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Buschwhacking

Tigers fall to Cardinals in World Series, dominate Toledo Mud Hens for International League title. Fantasy? Not in the world of stock car racing, where drivers and teams from the top division (Nextel Cup Series) took the top six places in the standings for the second-tier Busch Series. The lead sentence above reflects my initial reaction to this "buschwhacking" -- it seems grossly out of step with common practice in other professional sports. Soccer has special "cup" competitions involving teams from different levels of domestic leagues, but that's very different from what occurs in NASCAR.

In talking the topic over with some NASCAR followers from the marketing department here and one of my MBA students who works for a Busch series team, I realized that the matter is complicated. A recent article by ESPN.com's Terry Blount outlines several key issues and tradeoffs.

  • (+) Nextel teams generate extra attention for Busch races. This raises demand for the series as a whole, so Busch tracks support the practice and even Busch-only teams like the extra visibility.
  • (+) Sponsors of Nextel teams like the additional exposure.
  • (+) Nextel teams, with limited practice track time to experiment, use the Busch races to do the experimenting.
  • (+) Busch drivers gain more experience against top drivers.
  • (-) Busch-only teams cannot compete very effectively versus Nextel teams dropping down, so over the long haul, fewer Busch teams and drivers survive.
  • (-) Nextel drivers get "overexposed" reducing the long term value of the Nextel series

The first four points seem to make a strong case for the continuation or even expansion of buschwacking. The more I considered them, however, the more that they would all make great arguments for interdivisional "whacking" in almost any sport. Wouldn't the lower division teams of any sport get a boost in attendance and exposure from games against the top division? Wouldn't it provide sponsors with more exposure? Wouldn't it provide opportunity for more experimenting with younger players? Yet, I doubt that it would be a great idea for MLB, the NFL, or other leagues.

Now, there are inter-sport differences -- number of games per week, use of capital (cars) versus labor, relative maturity of the sport ... -- that may make the best decision different from sport to sport. Still, it strikes me as a case where a sport faces tradeoffs between what may be best in the long term and in the short term. These kinds of situations make for very, very difficult management decisions because the long term prospects are so uncertain. Hockey's conundrum regarding fighting fits this kind of dilemma. Fighting feeds many current fans but may limit long term fan development. Buschwacking certainly seems to be a net gain now, but is that just a short-sighted view?