Sunday, November 8, 2009
Three And Out For ESPN
This is the third time the NASCAR on ESPN team has covered the Chase for the Championship. Instead of growth and success, the production team has been struggling with a clash of agendas. Last week at Talladega, things came to a head.
ESPN was clearly upset with the periods of single-file racing. This has been seen before at Talladega, but that was not the real issue. Instead of simply covering the race as it was unfolding, the single-file racing was presented to TV viewers as an issue happening to ESPN. It was blamed on NASCAR directly. Dale Jarrett even suggested the single-file racing was a driver conspiracy over reinforced rules on bump drafting.
After the race, the sanctioning body's frustration with ESPN boiled over. NASCAR's Director of Corporate Communications, Ramsey Poston, offered these words:
The ABC broadcasters certainly weren't happy with the race and they felt compelled to remind viewers of that virtually every lap. Along the way ABC missed a lot of very good racing.
Regardless of how you may feel about the on-track issues, it is very rare for NASCAR to publicly criticize a TV partner, much less one that handles the Sprint Cup Series. The real reason for this clash is easy to understand.
ESPN has been having trouble assimilating back into a sport that is used to leading the way and having the TV networks follow. In the "New World Order" of ESPN, the TV coverage is the star and the sporting event takes a backseat.
Personalities like Dick Vitale, Brent Musburger and Chris Berman are used to being the show, not being at the show. In 2007, ESPN brought so many gizmos, so much hype and so many misplaced priorities to NASCAR that fans were shocked. The term for this is called "over-producing." It may be the reason that many of you stopped watching SportsCenter. Just too much stuff.
All year long, ESPN drags a Tech Garage, Infield Pit Studio and eleven on-air announcers to the tracks for the Nationwide Series races. It made no sense back in 2007 and it still makes no sense today.
From February through July, ESPN's frustration level builds covering Jason Keller and Kenny Wallace on the track instead of Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. As fans know, ESPN clings to the Sprint Cup drivers who race in the Nationwide Series as security blankets during the live telecasts.
This year, the type of Sprint Cup Series TV coverage ESPN would provide was made clear from the opening moments at Indy. After talking for hours about the critical battle into Turn 1, the network missed showing it. It went downhill from there. Click here for a review of how the ESPN Sprint Cup Series season started. Please make sure to read the fan comments.
Here is one fan's Indy comment that sets the tone for the issue we are discussing:
ESPN just absolutely drains any joy out of the race. No one sounds or acts like they enjoy racing. They trudge in, punch the clock, do their work by the numbers and wait until it's time to punch out and go home. It's depressing.
Now, fourteen races into ESPN's third Sprint Cup Series season, ratings are down and tempers are tight. NASCAR wants the races to be "the show" for the TV viewers. ESPN itself wants to be "the show" and then present a race for which NASCAR is responsible. Any way you cut it, this partnership is wearing thin. These are two agendas that simply do not meet.
The race in Texas looms with two very powerful companies at odds over how a product in which they are both heavily invested is presented on national TV. If ESPN returns to the monotony of Jerry Punch, the endless in-car cameras and the total disregard for the race as anything but background noise, this is going to get ugly.
NASCAR is currently locked into a multi-billion dollar contract with ESPN as the primary TV partner. The company produces all the Nationwide races, the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series races and a daily NASCAR TV show. ESPN International distributes all NASCAR races worldwide. The partnership extends into online content and other new media platforms.
Getting this problem solved in the off-season may well be a key issue for a sport currently reeling from sponsor woes and fan unrest. Ignoring it for another year may continue to drive fans away from the sport at a time when NASCAR is gaining a handle on the COT and growing a diverse driver pool.
Every sport has crucial moments in time for a variety of reasons. Where NASCAR and ESPN are concerned, that moment is now.
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