If you watched “SportsCenter” on Monday morning, you’re well aware that ESPN devoted the first 17 minutes of its flagship program covering the story of a backup quarterback being released by an NFL team.
Such a move normally doesn’t warrant a mention, but in this case, the backup quarterback in question happened to be Tim Tebow.
Tebow may not throw the prettiest spiral in the world, but he moves the needle when it comes to television ratings. ESPN know this, and the network uses any opportunity possible to keep his name in circulation. It’s just good business.
It was a challenge last season when he rode the bench as a member of the New York Jets, but the topic of Tebow still seemed to turn up on a daily basis as ESPN’s producers shoehorned discussions of the Heisman Trophy winner into “First Take” and “Around the Horn” without the slightest hint of subtlety.
For ESPN, the real bonanza comes when something newsworthy involving Tebow actually goes down. I like to think there’s some sort of siren on the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn., that goes off on days like Monday to signal the start of Tebowpalooza.
So what does any of this have to do with NASCAR? Great question. Here’s the answer: Danica Patrick.
In her first full season of Sprint Cup competition, Patrick was anointed as a star of the sport before anyone could get a handle on her ability to drive a race car. Like Tebow, there is reason to doubt her ability to perform on an elite level in her sport, but nobody inside NASCAR seems to want to talk about that.
Not as long as the money keeps rolling in.
Stewart-Haas Racing is in no position to complain as long as the checks from GoDaddy.com keep on clearing. Meanwhile, NASCAR is salivating at the possibility of corralling a new demographic of fans to replace the ones who have left the sport in droves over the past decade. And as for the television networks that broadcast the races, as long as the fan interest stays high, she will be a fixture in the coverage every week.
The similarities between Tebow and Patrick are obvious, but there is one key difference. For Tebow, performance is a must. For Patrick, it’s simply the icing on the cake.
As we saw on Monday, the Jets didn’t think Tebow could help their football team, so they cut him loose. It’s a move that may cost New York some fans and could possibly hurt the organization when it comes to ticket sales, but performance in the NFL is the bottom line. In NASCAR? Not so much.
NASCAR, especially in recent years, has largely become an exercise in marketing. It takes tens of millions of dollars to fund a Cup team, and it is up to the driver to attract and retain sponsors. In Patrick’s case, she is the face of GoDaddy.com’s marketing blitz, and that buys her a seat at the table with the Jimmie Johnsons and Tony Stewarts of the world regardless of where she is running.
Patrick is hardly alone when it comes to a driver landing a ride that exceeds his or her talent level. Do you think Paul Menard would be a consistent presence on the Cup circuit if his family’s chain of home improvement stores wasn’t footing the bill?
The problem has even worked its way down to the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Trucks ranks. If you’re a young driver looking for a shot at superstardom, it doesn’t matter how many track championships or Late Model feature wins you have under your belt — if you don’t have a big checkbook willing to back you, the doors you knock on will never open.
The pay-to-play approach to stock car racing is doing irreparable damage to the sport, yet it is hardly ever talked about. Nobody will look you in the eye and tell you with a straight face that the 43 best drivers in the world are racing in the Cup series, and that is a problem.
It’s hard to say if a rough-and-tumble driver like the late Dale Earnhardt could get a fair shot at a good Cup ride if he came along today. If a focus group didn’t think Dale Sr. could sell paper towels or Skittles, he’d probably be destined for a life as a short-track legend in the backwoods of North Carolina.
But if there was a Kardashian or a member of the Duck Dynasty cast that showed just a sliver of ability inside a race car and the slightest interest in getting involved in the sport, there would be car owners willing to move heaven and earth to make it work. The NASCAR execs in Daytona Beach would be behind the project, spouting phrases like “casual fans” and “crossover appeal” a mile a minute.
In Patrick’s case, the jury is still out on whether she can be a contender in the Cup series. The fact that she finished four laps down on Saturday night in Richmond doesn’t inspire confidence, but it’s way too early to tell.
The only certainty is that her opportunity won’t dry up as long as the money holds out.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him every Monday morning at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.