Tuesday, April 6, 2010

ESPN Pushes The NASCAR Reset Button


The Worldwide Leader had run out of options. After stepping back into the sport in 2007, ESPN had run up a long list of spectacular failures in almost all areas of NASCAR television for three straight seasons.

Studio shows, Nationwide Series races, NASCAR on SportsCenter, the Chase for the Championship, it didn't really matter. The NASCAR on ESPN effort had been one of the most significant sports television failures in the thirty year history of the company.

Names like Erik Kuselias, Brent Musburger, Tim Cowlishaw and Suzy Kolber only serve to make veteran fans shake their heads. Last season, things were in such disarray that ESPN actually telecast several races without anyone in the play-by-play role. Four color analysts just sat around talking. ESPN called it "Backseat Drivers." It was some of the most embarrassing NASCAR television coverage in history.

The darkest point in 2009 came during the Chase. The meltdown of Jerry Punch was complete. The pit reporters were lost. The Director alternated between the leader of the race and Jimmie Johnson. Tim Brewer continued to talk about shocks and tires as if TV viewers had just landed from Mars. The fans were screaming, NASCAR was screaming and the TV ratings were horrible.

From the start of this TV contract in 2007, the new ESPN motorsports programming and production executives had sought to mold NASCAR to ABC/Disney's own agenda. The production executive came from the X Games franchise, while the programming representative had been managing the BASS programming and ESPN Outdoors.

Music videos, fancy graphics and in-house announcers from other sports were imported to NASCAR. Disney movies, recording artists and other ESPN TV shows were featured in NASCAR programs. Who can forget live X Games interviews and promo's from the Infield Pit Studio with NASCAR racecars zooming by in the background at full speed.

The result of this approach was an immediate alienation of the fan base. NASCAR had been doing just fine without ESPN for a decade. Now, the network had returned and suddenly ESPN wanted to be the show. NASCAR often seemed to simply be in the way.

Ultimately, there was only one way to solve these problems. That was to look to the past. Before the angry split, NASCAR and ESPN had a rich history of cooperation and growth. This season, ESPN has slowly pushed itself back in time to rediscover the roots of that success. At the core of this effort are some familiar names and faces.

The lead voice on pit road now belongs to Dr. Jerry Punch. Back where he belongs, Punch sounds every bit like the excited and informed reporter that fans had come to know in the 1980's. Punch's return this season has raised the level of pit road reporting from the entire ESPN team. The fan reaction has been wonderful.

Cool and collected is the presence of Allen Bestwick on TV. After quietly moving up from pit road, Bestwick established himself as the island of calm in the middle of ESPN's NASCAR storm. Last season, Bestwick put this franchise on his back and did most of the heavy lifting. At times, his infield role seemed to be putting the pieces of a shattered telecast back together for the viewers. Now, that has all changed.

With Punch back on pit road and Bestwick anchoring from the infield, attention turned to the broadcast booth. When that door swung open, Marty Reid walked in. No one has had a bigger effect on ESPN's NASCAR coverage than Reid. Suddenly, the excitement is back and what is happening on the track is the focus of the telecast.

This alignment of Reid, Punch and Bestwick has served to cement a foundation that NASCAR on ESPN has never enjoyed until now. As a result, the supporting cast of characters has slowly come alive this season. These changes must be such a relief to many of them.

Dale Jarret is finally free to be an analyst with the burden of helping Punch call the race now lifted. The same is true for Andy Petree, who can finally focus on race strategy and information. This season will also see Rusty Wallace, Ricky Craven, Randy LaJoie and Ray Evernham make their way through the broadcast booth.

In a very smart move, ESPN will also put Dave Burns and Vince Welch at the helm of one Nationwide Series telecast to see what they can bring to the table in the play by play role. Speculation is that ESPN may split broadcast teams when the network begins to cover both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races.

For the first time in a long time, ESPN looks like it is putting all the pieces in place to rebuild the coverage of the sport. Reid returns in Phoenix on Friday night with Wallace and Petree alongside in the booth. After an outstanding effort in Nashville, ESPN could be poised to keep the momentum going in the desert.

We welcome your comments on this topic. To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below. This is a family-friendly website, please keep that in mind when posting. Thanks for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.

