Friday, March 30, 2007

ESPN: "NASCAR Now" Takes A Break...To Play Golf

The Daly Planet has documented the challenges facing ESPN and its new commitment to NASCAR in 2007. Sometimes, the coverage has reflected the hard work and dedication that ESPN's NASCAR racing crew has put into creating the television package for the Busch Series from scratch. Solid performers in the booth, on pit road, and in the production truck have allowed ESPN to return to covering racing action without a hitch. That's been a true success story.

In addition to the on-track coverage, ESPN has asked fans to watch NASCAR Now, the daily studio program that ESPN2 uses to cover the entire sport. While NASCAR Now has brought solid professionals in to cover the news and act as analysts, the remaining elements of this series are having a tough time. The Daly Planet has followed the struggle of the two studio hosts and the NASCAR Now production team, who are out-of-sync with the sport.

Past columns have documented the simple issues of credibility and versatility that ESPN must soon improve. NASCAR fans are smart, very smart. They can smell-a-rat a mile away and have flooded The Daly Planet email box with their complaints about this program. Hopefully, this weekend in Martinsville would allow ESPN to put their best foot forward as the sport comes to this critical race. There are many key stories in progress to report.

Much to my surprise, my DVR recorded LPGA golf on Thursday instead of NASCAR Now. The day before qualifying at Martinsville, there was no NASCAR Now for the eastern and central time zones. Now, on Friday, I find that NASCAR Now has gone missing once again. A quick check of the schedule finds it hiding at 1 AM Eastern Time...on Saturday. The ESPN2 Programming Department cancelled the 6:30 PM NASCAR Now on both Thursday and Friday for the early rounds of a woman's golf tournament. Um...what just happened?

Today, SPEED Channel aired almost eight hours of live NASCAR coverage from Martinsville. All kinds of things happened. Michael Waltrip and Brian Vickers failed to make the race. Denny Hamlin got the pole in a COT. Greg Biffle officially skated on his low car from Bristol. The COT carbon monoxide and other design problems were discussed by NASCAR. The Trucks got ready for qualifying and their race Saturday. Its a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup racing weekend...and nothing less.

This situation leads to one simple question. Why would ESPN step away from their commitment to a sport on which they have spent millions of dollars acquiring rights? The answer is a simple one. There is no Busch Series race this weekend. ESPN has no "vested interest" in NASCAR this week, because they are "not involved." No ESPN Busch race, no problem. We will be happy to move NASCAR Now and show women's golf...because the LPGA pays for the air time.

Is NASCAR Now driven by ESPN's own agenda? This is the case with the formerly outstanding program series College Gameday. Suddenly, Chris Fowler and company started previewing ESPN/ABC games and excluding others, regardless of that team's ranking or the significance of the game. This change in direction came from the highest levels of the company. So, let's ponder the issue staring us in the face. If there is no Busch race, should ESPN consider Martinsville as a "less important" weekend? When push comes to shove, is it truly all about whether or not ESPN is involved that weekend?"

If this troubles you, it should. We have been asked to accept NASCAR Now as a full-time commitment by ESPN to NASCAR news. Now, on one of the key weekends of the year, the show is moved for golf as if it is an infomercial. The best part is, over on ESPN they covered no NASCAR stories in a ninety minute SportsCenter, and never crawled any NASCAR info on the bottom of the screen. One cannot help but get the feeling watching the drooling anticipation of baseball and the Final Four that ESPN is really having some serious issues with fitting NASCAR into their own agenda. Let me say those words again...fitting NASCAR into their own agenda. As the season progresses, it will be interesting to find out...who is really driving this bus?