Sunday, May 20, 2007

ESPN And NASCAR On A Collision Course

This year, with much fanfare, ESPN announced its return to NASCAR. The press releases detailed a commitment to televise the entire Busch Series, including a high-profile pre-race show. In addition, ESPN would step-in and take the "Chase for the Cup" down the stretch by covering the last seventeen NEXTEL Cup events.

ESPN even promised to put the NEXTEL Cup events on ABC Sports for the highest level of television distribution. The NEXTEL coverage would also include a pre-race show just like fans had come to expect from the other NASCAR TV networks.

In addition to the race coverage, the biggest shot in-the-arm for the sport was ESPN's announcement of a return to a daily motorsports program. This time, instead of covering all types of racing like RPM2Nite, ESPN2 would carry a program that focused solely on NASCAR. Seven days a week, NASCAR Now would be the TV "platform" for all the NASCAR racing series. This would finally allow a singular focus on one of the most "content rich" sports in North America.

Most people felt that ESPN might need some time to work out the bugs in all this new programming. But, from the first Busch Series event at Daytona, the race coverage was solid. ESPN was showing us their best skill, called "event coverage." The booth announcers were solid, the pit road reporters were great, the camera shots were wonderful, and the ESPN reputation for outstanding audio was well-served.

As the races rolled-on, ESPN began to substitute some announcers, because many of them were involved in other ESPN-related projects. Marty Reid came in for Dr. Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett stepped-in for Rusty Wallace, and several of the pit reporters rotated to help on the Indy 500 coverage. Still, ESPN showed a consistent and strong presence on the Busch Series events. The Daly Planet has mentioned many times that the race coverage on ESPN has been solid from the word go.

Unfortunately, away from the racing, two problems were developing that would rock ESPN's reputation for quality sports programming. This situation has begun a chain-reaction of frustration and anger that will ultimately result in some type of NASCAR response.

Despite what might be said in public, the problems at ESPN are being closely monitored by those connected with NASCAR. At The Daly Planet, we know all too well that these same problems have already made the fans completely nuts.

The situation most recently in the news is ESPN's continuing struggle with its pre-race telecast. This program is called NASCAR Countdown, and has been a disaster from the start. "ESPN Implodes At Daytona" was the headline of the column I wrote after the first NASCAR Countdown show produced by ESPN. NASCAR fans were presented with Brent Musburger, Chris Fowler, and Brad Daugherty as the ESPN pre-race team. Fowler couldn't stop grinning, Daugherty couldn't stop talking, and Musburger wore a funny hat. It was a mess.

Since that time, ESPN has struggled to identify a viable anchor for the pre-race show. They have also been unable to explain why a Busch Series race needs a "host-master general" like Musburger. In fact, Musburger has tried his hand at the anchor position, as has NASCAR Now host Erik Kuselias. Both have failed miserably. They may be great guys, and even good TV announcers, but they both share one common theme that is breaking the back of ESPN's NASCAR credibility. Neither of them knows the sport.

Finally, two weeks ago, ESPN returned to an old favorite of NASCAR fans and brought Allen Bestwick up from pit road. Bestwick is an old pro with a familiar style, and like him or hate him there is no denying his credibility and knowledge. His first show aired the week of Dale Junior's big DEI announcement. Bestwick had Richard Childress on the set, interviews with all the participants, and led the show with ace reporter Marty Smith talking directly to Junior himself.

In just a few minutes, the memory of the earlier mayhem this season was gone. People were talking racing, not creating hype. Bestwick had calmed everything down, and moved the focus back to the facts about the race, and the news of the week. NASCAR seemed to be fun again, and Bestwick let the pit reporters joke around with the drivers and got himself out of the way. Fans bombed The Daly Planet with emails thanking ESPN for the change, and Bestwick for his professionalism. Then, just like that, he was gone again.

Several days ago, ESPN announced that they had named a permanent anchor for both the Busch and NEXTEL Cup Series pre-race shows. This person would host all the shows down the stretch, and would be the high-profile ABC Sports pre-race host for "The Chase for the NEXTEL Cup." To the surprise of many, it was not Bestwick. It was not one of the pit reporters. It was not someone from another network's NASCAR team. It was the sideline reporter for ESPN's Monday Night Football. Her name is Suzy Kolber.

