Sunday, January 11, 2009
Update: This column now has a story link at the bottom to NASCAR.com
In just a couple of weeks, the NASCAR on ESPN team will again take to the air. Along with broadcasting the Nationwide Series race from Daytona, ESPN will be on-scene with NASCAR Now, SportsCenter and ESPNEWS.
Last season's cast of characters will be returning with Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree having a very low-key off-season. Rusty Wallace continues to run his Nationwide Series team and Brad Daugherty has MWR all ready to handle his single car effort on the Cup side with Marcos Ambrose.
Once again, the one ESPN personality that has been in the news, on the radio and all over the Internet during the off-season has been Ray Evernham. Last week, ESPN announced that Evernham would be returning to his "utility player" role for the network in 2009.
He will be used in the broadcast booth as an analyst, in the infield pit studio as an expert panelist and on multiple ESPN shows to offer both opinion and analysis.
Before that all begins, Ray Evernham needs to speak-up and clear the air.
Evernham recently called-in and spoke with David Poole at Sirius about some issues. Here are some details from Poole's column about that conversation:
Evernham no longer has a major day-to-day role in the team he ran after leaving Hendrick Motorsports as Jeff Gordon's crew chief to help Dodge come back to big-time NASCAR competition. He sold most of his interest into the team to George Gillett and his family and has scaled back more and more over the past couple of years.
Evernham wants to be involved in racing. But as a team owner, he discovered that was a job he wasn't going to be able to do at a level he could feel good about.
Evernham said Tuesday that "it will probably always haunt me" that he didn't win a championship as a team owner, but he's proud of what he helped build at GEM. He's not sure he agrees with everything that's being done there now, but he also said that it's no longer his call.
As for the situation with Sadler and Allmendinger, there wasn't much he could say.
Therein lies the problem. In just a couple of weeks, Evernham will have plenty to say. He will have to speak to ESPN viewers about GEM and other teams as a former crew chief and veteran team owner. He will have to comment on the news and offer opinions about various NASCAR topics. How exactly is that going to work?
Reid Spencer from The Sporting News (click here) suggests that the merger between GEM and Petty Racing along with Elliott Sadler's firing and hiring makes that entire group look like the Keystone Cops. The fact that the newly-merged company does not have an official name just tops it all off.
It has been suggested that Richard Petty Motorsports may be the new name of the team, which will complete the use of Petty as a "branding tool" and nothing more. Key to this agreement is that Evernham may have left as a day-to-day senior executive, but he is retaining an interest in the team, possibly as much as twenty percent.
It was September of last year when the Ray Evernham issue first boiled-over. ESPN had given Evernham a free pass not to talk about GEM, the Robby Gordon lawsuit or the fact that Patrick Carpentier had been released. It was Evernham's first season with the ESPN team.
This was blatantly unfair and stretched from the infield pit studio to the NASCAR Now studios and beyond. TDP called it the ESPN "code of silence."
Over at Yahoo! Sports, Jay Busbee chimed-in (click here) about how tough it is for Evernham to navigate through the very problems that he created. Busbee called the situation "ethically awkward."
The sad part of all of this is that Evernham works on TV. He has the right personality, the knowledge and the demeanor to grow his role on the ESPN coverage.
Unfortunately, by not divesting himself of NASCAR ownership and continuing to play the "I am not involved" card where GEM is concerned, Evernham is doing himself a disservice.
We will leave you with a link (click here) to the TDP column from last September about the issue. Here is an excerpt:
While Evernham might talk about his cars and his teams during the race highlights, there is a code of silence at ESPN where Evernham is concerned that is simply not fair to NASCAR fans. Like all the other owners, Evernham should be fair game and he is not.
Where ESPN is concerned, suits-and-ties and silence cannot hide reality. These NASCAR owners who double as ESPN announcers simply cannot walk down both sides of the street and expect their commentary to be received by the fans as unbiased.
Update: Click here for a story by Raygan Swan about Evernham. It seems Evernham used her to address some of the very same specific issues that TDP suggested.
TDP welcomes your thoughts on this issue. However, any comment with a reference to Evernham's personal life will be deleted. This topic is about Evenham's credibility on TV and the conflict at ESPN with active team owners as on-air announcers and analysts.
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Bob Varsha and Leigh Diffey welcomed racing fans to the first edition of The SPEED Report for 2009 on Sunday night. Both men were live from the new SPEED studios after a major move by the network over the past several weeks.
This studio marks the first time that the network has actually had its own facility. Originally working in the Stamford, CT studios of Group W in the SpeedVision days, the network moved to Charlotte, NC and took over the Inspirational Network studios on Southern Pine Boulevard.
Now, the entire company has relocated to the Harris Blvd. area of north Charlotte and is still settling into the new facility. From the freshly painted floor to the immaculate lighting, the new SPEED studios are beautiful on TV.
The thrust of this move was to create an all-HD facility that would allow SPEED to finish the transition to having all programming available in HD. This has been a very tough task during the off-season, but now that the racing is about to begin the network will finally have a strong HD foundation of new programming.
Fox's Jeff Hammond was the NASCAR expert who appeared in studio to talk about the sport. He recapped the Petty Enterprises and GEM merger with the suggestion that Richard Petty will somehow be involved in the day-to-day operations of the new company.
Good soundbites from Greg Zipadelli, Kyle Petty and others served to get the SPEED gang back in the flow of the new season. Hammond spoke to the reality of the Sprint Cup Series rookies who must confront speedweek in Daytona with no January testing.
