Imagine a sport where the players are wallpapered with corporate logos and are all married to impossibly tall blondes, and they compete for a season championship that rewards consistent play throughout the year yet creates an exciting final series of events that keeps sports fans interested despite the start of college and pro football.
Yup, NASCAR has it all figured out.
As the PGA Tour enters its third FedEx Cup playoffs, with its third set of rules, it's time to look again to golf's closest cousin to fix this thing. Culturally, NASCAR and golf might occupy different area codes, but as spectator sports they are remarkably similar. (NASCAR helped inspire the creation of the FedEx Cup in 2007.) Both sports hold their biggest events first (Daytona and the Masters); they both have a small, loyal core of supporters and a larger, more casual pool of viewers who gravitate toward football in the fall; and they both conclude with a series of events that determine the season champion. The key difference is that NASCAR fans understand their playoff, in which the season's top 12 drivers make the cut, so to speak, and compete in the final 10 races against each other.
Lars Anderson, Sports Illustrated's NASCAR writer, said the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has been wildly successful since it was re-booted in 2004.
"Before the changes prior to the '04 season, the championship typically was wrapped up with about a month or two left in the season," Anderson said. "But now that the points are re-set after 26 races, it's created additional story lines, the chance for an upset (like Kurt Busch winning in '04), and, in general, it's injected drama into the sport.
"At first, fans and many old-school drivers were skeptical of the Chase format, but now, six years later, there's not a driver in the garage that doesn't like it, and I haven't come across a fan in several years who opposes it. And while TV ratings have been down for the last two years, I don't think that has anything to do with the Chase format. If anything, I think the ratings drop would have been more precipitous if not for the Chase," Anderson said.
Here are the top 12 from the FedEx Cup points list at the end of the 2009 regular season: Tiger Woods, Steve Sticker, Zach Johnson, Kenny Perry, Lucas Glover, Phil Mickelson, Y.E. Yang, Geoff Ogilvy, Brian Gay, Sean O'Hair, Retief Goosen, David Toms. What if, like NASCAR, those 12 guys were competing for $10 million over the final four tournaments? Sounds exciting, and you wouldn't need a calculator to follow it. Within that smaller group, you'd see FedEx Cup strategy emerge, like you do in NASCAR.
"The most appealing element to the fans, simply, has been that it's created a lot more excitement," Anderson said. "Look at this season. Tony Stewart would be cruising to the title right now under the old system. But when the Chase begins in two weeks, he'll be trailing Mark Martin in the standings because Martin will have more regular-season wins (and thus more bonus points that carry over to the Chase). Also, more strategy comes into the play because of the Chase, which fans like.
"Depending on where you are in the standings over the final weeks of the regular season, you either Chase race (meaning, you go conservative and avoid a points-killing 30th place or worse finish) or you gamble and do things like try to stretch fuel mileage, which Brian Vickers did at Michigan a few weeks back. (Vickers won the race, and it may end up getting him into the Chase.)"
Like NASCAR, the 12 golfers at the top of the point standings would not just be competing against each other. You'd still have non-FedEx Cup finalists play in the Barclays, the Deutsche Bank, the BMW and the Tour Championship, so those guys wouldn't miss a paycheck. That's less than perfect in NASCAR, Anderson says, because non-Chase racers can create problems for drivers in the playoffs.
"Biggest problem of the Chase format is that drivers outside the Chase can have a huge impact on drivers in the Chase," Anderson said. "Say a Chase driver gets wrecked by non-Chase driver and finishes 35th in a playoff race. Well, that pretty much ruins his title hopes."
Fortunately, golf hasn't had car crashes since Greg Norman retired.
Of course the key difference in the two sports is the management. NASCAR is a top-down hierarchy that runs its sport with an iron fist, whereas the PGA Tour is pro sports' classic inmates-running-the-asylum organization, so the FedEx Cup has to satisfy as many competing special interests as the health-care bill. Still, if the PGA Tour wants its playoffs to hold fans' interest in the fall, it makes sense to look at NASCAR's road-tested format.