Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Will "The Chase" Result In ESPN3?

The last time ESPN carried NASCAR, things were very different. ESPN was a completely different company, rooted in hardcore sports presented on the "mothership channel" of ESPN. NASCAR had managed to climb its way up the ladder and become one of those sports. But it was a long hard climb.

Back then, NASCAR was different too. There was no "Chase for the Cup," no "elimination races" before The Chase, and no "Car of Tomorrow." There was just racing. The fans loved it, but trouble was brewing on the horizon in "TV land."

ESPN and NASCAR got very mad at each other, and they split-up. Each was convinced they were right about money, and what was best for the sport. Needless to say, the parting was not a pleasant one.

NASCAR threw ESPN out of its tracks, and prevented ESPN from showing highlights or using footage. ESPN promptly cancelled RPM2Nite and banned NASCAR from SportsCenter. Nothing about this was good for the fans.

Now, more than five years later, ESPN and NASCAR have found once again that they are better together than apart. Apparently, several hundred million dollars changing hands did not hurt things either. So, here we go...again.

In "TV land," we find ourselves right now on the verge of several powerful forces about to converge. It starts with The Brickyard 400, and runs right through the end of the NASCAR season. This year, ESPN will broadcast both the NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series races from July through November. ESPN has the practice, the qualifying, and the happy hour coverage as well. They will be the TV face of NASCAR for the "stretch run."

On a daily basis, ESPN has NASCAR Now, the only NASCAR news show on TV during the week. On Sundays and Mondays, this show is one hour long. The rest of the week's shows are thirty minutes, unless there is breaking news.

Today's column is a result of what happened on Monday of this week. Better yet, what did not happen. This past week, Dale Junior landed at Hendrick Motorsports. That might be the biggest story of the year. The MIS race was the first event after the shake-up. The best part was, Kyle Busch, the "other party" in the Junior deal, was driving in both the Truck and NEXTEL Cup MIS races. This was going to be good.

Over in Kentucky, The Busch Series was holding a stand-alone race that was completely sold-out. Kentucky Speedway wants a NEXTEL Cup race very badly. The Busch guys put on an awesome show in front of a packed house that resulted in a first time winner. Finally, the Busch Series had a chance to shine in their own spotlight.

Back at MIS, Kyle Busch put on his Truck Series firesuit and promptly went out and finished second. He finished second because Truck Series regular Travis Kvapil passed him on the last lap. Kyle did not panic. He did not crash. He kept his head on straight and finished second. After a night of sleep, he put his NEXTEL Cup firesuit on and went out and finished sixth. That was right behind Dale Earnhardt Junior. This was better than good.

On Monday, ESPN prepares a one hour NASCAR Now show. The network expanded to an hour back on April 12th for one reason. The ESPN Press Release said "the expanded format will provide more time for recaps and analysis of the weekend's NASCAR races." That certainly makes sense. ESPN has the manpower and the news gathering capability to put together a good hour of NASCAR. That only leaves one problem. Sometimes, they have no TV network on which to air it.

NASCAR Now viewers on ESPN2 have been introduced to women's WTA tennis, The Arena Football League, and just this last Monday...The College Baseball World Series. Instead of one hour of NASCAR, viewers saw or recorded lots of hard-working college guys playing their hearts out at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska. NASCAR fans have seen Maria Sharapova serve it up, and the Orlando Predators go deep. What they did not see on these days, was NASCAR.

ESPN has just two channels to carry its live events. Sometimes, they use ABC Sports, as they will for "The Chase" races. But, ABC will not carry practice, qualifying, happy hour, and trackside shows. ESPN and ESPN2 already have a full schedule of high-profile "non-NASCAR" sporting events that have been on these networks for many years now. Those would be the years that ESPN was without NASCAR.

Imagine, ESPN lost its one hour NASCAR Now show on Monday. It had Junior, Michigan, Kyle, Kentucky, Carl, news, rumors, and expert analysis. Gone. It was not "switched" to the ESPN News Network, or the ESPN Classic Channel. It was simply...gone.

Things change, however, on July 29th at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. From that day on, ESPN is the sole media company in charge of both the NEXTEL and Busch Series races. They are the only provider of "The Chase for the Cup." Take just a moment and think about that. Erase the memory of SPEED, NASCAR Live, Trackside, and the endless hours at the track. Things are about to change.

ESPN is going to try to insert into its two cable networks and ABC Sports seventeen NEXTEL and fourteen Busch Series races. On top of that, a daily thirty minute NASCAR news show that expands to one hour on Sunday and Monday. Before each race, there will be NASCAR Countdown, a thirty minute preview show. Wait, not done yet. Add in the practice and qualifying for the fourteen Busch Series races. Then, add in the practice, qualifying, and happy hour for the seventeen NEXTEL Cup events. Can you see where I am going with this?

Even before ESPN has broadcast one NEXTEL Cup event, NASCAR Now had been delayed or pre-empted by other live sports on the network. ESPN is about to add hundreds of hours of unstructured NASCAR programming that is always delayed or running long or postponed due to rain. Hundreds of hours. Just exactly how is that going to work?

As "The Chase" begins, many other professional and college sporting events are also closing-in on championships. Coverage of NEXTEL Cup qualifying takes on new meaning in "The Chase." So does practice, qualifying, and happy hour. That content is destined for two cable networks already hosting some of the highest profile sporting events in the world. Does NASCAR just take a backseat?

When NASCAR Now did not appear on Monday, ESPN made a decision that The College Baseball World Series was more important. We have already seen that WTA Tennis was more important, The French Open was more important, and Arena Football was more important. And this is just a NASCAR news show. When the issue is practice, qualifying, or happy hour...will other sports continue to be more important?

Fans have been spoiled by SPEED, and the other networks including ESPN2 that have carried the ancillary parts of race week, and given them plenty of time. We are used to getting our NASCAR when we want it, and staying with it until the on-track activity is over.

ESPN should have switched the one hour NASCAR Now on Monday to another ESPN network. They should have used a crawl to tell viewers where to turn. The DVR and VCR gang would not be helped, but at least ESPN News or ESPN Classic could have run this program for the viewers who have digital cable. The content of NASCAR Now should not have been blocked from distribution by the internal scheduling problems of ESPN.

It should be interesting when NEXTEL Cup practice, qualifying, and racing are added to the existing mix of both the Busch Series and NASCAR Now. The ESPN Programming Department "War Room" should be a busy place until November. Good luck, we'll be watching.

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