40 comments:

Matt said...

Dave Burns has done some PxP for the NASCAR East/West series a few years ago, and he was very good. Vince Welch I'm not looking forward to. Vince is very good in Indycars and has done PxP for IMS Radio in Indycar, but he just doesn't seem to have connected to NASCAR. He doesn't seem passionate enough or know enough about NASCAR to be a good PxP broadcaster for NASCAR, but we shall see.

Anonymous said...

Great article JD. Finally ESPN is heading in the right direction. The changes they made in the off-season have solved the puzzle. Dr. Jerry Punch is great on pit road and Marty Reid is fantastic in the booth. He really injects excitement into the broadcast. Keep it up ESPN.

Sally said...

I have to admit that I wasn't expecting much from ESPN this year. Whatever inspired the change, I can only applaud the change. The Nationwide series races this have been done masterfully. The voices in the booth have been informative without wandering away from what happens on the track. The biggest improvement has to be in the 'truck', where the views have kept up with the action on the track. No longer just concentrating on the front of the field, fans can actually get a sense of what's happening thru the entire field. Frequent updates and 'thru the field' reports keep fans at home involved and informed. The cameras find the excitement in the race, no matter where it happens. I only hope this continues for the entire season. If they manage to bring the final 10 races of the year without giving the impression there are only 12 cars on the track worth following, they will have worked a miracle. Thank you ESPN for listening to the race fans and reminding us why ESPN helped make Nascar so popular.

Vicky D said...

Loved the column, JD. I think putting Punch on pit road and moving Reid into the NW PXP role, really helped ESPN out. I really like the way Reid takes control and makes the broadcast worth watching. The three R's have worked well with Marty too. I think it'll be good to see Dave Burns & Vince Welch in the booth too. I think it was last year when Marty & Randy called the ORP race then the week after they were a little off, so hoping that doesn't happen this week at Phoenix.

Anonymous said...

nice article, but don't give the rich kid on the block too much credit just yet...they have time to tinker and screw it up.

OSBORNK said...

They had a winning formula in Nashville and I hope they carry it forward. I hope they don't allow internal politics to mess up the broadcast. Some people who had the holiday off might be concerned about how well everything worked without them. I can see them using their influence to change things to their liking. I hope objective people are in a decision making position.

JohnP said...

Great article JD. The Nascar on ESPN during the chase in 2009 turned a lot of fans off. Including myself and my wife. It does look like they have the assets in the right place for this coming Chase in 2010. But only if management lets them do their jobs, and don't issues orders as clearly happened last year. Fox has followed up the start of this year using a similuar model as ESPN did in 2009. It's a model of failure for the fans. A lot of damage has been done to the fan base. It's not going to be recovered quickly due to the on going poor production on the tv. There are millions of fans like me. I don't tweet, or whatever it's called. I use MySpace, not Facebook. I don't multi-task during the race because I want to relax from multi-tasking all week with work. I want fun. Plain entertainment and not more work. At the end of the day, Nascar is simply entertainment. Hopefully TNT and ESPN can recover this failing sport with better broadcasts. Nascar has finally done there work. Spoiler back, lower ticket prices, package deals, "let'em at it" on the track and lapped cars in the back at re-starts(I can't call it double file restarts-always been double file, just the lapped cars were on the inside).

Now it's time for the TV folks to do their homework. ESPN is on it's way with these people in these roles. What say you Fox?

Kudo's to ESPN for the personnal they have lined up. To the management of ESPN. LET YOUR EMPLOYEES DO THEIR JOB WITHOUT MICRO-MANAGING THEM!!.

GinaV24 said...

Great article, JD. The broadcast of the Nationwide race this weekend from Nashville was phenomenal. I enjoyed it from beginning to end. The team of Marty, Ricky and DJ were wonderful in the booth, Dr. Punch leads the pit road team and is happy again, the camera work and directing to let the fans at home SEE the race was awesome, and Allen B, well, heavy lifting is right and on Saturday, he was having fun and it all meshed. I could hear and see it!

After watching the trainwreck that ESPN was, for me to sit down and enjoy a race that much on a SUNNY day speaks volumes.

