Thursday, December 4, 2008
There Is A Blue Chevrolet Parked In The Taxi Lane
Would the owner of a blue Chevrolet please report to the front of the hotel and move your car. New York City wants to get back to the noise and chaos of a normal day in Manhattan.
After all the happenings of the regular season, it is time once again for the post-season Sprint Cup Series banquet. Friday night on the ESPN Classic TV Network NASCAR will be front-and-center from 9PM until Midnight.
Dr. Jerry Punch will be hosting the festivities and Matchbox Twenty is the musical guest. Comedian John Pinette will be along for the laughs and Kevin Costner will be providing a historical feature. For those fans who want to see the edited version of the three hour live program, that will air on December 8th from 2 to 4PM ET on ESPN2.
This is a very difficult time for the sport amid the struggles of the worldwide economy. The NASCAR revenue model for both the teams and the sanctioning body relies on sponsorship from major corporations who then get a high-profile return on their investments. That model is currently at a dead standstill.
Friday is going to be the last very public opportunity for NASCAR Chairman Brian France to infuse confidence in the teams, fans and sponsors. His appearance earlier this week at the Sports Media Summit found him speaking frankly about the economic decline even as he lamented the lack of excitement from Jimmie Johnson.
"He's a California guy, a very nice guy, a cool customer and obviously very talented," France said. "But he's not going to do a lot of things that are going to wow you or stun you or surprise you in the ways that sometimes other athletes make their mark. We need to do more with our athletes to bring out their emotions."
That last sentence is completely the opposite of the very public signal that NASCAR has been sending out on the TV airwaves for the last two years. Politically correct drivers like Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are the role models for the sport.
The last seventeen races of the Sprint Cup season feature six or seven ESPN announcers dressed in suits-and-ties talking about cookie-cutter drivers who get out and say the same thing after every race. The results have been a TV ratings disaster.
The anticipated surge in viewership once the sport put the final piece of the TV puzzle in place and transitioned over to ESPN and ABC did not happen. This bitter pill has been tough to swallow for France even as he presides over a billion-dollar TV rights contract that has years left to run.
This season ended with the tension between the NASCAR teams and ESPN at an all-time high. This relationship seems to be so very different than the one enjoyed by either Fox Sports or TNT during those portions of the Sprint Cup TV season. It is certainly very different than SPEED, the one network that distinguished itself this season.
While France publicly pointed to Jimmie Johnson and the economy, he may perhaps have missed one big issue. It is up to the NASCAR on ESPN team to close-out the year with a bang. That is the very reason the TV schedule is arranged in this manner.
Fox starts the season, builds the drama of the Daytona 500 and then stays on top of the stories as the season unfolds. TNT comes along and the focus is on the summer Daytona race and the "wide open" coverage. Both these pieces of the puzzle are just the prelude to the "big boys" coming to town.
While Kyra Sedgwick might be "The Closer" where TNT is concerned, it is the ESPN/ABC portion of the Sprint Cup TV package that is supposed to be "the closer" for the NASCAR season.
Rather than reflect on the fact that Jimmie Johnson is not Tony Stewart, France may be well-served with a strategic meeting to determine why the last two Sprint Cup seasons ended in disjointed TV coverage, flat ratings and angry drivers.
There may never be a more difficult NASCAR off-season in the modern era than this one. Despite the presence of additional family in the sport and professionals like Mike Helton at his side, ultimately the focus is on France to hold things together through this turmoil.
A clean and neat appearance with clearly-spoken enthusiastic words at the Sprint Cup Series banquet on Friday night is going to go a long way toward erasing the memory of the disheveled executive defending everything from sexual harassment lawsuits to the COT in 2008. This night, the spotlight is on Brian France.
Thanks to a TDP reader for the picture above from this week in NYC.
The Daly Planet will have a live forum for your comments during the Sprint Cup Series banquet. There will be a full column up shortly after the program is over to review how NASCAR and its TV company chose to present this awards program.
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