Sea change at Daytona

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – They are two sports organizations vying for each other's fan base.

The NHL, with its base of power in the urban North, and NASCAR, with its traditionally Southern, rural backers, each hoping to get the other.

NASCAR begins a fresh era of its existence Sunday at the Daytona 500 with a new title sponsor, Nextel, a new schedule and a new way of crowning a champion – its boldest effort yet to become a true national sport. But as excited as everyone here is about the future, the racing series can learn plenty from the NHL's decade-old pursuit of upward mobility.

The NHL has failed to walk the fine line between luring new fans and keeping its established core satisfied.

In trying to get bigger, the NHL actually got smaller.

Upon being named commissioner in 1993, Gary Bettman made a host of moves aimed at growth. There were minor changes – from throwing out the traditional conference names "Wales" and "Campbell" in favor of the simpler "Eastern" and "Western" – to letting television partner Fox use a glowing puck on broadcasts.

Then there were bigger moves, such as tinkering with the point system and embarking on a bold expansion that placed a team in just about any Southern town with more than two Winn Dixies.

The result, however, has been a near disaster. Too many established fans were turned off by the watered-down rivalries and diluted talent wrought by expansion. Not enough new people caught hockey fever. A decade later, quality of play, television ratings and fan interest all are down. The NHL is facing a lockout next year that could kill the entire season, and the league claims 19 of its 30 teams are losing money.

The pre-Bettman era is now hailed as a golden age in hockey.

NASCAR is confident it can get bigger and better, reaching into urban markets where subways and taxis are preferred modes of transportation and stock car racing (rightly or wrongly) is considered the sport of simpletons.

As you look around this jammed beach town, with throngs of fans in full paraphernalia, blimps floating overhead and banners waving corporate logos everywhere a full three days before the race, you can't help but wonder: Why bother? Why isn't this enough?

NASCAR enjoys TV ratings that only the NFL surpasses. It has racetracks from coast to coast sold out for the next nine months. No less than President Bush is set to arrive Sunday to take in the festivities.

Why risk it for those old hockey markets of the North? Why are Mr. and Mrs. Manhattan, who, with all due respect, wouldn't know a restrictor plate from a dinner one, suddenly more important than the millions of die-hards in hand?

"Our goal is to create more interest in the sport," NASCAR chairman Brian France says.

France is certain that if a person is exposed to NASCAR, he'll be won over. But Bettman thought the same thing and now we have a Nashville Predators team in a playoff chase that plays before an average of 5,000 empty seats per home date.

Regardless, in an effort to have the sport make more sense to the disinterested, NASCAR has made a host of changes, some big, some small.

Out as title sponsor is tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds, in is hip cell phone provider Nextel. Out after 54 years is the traditional Labor Day weekend date for the Southern 500 in little Darlington, S.C., in is a race that weekend near big Los Angeles. Out is a points system that rewarded consistency, in is a 26-week regular season and 10-week playoff-esque finale.

So far drivers and fans have expressed lukewarm feelings toward the new points system. In Darlington, there is great disappointment with the date change. The term "Nextel Cup" just doesn't roll off the tongue as easily as "Winston Cup."

Whether this turns off the fans enough to affect their passion and pocketbook remains to be seen.

"Life is full of change," says Nextel spokesman John Dunlap, whose company plans to make the sport more interactive for fans. "For traditional fans, all we ask is give us a couple years to show you what we can do. We are not going to take anything away from the sport you love. Just the opposite: We hope we are going to add to the sport you love."

Sounds good. Sounds like this could be big. But so did the NHL when it was full of corporate gumption a decade ago.

And that is the lesson here for NASCAR: Gamble too much on unattainable new fans while forgetting the ones that made you, and this Sunday won't be viewed as the start of a new era but the end of a golden one.

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