Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Is It All About Game 7?

Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it. The victorious performance itself is merely the demonstration of their championship character. ~T. Alan Armstrong
By now, it's fairly obvious that NASCAR is broken. Ratings are down, and "The Chase" ain't helping. Perhaps it's because real racing fans are tired of the poor races; I can't judge because the racing got bad enough three years ago that I stopped watching NASCAR racing. Perhaps fans are tired of seeing Jimmy Johnson win, especially in a year when he obviously didn't give a crap whether he did or not. Perhaps the fans are tired of the machinations that seemed to go on to make that win possible: Taking points away from Clint Bowyer after race 1 of the Chase; a convenient speeding penalty to Kevin Harvick in the last one.

Aren't "Hendrick cautions" sufficient any longer?

At any rate, Brian France has decided that changes need to be made in the Chase format, despite having arguably the most exciting Chase since they started the thing. And, stranger still, he made this announcement before the final race. Clearly, he felt the idea had to be floated fast, presumably because ratings were sinking into the sunset (along with attendance).

I mean look at the picture in the linked article. Does this look like a man whose sport is having it's most exciting finish in years? Or does it look like one who is hearing very negative vibes from the sponsors and television people because so few people are watching that exciting finish, a man who has to do something quickly before said sponsors and TV people take their money and go elsewhere?

But what really attracted my attention was the comment that, in July, France made a statement to the effect that NASCAR was looking at ways to "create a game 7 environment." The reason that the statement jumped out at me was an almost identical statement from Mike Greenberg of Mike and Mike in the Morning. During the MLB playoffs, he offered that game 7's were great and sports needed more of them.

Evidently, according to Greenberg and France, the only time competition for a championship is interesting is when it's do-or-die time. A series is all well and good, but unless it's game 7, it just doesn't have the cachet, the intensity, the drama of a true championship.

Seems to me that when a team is down 3-0, 3-1, or 3-2, there's a game 7 element to every game left in the playoff. According to Greenberg, though, it wasn't dramatic enough. Sports need more game 7's.

What Greenberg and, for that matter, France really mean is that television needs more game 7's. After all, television is paying Greenberg's salary and for France's follies. All that counts is television ratings.

Evidently, Bud Selig agrees. He wants to expand the playoffs. Why? Forget the public statements. There are two reasons: More teams get to make money in a playoff series, and more game 7's.

Now, if you ask NBA and NHL fans what they don't like about their respective sports, one thing both will say is that there are too many teams in the playoffs. The NFL is pretty close to this level, if they haven't reached it already. The funny thing is that one theory that the "everyone gets in" proponents have always pushed is that it makes the late season more exciting. This is funny because as the seasons come to a close, most fans could hardly care less about a couple of .500 teams duking it out for the final playoff spot.

It's always a hoot hearing the sports commentators trying to say how the last games of the NFL season are so important to the playoff possibilities, only to realize that things are pretty much set except for one wild-card team. Frankly, it's more interesting to see which teams will tank on purpose (in all sports save baseball) to try to get the number one draft pick.

Also, let's be honest. Not all elimination games are exciting, drama-filled, nail-biting events. I've seen some game 7's that were pure stinkers. And let's not even talk about the number of utterly forgettable Super Bowls that have limped by over the years.

What gets lost in all of this is what being a champion is all about.

It's about consistency. That doesn't mean being in first place all year. It means getting the job well enough during a season to be in the fight at the end.

It's about winning when it counts. The best team on paper isn't the champion until they prove it on the field. As Chris Berman says (channeling John Facenda), "That why they play the games."

It's about great team efforts and great individual efforts all coming together at the right time. It's about winning game 3 because you're down 2-0. It's about playing hurt. It's about pulling together everything you learned about yourself and your team through a long season to overcome all comers.

In some sports, particularly racing, it's about consistency over the long haul. A series race champion is one that got the job done race after race, not necessarily by winning but by running well more often than anyone else. Sure, it's fun to see the series championship come down to the last race, but it is just as rewarding to a real fan to see a superlative season-long performance.

A championship is about getting there, not just winning that last game.

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