I'm not a fan of Rusty or Brad still. I can live without Tim Brewer - honestly that whole cutaway car thing is a waste of time I could be watching the action on the track. I'm willing to give Dave Burns a chance at PXP, I hope he does well since he seems like a decent guy - Vince Welch, well, he better be able to talk NASCAR.

Now they need to get it right for the Cup series when they take over from TNT cuz honestly if all they do is focus on the "script" and not the race, all of the hard work they've put it will be for naught.

But good job to ESPN for working the problem and making the needed changes!

George said...

Great post. The Dr. is back where he belongs with the drivers and crews he watched over for so many years. It was painful to see him struggle so bad in the booth. I contend that the fan outcry of boring races is because of terrible race coverage and not because it's "not like it was back in the day". Saturday's NNS race showed how much more exciting a race is to watch when the booth actually talks about what's happening on the track.

Zieke said...

Is it possible that ESPN is finally reading the posts from those who actually care about motorsports? Then I hope it works for them. Unlike Fox, who thinks they are the GODS of televising, ESPN will pass them as if they are standing still. More power to them.

Anonymous said...

ESPN has their work cut out for them since the "racing" has simply been dismal. I'm not making excuses for the absolutely pitiful NA$CAR media on ALL networks, but NA$CAR is in a down spiral and this won't stop until the product improves dramatically.

Tracy D said...

Anon at 11:33 - the live races are fantastic. It's the TV coverage on Fox that is killing the fans' interest. As one who was thoroughly disgusted and vowed to leave the TV off on Sunday, I can say that going to Martinsville returned my love of racing.
I'm hoping TNT and ESPN can salvage the TV coverage that Fox has mangled so thorougly.

Chris from NY said...

Well done, JD. It's amazing how one of the biggest epic fails in the entire Disney organization became a success.

But, I would really like to see how you review how far FOX has gone since 2001, as well as what's going on at Speed. Seemingly these are the only places where a change in management only means the evolutionary clock has started ticking backwards.

Daly Planet Editor said...

Chris,

We will feature FOX in a column after the Phoenix weekend.

JD

Buschseries61 said...

JD, that is a brilliant summary of ESPN 2007-2010. They made the right changes and the product has improved drastically. I'm hopeful what we saw at Nashville will continue throughout the season and into the Cup series.

Anonymous said...

Unlike alot of you, I'm not 100% sold yet. FOX is definately worse than they were last year and ESPN seems to be improving, but keep in mind, we are talking about the Nationwide series and not Cup.

If ESPN can cover the Chase races like any other race, without a script, without focusing only on the Chase driver, and without watching JJ's every breath, then I will be impressed. Too many times have we been teased with this, and too many times we have ended up disappointed in the end.

David said...

Just a purely outstanding effort by ESPN this season. They have done more in 3 months in 2010 then they did the first 3 years of the contract. Expectations were low for them and they have by far and away blown them out of the water. They are even making FOX look like they need to get their act together.

Nashville was just such an all around enjoyable race and I hope we see much more of that throughout the rest of 2010 and beyond.

The true test though is what happens when the Cup Series returns and all eyes are focused on ESPN asto whether they stay the course or slip into gimmicky land.

boyd said...

Since I always commented when the coverage was bad, I wanted to comment when it was good.

I was happy with the race that I saw Saturday night. I didn't have to turn on the computer to tweet or log in to follow scoring, or turn on the radio to hear intelligent, informative commentary and play by play.

ESPN, brilliant move by putting Dr. Punch in the pits. He sounds like a different man, a younger man, and brings intelligence to pit road interviews, and the rest of the pit road reporters seem to have learned from him.

The other move with Marty in the booth, is brilliant. I'd love to see Bestwich get another chance, but Marty directs the traffic, and is able to keep it in control. He sounds excited about things happening on the track with out overdoing it.

Kudos for putting Ricky Craven in the booth, too. Was this the first time? He fit like a well worn glove.

Thank you for just using the in car cans, bumper cams, and gimmicky angles sparingly, and letting the race be the story.

SRQ said...

The Nationwide coverage from N'ville was very good. Ricky Craven was very effective and on point. Good flow to the telecast and camera did good job of finding the action no matter where it was happening in the field.

77KJAX said...

