Sunday, October 28, 2007
ESPN Pushes NASCAR To The Back Burner
This is a hard topic to discuss without opening a big can of worms. Unfortunately, after this weekend's efforts by ESPN to present live NASCAR racing, this issue now must be discussed.
It also desperately needs the input of NASCAR fans speaking clearly and in concise terms about what they expected from ESPN this season, and what they have gotten.
Back in the spring, The Daly Planet ran a column suggesting that ESPN use their faltering ESPN Classic Network to handle the logistical problems that the network would encounter with NASCAR all season long. We were almost laughed off the Internet.
What we suggested was that the company use the actual ESPN Classic "channel" to create an temporary "ESPN3" Network to handle the logistical nightmares that routinely come with NASCAR.
Anyone, like me, who has been sitting in the rain at Daytona at midnight still waiting for the Pepsi 400 green flag can relate. Rain and red flags cause problems for this sport with TV, and always will.
That said, NASCAR has done a great job over the years of picking TV networks as partners that did not have other programming issues that conflicted with the races.
We all remember the days of TBS Sports, TNN, and even NBC. Fox and TNT are good examples in the current contract. We are not talking about coverage issues, but just a big "broadcast window" being made available to cover the races even if it rains or the event runs long.
Now, NASCAR finds itself involved with ESPN2 on the cable TV side and ABC on the broadcast side. Both of these networks had been functioning just fine before NASCAR came along. They were full of quality programming, and profitable.
When the NASCAR contracts were announced, TV types like myself were left scratching our heads and asking the same thing over-and-over again. Where are ESPN and ABC going to put all that programming? Over the last several weeks, it has been made very clear to NASCAR fans exactly where they are going to put it.
Very slowly, the network has pushed NASCAR to the back burner on the ESPN/ABC stove. Race fans know exactly what I am talking about. Now, with empty stands at Busch races, TV ratings for NEXTEL Cup down, and a continued distain for NASCAR on SportsCenter and other ESPN shows, one thing is very clear. The NASCAR pot on the ESPN back burner is cold, and no one seems to care.
The year began with ESPN losing Friday NASCAR practices and qualifying to live Women's Tennis in-progress. Sometimes, it was fun just to hear ESPN tennis announcer Cliff Drysdale try to segway between an Elena Dementieva backhand and trying to promote the Busch Series at Nashville. This was the first sign that things were going to be interesting for NASCAR on ESPN. There would be a lot more to come.
When ESPN2 began their live Cup coverage of practice and qualifying, veteran fans noticed that ESPN had quietly eliminated the first Cup practice. Suddenly, it was clear to NASCAR fans that this big company of multiple networks was juggling a lot of programming that had nothing to do with NASCAR.
Then, a funny thing happened. ESPN got caught with other live events like the Little League World Series in-progress at race time. Since NASCAR was going to start the races anyway, ESPN had to show them somewhere. Where did they move them?
That would be directly to ESPN Classic. Somehow, the laughter that The Daly Planet heard when we suggested this network for NASCAR programming was quickly dying down.
As the college football season got underway, things got ugly quick. Scheduled between two live games, the Busch Series was sitting in "No Man's Land." When the preceding football game ran long, there was only one network where NASCAR could go...that's right...ESPN Classic. Think about that for a moment.
The Busch Series has sometimes hopped between three ESPN networks in one single race. ESPN, ESPN2, and the good old ESPN Classic. NASCAR fans who are trying to watch the race live can sit and click the channels when told, but this is 2007 and every move from network to network kills all TiVo's, DVR's, and even the old VCR's loyally grinding away so fans can come home and watch "their" sport.
This weekend, ESPN's scheduling woes had already eliminated the practice and qualifying for the Busch Series in Memphis. This was tough, because this stand-alone race featured a wide variety of drivers trying to get in the field. Qualifying would have been outstanding at a great track for the Busch Series like Memphis.
Then, as luck would have it, overtime in college football once again pushed the Busch Series pre-race telecast to ESPN Classic. Announcer Marty Reid is an ESPN veteran, and he led a small group of viewers who were watching live and had ESPN Classic through the start of this thirty minute show. But, on this day, there was a problem.
ESPN Classic already had a live college football game scheduled in thirty minutes. This meant that a very interesting moment for both ESPN and NASCAR was finally about to occur. If the game that forced NASCAR to ESPN Classic was not over, ESPN would have to choose between college football and NASCAR. ESPN had three live in-progress programs for only two national cable networks. Can you guess who lost?
In Memphis, the caps were off, the heads were bowed, and the prayer before the race was underway. Then, suddenly on ESPN Classic...NASCAR was no more. College football on ESPN took to the air right in the middle of the NASCAR prayer. Does it get any worse than that? In the middle of the prayer and without Marty Reid saying a word.
NASCAR fans quickly grabbed their remotes and switched back to ESPN2...only to see live college football. Switching to ESPN...live horse racing. Ladies and gentleman, The NASCAR Busch Series had left the building...and the network...and the airwaves.
NASCAR had been told where it stood very clearly, and only a nice tackle by a young man from the Iowa Hawkeyes ended the ESPN2 game a short time later and allowed NASCAR to once again return to the air. But, the point had been made clear to race fans.
The stick-and-ball world of ESPN will never come to NASCAR. This season, the sport has lost its practice and qualifying both on the Busch and Cup sides. It has been pre-empted for news about sports, even though ESPN has its own ESPN News Network.
Races have been shifted between ESPN's cable channels like no other sport. Crucial races on ABC have been pushed off broadcast network TV to protect the ABC News. Races have been ended with no interviews, no follow-up of events, and have even left crashed cars on the track with absolutely no explanation. It has been insane.
Then, to add insult to injury, no live post-race coverage from the track is offered on ESPN News because they are caught-up in the very same college and NFL football coverage. Can you image that?
All the ESPN NASCAR people are in-place at the track, the satellite feed is up and there are stories to tell, but the lack of communication at ESPN between those who produce the events and those who produce the news is mind-boggling.
When viewers tune-in to SportsCenter, they are greeted with ill-informed anchors who often openly mock the sport itself. Last week many time champion Jeff Gordon was called "Gordo" and when a pit crew member dropped a catch-can, the anchor said with a snide grin..."whatever that is."
Let's face facts, aside from debating the quality of the coverage, the "network logistics" of this season on both ESPN and ABC in this first year of their NASCAR TV contract have been a disaster.
Rain and red flags have been a part of NASCAR for decades. These simple issues should not be throwing for a loop the company that considers and promotes itself as the "Worldwide Leader In Sports Broadcasting."
While Iowa Hawkeye fans are thanking junior defensive back Drew Gardner for a game-saving and possibly season-saving overtime tackle, NASCAR fans should be thanking him as well. Without his help, the Busch Series race in Memphis would have started with absolutely no national TV coverage from ESPN.
Just how much more of this treatment can NASCAR fans take? Apparently, we will all find out together. Next Saturday, the Busch Series is again following an Iowa Hawkeye live football game. Let's hope Mr. Gardner stays healthy.
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