CHAMPAIGN – NASCAR fans are well-served by the auto racing league's structure, says a University of Illinois law professor.
Professor Steve Ross, who specializes in antitrust and sports law, has written about the business structure of NASCAR with co-author Stefan Szymanski, a leading sports economist in Britain. The two have a book proposal currently being considered by academic presses.
Ross said sports leagues that are open to additional participants and are governed by an organization separate from team owners are more fan-friendly. Most major American professional sports leagues – the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League – have a fixed number of teams with perpetual membership in the league, "no matter how lousy the team is, or poorly managed," and the current owners must be persuaded to let a new team in.
In contrast, new teams and drivers can enter NASCAR's Busch League racing series and move up to the more elite Nextel Cup series as they improve.
"You qualify not by bribing Dale Earnhardt (Jr.) or Jeff Gordon to let you race with them, but based on how fast your car is," Ross said, adding Earnhardt would be out of the Nextel Cup series if he didn't perform well enough.
Similarly, in European soccer leagues, the worst teams in the major league are relegated to the second-tier league, and the best teams are promoted to the first tier, creating an incentive to perform well.
The way American sports leagues are structured leads to "perpetual bottom-feeding teams," Ross said.
"The Blackhawks are in a huge market, they rake in the money, and they know no matter what, they are going to stay in the market," he said. "They are making money because they are the only (hockey) team in Chicago. They sell out the United Center because they are playing the top teams in hockey."
Ross said NASCAR also benefits from having a private company, NASCAR Inc., setting the rules of the auto racing series and acting in the best interest of the sport.
NASCAR changed its Nextel Cup series from a 35-race series when it became obvious partway through the season who would win. To make the series more exciting, NASCAR created what amounts to a 25-race regular season and a playoff series. The first 25 races determine eligibility to participate in the 10-race "chase for the cup."
Ross said it is unlikely the change would have happened if subject to a vote by the drivers, but it has been good for fans, with a 15 percent increase in attendance at races and ratings.
In contrast, it took years for Major League Baseball to put a team back in the District of Columbia, a major media center, because of objections by the Baltimore Orioles, Ross said.
Spokesmen for Major League Baseball could not be reached for comment.
"Generally, NASCAR's sole financial incentive is to make the sport as a whole the best it can be," Ross said. "In other sports, owners have a conflict. In part, they are interested in making the sport the best it can be, and in part, they are interested in making their team the best it can be."
He said the best structure for a sports league is to have a separate governing body. In the alternative, a league governed by team owners should have a powerful commissioner who is involved in business decisions and setting up incentives for owners to act in a way that benefits the league. He said a commissioner should have the power to act on the business aspects of the leagues and ensure a franchise is being well-run.
Ross cited former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and current NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as strong leaders who helped promote the interests of the league as a whole.