First ,I enjoyed the NNS race very much , the booth group did a great job , BUT , I think it could be even better ..... I think Ricky Craven goes right to the top as BEST analyst that ESPN has , DJ is no.2 . Allen Bestwick is the BEST PxP guy that ESPN has , Marty Reid is very good ,but is no.2 . Andy Petree does a good job, BUT Ray Evernham is the BEST tech analyst that ESPN has. Team no.1,Bestwick, Craven & Evernham ....Team no.2 Reid, DJ & Petree , both good teams BUT NO.1 is better than NO.2 Nicole could take over the hotel duties just fine & beloved DR.J has the pit road group in line just fine ...... JMHO

Richard in N.C. said...

EESPN's commitment to NASCAR racing and its fans can be summarized in one statement - no NASCAR Now Monday.

Anonymous said...

We think ESPN is doing a very good job with Nascar coverage.It really looks like they are listening to the fans for a change. Now if we could just get Fox/Speed to listen and make some personnel changes we could enjoy a broadcast over there also. We have given up on their pre and post race shows and have been watching cup races with the sound off because DW just drives us nuts with his sillyness. Very good blog JD. Keep up the good work.

glenc1 said...

you know...I have said many times....MRN makes the race sound more exciting than it really is...but for once, ESPN made it as exciting as it really was. Finally.

Anonymous said...

I still vehemently disagree with putting Reid in the booth and not Bestwick

Anonymous said...

JD,

What is your relationship with Allen Bestwick? Is there a conflict of interest there that your readers should know about?

Daly Planet Editor said...

No relationship at all. Allen was a radio guy when I was in TV. Have not spoken with him in years.

Not quite sure what you are asking. My current column is reacting to the changes put in place by ESPN back in February.

During the 2008 and 2009 season, TDP repeatedly asked that someone other than Punch be put in the play-by-play role. It was our suggestion that ESPN stay in-house and use Bestwick.

Instead, ESPN kept Bestwick in his Monday night "NASCAR Now" position and made him the permanent infield studio host for both NNS and Sprint Cup Series telecasts.

I hope that addressed the issue you asked about!

JD

Photojosh said...

I'm not going to lie, there was a tme when I would not have bet a dollar of my hard earned money that we would see an improvement in ESPN's NASCAR coverage.

But I have to say that I am quite impressed by the moves they have made. From fixing Nascar Now to getting Dr Punch back on pit road. It's been a bit slower than I would have hoped to get the wheels turning on the changes that needed to happen. But the fact that they happened at all means that someone somewhere is listening.

Now, all is not perfect, and the biggest piece of that is the Sprint Cup section of the ESPN broadcast schedule. But overall, I have to say "kudos" to ESPN. Unlike FOX, ESPN is moving in the right direction with it's coverage. Now, if they could only use their might to get a Racebuddy or other online aspect balled in, they would truly be the king of the hill.

77KJAX said...

JD ,would the huge contract (I presume)that DJ has, preclude ESPN from making the change to Craven (& Evernham), as I suggested in my earlier post? Is $$$ THE major consideration in most of these decisions ?

West Coast Diane said...

Nashville was first time I haven't yelled at TV or zoned out doing other things during a race.

Agree with other comment about finding permanent position in booth for Ricky Craven and Ray Evernham. Both outstanding, IMHO.

Also hoping that ESPN's Cup stint will be the same and not start the hype because it's the "big" boys and the Chase.

Not sure FOX needs to change personnel. They need to go back to the beginning of their contract and watch races before gophers, bumper music videos, goofy routines, "bummer" cams, etc.

As Sophia says: lather, rinse, repeat....LOL!

RacingWithRich said...

Even though he is my east Tennessee neighbor I have to say that getting Jerry Punch out of the main booth was a good move. He tries to hard not to make anyone mad.

Richard in N.C. said...

One step forward, 2 back. Reports I have heard are that EESPN is in negotiations with the NCAA to get the contract for NCAA basketball tournament with 96 teams. Besides damaging March Madness (much like it has post-season NCAA football), civilization does not need more concentration of sports on cable with EESPN, and the likely accompanying boost in cable prices.
In my view, now EESPN functions best when it has competition - like FOX, SPEED, and TNT for NASCAR.