The show offered a good preview of the Rolex 24 that included the names of the various NASCAR drivers who will be participating. While some NASCAR stars will be in Daytona, others will be in Oklahoma racing on a very small track in a very big barn.
The 2009 Chili Bowl will be carried by SPEED on a tape-delayed basis. TDP will keep you posted when the scheduling information is released. So far, nothing on the SPEEDtv.com TV listings.
An update on the Sound and Speed Festival (click here) that was recently held in Nashville, TN for charity was a nice touch. It was good to see and hear from a wide variety of NASCAR's top stars, even if "old DW" did try-out a pre-season "Boogity, Boogity, Boogity."
Hammond's second segment in the studio showed just how professional he has become on TV and why he continues to be a key player on the Fox and SPEED team. While addressing the 2009 season was a tough chore, Hammond handled a wide variety of topics with his normally good sense of humor.
TDP has it on good authority that Hammond's choice of sport coat is in the process of being banned for life by network executives. HDTV sets across America will be very thankful.
Veteran SPEED viewers do not have to think very hard to remember old days of "Ken and Barbie" that made The SPEED Report almost unwatchable. In 2008, SPEED committed to change and the results have been very worthwhile.
After a solid first year, the switch to the new HD studios and the continued use of SPEED announcers as co-hosts should bring another interesting season of this TV series. This first episode was a very good start.
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Things are certainly getting interesting where the new ESPN.com homepage is concerned. The redesigned version of this top sports website has caused quite a backlash across the Internet.
Where TDP is concerned, one change really stands out. The company that telecasts the entire Nationwide Series, the final 17 Sprint Cup races and offers the only daily NASCAR show on TV has eliminated NASCAR as a direct link on the frontpage of their website.
ESPN.com users no longer see the word NASCAR on the front page and have to click on the "All Sports" tab to open a menu box and then find the sport. Poker and High School sports are also on the same menu. The curious part of this switch is that the National Hockey League remains as a direct link while NASCAR does not.
When you load the new ESPN.com front page, you suddenly find yourself immersed in a commercial environment that puts your ability to navigate on hold until all the advertising is complete.
Here is an excerpt from Venture Beat that talks about the specifics:
ESPN launched its new site design today and all I can say is “wow.” And it’s not a good “wow,” it’s a horrified “wow.” I can’t separate those advertisements from the content, and so I’ll never visit this site again.
It’s sad, because ESPN does have great content when it comes to sports. In fact, I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that it has the best content out there. But with this redesign it’s crossed a line that I expect other sites may try to cross as advertising revenues dip in the weak economy.
First of all, when you load up espn.com, you’re greeted with a huge overlay that includes not just a giant static ad, but also a video that auto-plays! It was annoying enough when ESPN had a little video in the corner that played when you loaded the site previously, but at least with that you could see other content too. Now you’re forced to sit through this overlay or click out of it. It doesn’t run every time you visit the site, but more than enough to make it so I won’t go back.
Secondly, the site itself is still just a giant ad disguised as a sports site. I’m looking at the site right now and I can’t tell if I’m at a site about sports or the website about the Ford F-150. I hope I don’t accidentally click anywhere because I must have a 50 percent chance of hitting one of these ads.
You can read the entire Venture Beat article by clicking here.
Mr. Siegler goes on to talk about content issues. Other than the opinions offered by the ESPN writers, most of the other sports information, including NASCAR news, is available from a wide variety of Internet sources. This puts the ESPN NASCAR writers in a tough situation where getting new Internet readers is concerned.
Arriving at the NASCAR page, the positive change in the ESPN redesign is apparent. The NASCAR videos do not auto-play when the user arrives, so folks do not have to continually grab the volume controls. The page itself has gone minimalist.
Two of the key elements on the front page are from the ESPN-owned Jayski.com website. A podcast that has a great quick play feature uses Jayski's business partner Mark Garrow as the announcer for an informative update on the NASCAR happenings.
The direct link to Jayski.com has been moved to the right-hand column and continues to feature headlines from that site. It is unfortunate that when a user clicks on an ESPN.com NASCAR story, the Jayski link does not travel to the next page.
It should be interesting to see if once again the ESPN TV coverage of NASCAR, including the daily NASCAR Now program, can go through a third season without ever mentioning the ESPN-owned Jayski.com on the air.
This culture clash between North Carolina and Connecticut continues to be very strange, with many NASCAR fans going to Jayski for information long before ESPN returned to the sport. Integrating Jayski into the NASCAR Now program for 2009 would be a tremendously smart move for the "New England gang."
From the NASCAR page on ESPN.com, it appears that David Newton, Terry Blount, Marty Smith, Ed Hinton and Ryan McGee will be the ones providing the reporting and opinion for this season. Each is featured with their own section and archives.
The ESPN.com direct link to NASCAR used to be the small tip of the NASCAR news and information iceberg that was visible above the water to everyone. Now, it has sunk just below the surface.
That first click makes all the difference in the Internet business. Getting mainstream stick-and-ball sports fans to read about NASCAR was greatly influenced by that one little word that used to be on the website's front page.
Yahoo! Sports matches ESPN.com in head-to-head users, often trading the "unique visitors" lead on a monthly basis. Yahoo! continues to make a NASCAR direct link available on the sports front page.
With millions of sports fans of all types surfing over to ESPN.com every day, losing NASCAR as a "one click" in these troubled times is not a very positive step for the sport.
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