ESPN quoted her in their media release as saying "NASCAR has always interested me." Last week at Darlington she was on the ground meeting people and "taking notes." The ESPN release went on to say that Suzy Kolber, Brent Musburger, and Brad Daugherty would be the pre-race anchors for ESPN's first "Chase for the Cup" coverage. While NASCAR has allowed ESPN to struggle with the Busch Series pre-race show, this line-up for the NEXTEL Cup might get their attention. Why Bestwick was moved is anyone's guess. But, one thing is for sure. He is not an ESPN "branded" announcer, and Kolber is. As they say in Bristol, she "drank the Disney Kool-Aid."

Kolber's appointment is curious, as these races fall mostly during the NFL football season. ESPN has said Kolber will continue to do the Monday Night Football games. This means she must "prep" for two NASCAR pre-race shows, and one NFL football game every week. Allow me to suggest one word for that...impossible.

The Monday Night Football game alone normally requires the reporters to be on the ground at the game site when Kolber will be doing NASCAR shows. The huge amount of info to be organized for an NFL football game, including the on-going storylines and the pre-production duties are all done while Kolber will be in NASCAR land. Something is just not right with this whole deal.

So, in June at Dover Downs, Kolber takes the helm of NASCAR Countdown blissfully unaware of the firestorm of fan reaction swirling on every NASCAR forum and chat site. This should be an interesting run to the flag for all parties. Maybe Brent will wear his hat.

The biggest dissapointment of the season for ESPN has been NASCAR Now. ESPN made a very bad strategic move by locating the studio portion of this daily show in Bristol, CT. NASCAR is the only sport where almost everyone lives within forty miles of one location. Not just the drivers, but the owners, crew chiefs, reporters...everyone. That location is Mooresville, North Carolina.

Had ESPN made a commitment to a studio in Mooresville, everyone and anyone in the sport could simply "drive over" to be interviewed. By locating the studio in Connecticut, the "NASCAR guys" are isolated because the sport itself takes so much personal time to be involved in. Not a lot of weekends off between February and November. This leaves one "beat reporter" named Shannon Spake to file reports every day as if she is visiting with the Steelers in Pittsburgh. As this program found out very early, one reporter or fifty reporters on the ground is not going to cut it.

ESPN compounded the situation by deciding to bring in as hosts two announcers who had no experience with NASCAR. Erik Kuselias was a good ESPN Radio host, and Doug Banks was a hip-hop "urban" radio DJ with a huge following in the black community. These two guys were put in the ultimate no-win situation. They can read the teleprompter, but when asked to make conversation about the sport, or participate in any type of interview, they are lost.

Over-and-over again this season, these two have been asked to interview the biggest names in NASCAR. They painfully read the scripted questions, wait until they think the guest is done, and then read the next question. When the Mooresville-based NASCAR Now reporters appear to update the news, the hosts do it again. One at a time, they read the script, and the reporter answers. Its like a root canal with a lug wrench.

By now, the secret is out. The reporters and the guests love to interject and ask the anchors a quick question. Its a hilarious joke within the NASCAR community. Several weeks ago, reporter Mike Massaro asked Erik Kuselias to help him with a driver name because he was so tired from traveling and a night race. The answer was Jimmy Johnson, and it was not hard to provide. Kuselias was flabbergasted. He had no clue. Then, Marty Smith rebuffed a point Kuselias had made earlier in a show during his liveshot, and asked Kuselias about it. Is there such a thing as a "human-in-the-headlights" look? If so, that was it.

NASCAR Now also employs driver Stacy Compton on the set as an analyst, and sometimes the hilarious Boris Said. Compton spends the entire half-hour completely disagreeing with anything that Kuselias or Banks tries to hype, and good old Boris just laughs and shakes his head. With the two drivers on the set, Kuselias interviewed Gordon's Crew Chief Steve Letarte after Darlington. His first question to Steve was "how close were you to blowing up?" You could just hear the muffled laughter in the background. The look on Letarte's face was priceless.

