In the wake of frustrating performances, Tony Stewart ripped NASCAR officials for manipulating caution flags to generate more competitive races (from SI.com):
“It’s like playing God. They can almost dictate the race instead of the drivers doing it. It’s happened too many times this year.” Stewart went on to say fans are complaining about debris cautions and NASCAR isn’t listening. “I guess NASCAR thinks ‘Hey, wrestling worked, and it was for the most part staged, so I guess it’s going to work in racing, too,”‘ he said. “I can’t understand how long the fans are going to let NASCAR treat them like they’re stupid before the fans finally turn on NASCAR. I don’t know that they’ve run a fair race all year.”
That’s pretty strong stuff. NASCAR first responded with “disappointment” over the comments, highlighting safety as the only concern behind cautions. Later, they issued a real counterpunch saying that if Stewart doesn’t like things, there are lots of drivers who would like his spot.
Whether Stewart beefs are legit or not, I haven’t paid close enough attention to tell. Beyond the specifics in this situation, the question at issue is a thorny one for sports leagues and organizations. Obviously, sports entities should try to make adjustments in their product to enhance fan interest including trying to get the optimal amount of competitive balance (a multi-sided subject by itself).
Yet, how this balance is achieved may also matter to fans as Stewart is getting at. Adjusting on-the-field rules, officiating standards, or other levers prior to the season or even making small adjustments during the season is one thing. Altering rules or practices from game to game, event to event, or minute by minute can cross a line into “manipulating” outcomes to the point of almost choreographing them. Handicapped horse races explicitly seek competitiveness through means much like NASCAR’s car restrictions, but they don’t make up the rules on the fly just before or during the race. The Jordan Rules pointed out how the NBA was making officiating decisions in the NBA Finals on a game by game basis in a none-too-veiled attempt to make things more “competitive.” Last year’s NBA Finals reeked of this kind of mid-stream adjustment. As a fan, I don’t like that kind of stuff — it is too much like pro wrestling. It gets awfully close to putting a lid over one basket for a while to promote a closer outcome.
But, hey, I’m only one fan — the optimal amount of tweaking isn’t based on my preferences. One could hardly argue with NASCAR’s success, and they have done a lot of race-to-race tweaking that get’s awfully close to pressing a button to make one guy’s car slow down. Nonetheless, I do suspect that any sports organization or association needs to be careful about getting too close to “staging” outcomes a la the WWF.
Update: A couple of my B-school colleagues who are close followers of NASCAR agree with Stewart’s assessment and note that this sort of thing has been going on for quite a while and is a raw nerve with them and a lot of NASCAR fans. One suggested changing “race” to “smackdown” and incorporating more colorful driver monikers such as “Mad Dog Stewart,” “Handsome Harley Johnson,” “Stone Cold Earnhardt,” “Rowdy Robby Gordon,” and “Superstar Jeff Gordon.”