Daly Planet Editor said...

Richard,

There is no competition for other sports. ESPN is entrenched.

FOX had no stand-alone cable network for major sports.

Comcast/NBC is pushing VERSUS as hard as possible and not doing very well.

CBS has nothing on the cable side. USA Network is almost gone from sports.

Golf Channel, Tennis Channel, SPEED and others are all locked into one slice of the sports pie.

When FOX decided not to turn Prime Network into a stand-alone cable sports network back in the mid-1990's, they missed the only opportunity in recent history to challenge ESPN.

It should be a very interesting couple of years. ESPN3D starts this summer, can ESPN4 be far behind?

JD

Richard in N.C. said...

JD, One can always hope - but the more content EESPN monopolizes, the less hope there is. At the same time, once upon a time CNN was the only game in town for 24 hour news, and now it is 3rd.

Barry in Tennessee said...

"No relationship at all. Allen was a radio guy when I was in TV. Have not spoken with him in years.

Not quite sure what you are asking.... Hope that addressed the issue you asked about!"


JD,

Indeed it did. Thanks.

David Poole (rest his soul) made some off-hand remark in his blog (back in Dec. 2008) alleging there might be a "conflict of interest" that favorably skewed your opinion of Bestwick.

Never did know exactly what he meant by that, and I suppose now we never will. Of course that would not be the only time Poole went off on a tangent that the rest of us didn't quite get. <"grin">

It just happened to cross my mind today when I read your blog. Thanks again for addressing it.

--Barry in Tennessee


PS: Sorry for not signing earlier, but I posted before I actually intended.

Daly Planet Editor said...

77KJAX,

DJ is doing a great job, as is Andy Petree. This is their first season with a true play-by-play guy like Marty Reid.

Come July, ESPN will be covering both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series.

It has long been our suggestion that the network use one team, like Craven and LaJoie to cover the NNS and the big boys DJ and Andy to handle Cup.

Over the past three seasons, one team has tried to do both and it has been a mess.

JD

GinaV24 said...

I know that I don't like monopolies on anything (other than the board game). If one player like ESPN holds all the cards regarding broadcasting sports, they have no incentive to improve. Healthy competition is a good thing.

I admit that I don't watch a lot of ESPN, so other than N'wide and Sprint Cup, that is the only reason I turn that channel on. I hope that ESPN gets it right for the Cup races they do.

Anonymous said...

Just an aside, none of the news stations show 24 hour news. It's 'news entertainment' programming, especially evenings. Kinda like the 'sports entertainment'we see on ESPN & Speed...

But yes, ESPN holds all the marbles. I keep hoping Versus will compete, but they need something bigger in order to do that. I think 3D is a fad...it's been tried many times in many forms, but never seems to stay around long.

KoHoSo said...

Not only have the race broadcasts improved significantly but it seems that the whole overall tone regarding NASCAR has changed on ESPN. It's almost as if Mike Helton went up to Bristol and spoke at a meeting of all the on-air talent and said, "Y'all don't really want to keep making fun of us, do ya?" -- all while tapping a tire iron in his left hand. :-D Of course, ATH and PTI still make fun but those are really comedy shows at heart so those don't count in my view.

I must admit that I am still having problems getting terribly excited about the NNS because of the overriding dominance of the "Buschwhackers." However, the way the new team is meshing along with great improvements in camera work and direction, bad production is no longer an excuse not to watch.

It really seems like we could be on the cusp of seeing this revamped lineup turn into something special. I thank ESPN for the changes and hope with all of my heart that our beloved Dr. Punch is not angry with the grief we gave him and his bosses for putting him into a role for which he was not well suited. Now, if Fox would also take a little time to make some changes (whether just an attitude adjustment or actual personnel changes), we just might get back to "the good old days" when we had three different channels covering Cup at a high level with differences that can be appreciated instead of despised.

Richard in N.C. said...

EESPN's Sports Nation airs 3 times on E2 today before NASCAR Now airs once? Indication of where NASCAR and its fans stand in the EESPN pecking order?

Michael said...

Actually, JD, CBS does have a cable sports network, called CBS College Sports, which fits it into the category you lumped Speed, Golf Channel and Tennis Channel in.