The Bristol-based production team at ESPN has also compounded the situation by continually making serious errors in news judgement. NASCAR Now reporter Terry Blount appeared one day with breaking news at the top of the show. Dale Earnhardt Junior was leaving DEI. Blount also suggested that Junior might start his own team, and that a press conference was going to be held the following day. Blount was professional, and had great inside information. Then, he was gone.

NASCAR Now host Doug Banks returned to reading his script, and for the next twenty nine minutes absolutely nothing was mentioned about this story. Nothing. At the end of the show, Banks had to deviate from the teleprompter to announce ESPN2 would be carrying Junior's press conference the next day. He stumbled through his words, and signed off. In one hour after this show, The Daly Planet had over one hundred screaming emails. One message simply said "who are these guys and why are they doing this to us?"

The answer is to both these situations is simple. ESPN is excellent at "event coverage," but their "program" production is a battle over control. Simply put, it is ESPN vs. NASCAR. ESPN will "bring in" NASCAR reporters, analysts, and commentators with no problem. What they will not do is "surrender" the anchor chair for either NASCAR Countdown or NASCAR Now to a non-ESPN "branded" announcer. Its going to be an "ESPN anchor," and not a "NASCAR anchor." There will be no NASCAR influence, and that has been made clear. ESPN does not care about experience in the sport, they just want "one of their own."

Could you imagine Bob Jenkins in the Brent Musburger position? What memories of ESPN past would that bring to the fans? Imagine the video that could be used of those old days, and how things have changed. If Bob showed-up for the "Chase" the fans would just be floored. Now, there would be a "host-master general."

How about the duo of Mike Massaro and Allen Bestwick hosting NASCAR Now? Massaro single-handedly kept ESPN in the sport after the contract was lost, and hung-in there when he was repeatedly thrown out of tracks during a contract dispute over footage. What opportunity does he get for all his hard work? Bestwick has been a solid NASCAR guy for years. He is buttoned-up, dry as toast, and makes no bones about who he is. He can handle studio duties like he did for a decade on Inside NEXTEL Cup, and the anchor chair like he did for NBC Sports. The best part is, he has a level of trust and respect in the sport that is un-matched.

Finally, if someone like Randy Pemberton, Eli Gold, or even MRN's Dave Moody showed up to host the pre-race show, would that be a problem? How about giving Shannon Spake an opportunity after all her hard-work this year for ESPN? This list goes on and on. This job could offer someone who is working hard in NASCAR TV at this time a nice opportunity. It would be fun to watch someone who cared about the sport begin a relationship with the fans that would continue through the ESPN TV contract.

Sooner or later, NASCAR is going to have a conversation with ESPN. NASCAR Now refuses to show Busch Series highlights, refuses to acknowledge the other NASCAR touring series, and uses in-house commentators like Tim Cowlishaw to "talk" for NASCAR. Their coverage of the Truck Series is pathetic. Do you think they know that 16 year old Joey Lagano just outran Kevin Harvick in Iowa? They have never even mentioned the Grand National division on the air this year. What a shame.

Once Kolber, Musburger, and Daugherty get going, NASCAR is going to have to listen carefully. This is critical time for the struggling Busch Series, and how these races are previewed will determine if they continue to be viable, or become just a NEXTEL Cup practice session with a checkered flag at the end.

In the ESPN2 Busch Series pre-race show from Talladega, the Busch race itself was never even mentioned. The ESPN focus was on Sunday's NEXTEL Cup race that was already going to be previewed and telecast by Fox Sports. ESPN was so obsessed with the Cup race, they never even mentioned their own Busch race. Does that not just hurt your brain?

With the All-Star break now done, we begin the business half of the season where the smiles fade, the drama builds, and the money is on the line. If ESPN continues to have problems, it is the sport that will suffer. If ESPN steps-up and makes changes, there is still time to put a solid roster in place that will take this team through the playoffs. Right now, we continue to ponder the question posed by our email friend. "Who are these guys and why are they doing this to us?"

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email if you wish not to be published. Thanks again for taking the time to stop by.