Saturday, February 24, 2007

ESPN: Busch Series Countdown - Fontana

"You're looking live..." was Brent Musburger's signature line during his days at CBS Sports several decades ago. The fact that ESPN has chosen this man, and that line, to begin their brand new NASCAR Busch Series coverage remains puzzling. Musburger's confusion with NASCAR's junior series reminds one of Keith Jackson struggling for player names in his later football days.

Musburger is a New Yorker with absolutely no NASCAR credentials who has been placed in the forefront of the ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 coverage. Why? Veteran voices like Bob Jenkins, Eli Gold, Ralph Shaheen or Alan Bestwick would fit in nicely with ESPN and lend an air of credibility that Musburger will never enjoy. In the well-rehearsed Fontana opening, Musburger struggled again with racing terminology and a fundamental understanding of this complex and demanding sport. With all due respect, this is not football or baseball. This is a cult, and good announcers know that fans are "in the know" about their driver and team.

Musberger handed off to Brad Daugherty who again had trouble getting through his news story about Toyota, only to be saved by veteran Tim Brewer, who summed up in thirty seconds what it had been taking Daugherty several minutes to say. Musburger actually introduced Daugherty by saying he was once a Busch Series owner whose car actually won one race. Ouch.

Luckily, the ESPN ground troops are there to save the day again. The always reliable Alan Bestwick, quirky Dave Burns, and solid newcomer Jamie Little provide excellent interviews and good news reporting from all around the track. The feature on Kevin Harvick was an excellent touch, and the type of opportunity that ESPN needs to give Daugherty to increase his credibility with the viewers and teams.

Even when dealing directly with Rusty Wallace, Musburger has trouble speaking the racing language. Wallace always handles these moments well, and has proven to be exactly what ESPN wanted in their franchise player. Once the booth announcers are on, the difference between the pros and the pretenders is quite clear. Hopefully, ESPN will take a lesson from Fox and put Wallace on the pre-race set to lend additional credibility to Tim Brewer's comments. Jeff Hammond and Darrell Waltrip allow each topic to be approached from a driver and crew chief perspective, which really allows for two schools of thought on one subject to be brought out. This is one key element missing with ESPN.

In week two, ESPN continues to deal with problems on the infield set, and needs to remember that both Fox and NBC had great success with their pre-race shows by defining a purpose. The War Wagon and The Hollywood Hotel both became solid elements for those networks. It seems that for ESPN, shaking off the "Gameday" mentality and defining a purpose may take a bit longer.

ESPN: NASCAR Now - Friday Night

With only a short time on the air, ESPN2's NASCAR Now has shown us flashes of brilliance mixed with confusing arrogance. There is no other way to categorize the decision-making that results in an endless flow of different faces who speak on topics and then vanish into thin air. Media types call it the "SportsCenter syndrome." Every news story has to be followed by a team of "experts" that sit in an studio ready to tell us how much they know...and remind us of how much we don't.

NASCAR Now has hosted NASCAR President Mike Helton on the phone to explain in-person his "Daytona caution" decision, and then in the same week had college basketball's Brad Daugherty make a complete fool of himself while trying to explain sponsor conflicts as a "NASCAR expert."

They have had analyst Stacy Compton brilliantly break-down the final lap of the Daytona 500, and then had journalist Tim Cowlishaw offer bizarre opinions on issues from sponsorship to driver performance. Cowlishaw's general conversations are fine on Around the Horn, but ridiculous on NASCAR Now. Apparently, Mr. Obvious appears on more than just "The Bob and Tom Show."

Finally, Mark Martin races in his first NASCAR event since Daytona, and is spun-out on a late restart in the Fontana NCTS race. Heartbreak again live on national TV in primetime on Friday night. Should it have been the lead story on NASCAR Now? Absolutely. Did the Disney/ABC/ESPN executives allow a SPEED Channel race to lead their show? Absolutely not. The entire truck race coverage consisted of thirty-five seconds of video highlights at the end of the show. There was absolutely no interview of the winner, no reaction from Martin himself, and no conversation with Daytona 500 winner Harvick, who also drove in the race.

ESPN has to make a decision, and they need to make it fast. Are they here as a NASCAR TV partner, or here to be a self-serving ego-driven company? I know memories are short, but the last time NASCAR walked away from ESPN it was for exactly that reason. NASCAR had lost patience with the fact that ESPN thought it was bigger than the sport. The anger of that moment might have faded over the years, but the shaky start of NASCAR Now in reference to news judgement and fairness hints at the same problems the network has with other sports. Someone needs to step-up, and steer this ship in the right direction.