was Staten Island. We're moving on from that, and if another opportunity presents itself, we'd be open to it but not right now." On the Danica front, Nascar team owner Rick Hendrick said on Monday that he and JR Motorsports "have not yet a signed contract" with IndyCar driver Patrick to race a limited Nationwide Series schedule next year. But one is likely forthcoming, to the delight of most Nascar marketers and forward-thinking fans. And if you're yearning for a taste of Nascar a couple of weeks from now, long after the Homestead track goes dark, Speed is broadcasting the Sprint Cup Series annual awards banquet live from Las Vegas on Dec. 4. 2. NFL Experiencing Labor PainsFor months now sports industry seers have painted visions of a looming labor Armageddon, in which multiple North American pro sports leagues—all of which face collective bargaining agreements expiring within the next 24 months—are shuttered at the same time. Trying to do their part to avoid this doomsday scenario, the NFL has introduced an economic proposal for a new CBA that includes a rookie wage scale and credits against NFL club owners' expenses (for things like marketing costs, security, and stadium debt service), which will be deducted from the revenues determining a salary cap and shrink the total pot available to players. NFL players receive about 60% of revenues under the existing CBA, put into place in 2006. While such proposals are generally kept away from the media—both NFL and NFLPA representatives have refused to comment—the proposal marks the first real step in the league's formal labor talks with its players' union before the unofficial deadline of March 2010. Whether a new agreement is in the works by then will determine whether the NFL will operate without a salary cap next season. Now that a first proposal is on the table, the two sides have increased the frequency of formal bargaining sessions and formed 10 active subcommittees addressing such issues as drug-testing policies, injuries, and lengthening the regular season to 18 games. Finishing the DealNFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith states he is committed to getting a new deal done quickly so that the 2010 NFL season is played under a salary cap. "I believe that if we do not have [a deal] done by the end of January that we should lock ourselves in a hotel for five days and get one done," Smith said in an online interview on WashingtonPost.com. "With every team…worth approximately $1 billion, our priorities couldn't be any clearer." Outside of the core financial issues affecting the CBA, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has called on Congress to amend the Labor Management Relations Act to exempt the NFL's CBA from state-law challenges, such as in Minnesota, where two Vikings players are using state law to continue playing despite suspension for consuming over-the-counter supplement StarCaps. Goodell testified on Capitol Hill last week that "changes are necessary so players cannot use state law to circumvent the sport's drug-testing policies." 3. WADA Lotta ComplianceAs The Wall Street Journal pointed out in its eye-opening examination of anti-doping policies throughout sports last week, almost every major sports league, federation, association, and/or circuit has been tainted by a drug or doping scandal. From Mark McGwire on Capitol Hill to Marion Jones' tearful press conference and Richard Gasquet's cocaine kiss, sports headlines are frequently filled with stories and images of athletes caught red-handed. But which leagues or federations do the best job of catching the drug cheats? The Journal examined the anti-doping policies of 22 major sports and sports governing bodies and scored them on a scale of 0 to 100 (with 100 being optimal) based on the "presence of a policy, its accessibility to the public, severity of sanctions for offenders, and administration of the code itself." Adherence to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code was a key factor in accumulating points—the study points out that over 600 associations follow that code, though not the four major pro sports leagues in North America (all of which cite collective bargaining agreement conflicts as the reason). The International Boxing Federation tied with the U.S. Boxing Assn. for top honors in the study, earning 94.75 out of 100 points. Panelists cited the thoroughness of boxing policies, and the seriousness of the penalty for infractions. If a boxer fails a drug test following a title fight, he must vacate the title. Scoring Points for Catching UsersRounding out the top five on the list were the International Olympic Committee (93.75), the International Tennis Foundation (92), the International Association of Athletic Federations (91.25), and Nascar (90). Despite turning its back on WADA, the NFL ranked ninth in the study, scoring 72.5. Claims ESPN.com: "NFL officials are 'proud of the way they test for performance-enhancing drugs,' and they 'like to tout their program as massive, random and strict.'" Coming in at No. 15 were the LPGA/European PGA/PGA Tour (56.6), which was just slapped with a lawsuit by golfer Doug Barron after he became the first Tour player officially to "run afoul" of the Tour's new drug-testing policy after a positive result for testosterone and beta-blockers. And just as Animal House's D-Day was derided by Dean Wormer as having "no grade point average," ESPN's X Games drew The Wall Street Journal study's lowest score (15), as the event "has no formal policy." ESPN Katie Moses Swope defended the position, saying: "We have a zero-strike policy that states if a situation occurs regarding drug use with an athlete, they are immediately sent home." (Translation: If they spark up a fatty right after a hella halfpipe run, in full camera view, they're outta there.)

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