Tuesday, May 4, 2010

ESPN Has One Eye On July

It will be July 25 when ESPN takes a fourth swing at televising the final seventeen Sprint Cup Series races. To say the previous three seasons have been an adventure would be an understatement.

Contained in this package is the ultimate prize for the NASCAR TV networks. That would be the Chase for the Championship. The NASCAR playoffs consist of the final ten races of the season with only a select field eligible to win the Sprint Cup.

It's not uncommon to see top NASCAR teams struggle. Sometimes, it's for an entire season. Often the issue is not the engines or the cars or the race strategy. It's not the guys in the shop, on the pit crew or even the sponsors. Sometimes, it's all about chemistry.

Over the years, we have seen a single change of a driver or crew chief serve as a rallying point for an entire organization. Just one change and suddenly the skies brighten and the momentum shifts. As it often turns out, the potential was there all along. It just needed a jump start to emerge.

After three seasons, ESPN was down on its luck. In late 2009, the huge media company had just struggled through the roughest stretch of Sprint Cup Series telecasts in recent memory. As we say in TV land, there was no joy in Mudville.

ESPN had given Dr. Jerry Punch an opportunity to grow into a major role on TV that anyone would cherish. Punch had jumped at the chance to call the play-by-play for the new NASCAR TV package that started back in 2007. Then, all hell broke loose.

Instead of simply calling the races, Punch found himself dealing with Brent Musburger and his magic podium as the "host" of the telecasts. After several disasters in the infield, Suzy Kolber was inserted as Punch's partner for the pre-race and updates. ESPN's Bristol, CT-based management had decided to use "in-house" talent whenever possible. It was a total disaster.

Once the action got underway, Punch turned to his right. There was Rusty Wallace. You have to wonder if Punch struggled for composure as Rusty used the Draft Tracker and its colored air flow gizmos to try and tell fans about the aero push at Richmond. After one season, Wallace was headed to the infield.

Despite the chaos surrounding him, Punch had chance after chance to carve out his niche in the NASCAR TV booth. It never happened. Last year, ESPN actually telecast several Nationwide Series races without a play-by-play announcer. "Backseat Drivers" the network called it. In reality, it was the handwriting on the wall.

Click here to review the story we reported back in December. ESPN had decided to bring TV veteran Marty Reid in to call the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races for 2010. After three seasons, Punch was out.

In what may go down as one of the best decisions in ESPN's NASCAR history, cooler heads prevailed where Punch was concerned. He was not given his walking papers. As Reid came into the TV booth, Punch simply headed back to pit road. Click here to review what happened when ESPN opened the season in Daytona. It was like Punch was home again.

Just like a team finally winning a race after a tough year, the entire ESPN on-air vibe has changed. Reid turned out to be just what Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree needed in the booth. A veteran play-by-play guy who can turn up the excitement, direct the traffic and let the analysts shine.

Suddenly, the pit road reporters had to step-up their game when Punch was dumped into their laps. Antagonizing questions and hyped agendas had led to bad feelings in the garage where ESPN was concerned. Punch's presence this season has gone a long way toward changing that. His recent rain delay interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a case in point.

Into this mix gets tossed solid TV professionals like Allen Bestwick and Dave Burns. Gizmos like Draft Tracker are long gone. Gimmicks like music videos and celebrity interviews have been retired. In the blink of an eye, ESPN is a contender. Viewers can feel it, hear it and see it. The ESPN of old has returned.

Sure, Tim Brewer will still be pointing at fuel cells as if we all just landed from Mars. Brad Daugherty will still be sitting in the infield stating the obvious and getting "fired up." If that is the worst part of the ESPN stretch drive this season, I'll take it.

With the way the NASCAR on ESPN gang has performed this year, we may be getting ready for the type of dynamic and exciting TV coverage that The Chase has deserved. One little change has led to very big things. Credit goes to the ESPN executives for having the courage to start the ball rolling in the right direction.

Marty Reid returns with Bestwick anchoring the infield and Punch reporting from pit road on Friday night at 7PM ET as the Nationwide Series races in Darlington, SC.

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 stopping by The Daly Planet.


Anonymous said...

JD you are exactly right on all the above. I think you will see much better coverage than what we have now at FOX.FOX it seems could care less about the broadcastor fans. All they are worried about are they getting in the maxinum number of commercials possible. Yes I know that pays the bills but when you can not follow the flow of a race for commercials then there is a problem. The simple solution is side by side racing with the commercial but I guess that requires 21st century technology.Versus can do it but not FOX or ESPN. Is there a contractual reason that it can not be done?

Unknown said...

Gotta Say .. not that big of a fan of Marty... I wish ESPN would have grabbed Bob Jenkins back from the late 90's.. if they would have the same team .. (sadly they cant have Benny Parsons. R.I.P.) it would be grand!

Sally said...

I have been very encouragedby the changes that ESPN has made in their broadcast this year. They seem to finally have the right people in the right places. Now, if they can only avoid covering only the 'chase' drivers during the end of the season, life sill be good. Too much focus on the championship leaves each race feeling flat and unexciting.

Ben Florance said...

i don't like marty reid very much either, a lot of random and weird excitement
i wished they got rid of him and make paul page the lap by lap guy or bestwick, but he is really good in the studio though

51 yr. fan said...

ESPN has grown in quality as fast
as Fox has started to degenerate.
It is apparent that Fox
has no plans to improve their quality of product and just "take
the money and run". ESPN just needs to fine tune their programs
to the needs of the audience and
not the creators of the bells,
whistles, and gadgets. Just show us
the racing.

GinaV24 said...

Great article, JD. The changes that ESPN made for the Nationwide series race coverage has made a huge difference in my enjoyment of these broadcasts.

IMO this is a make or break year for ESPN's presentation of their Cup races. I'm already turned off by what Fox has presented this year, assuming TNT does a great job again this year and gives ESPN a solid lead in for Cup, ESPN needs to be very careful not to screw it up this year.

As you pointed out in the past, race fans don't change who their favorite driver is because they are or aren't running well in a particular race or because they didn't make the "chase". My fear is that ESPN will fall back on their "script" and insist on covering just the chase, instead of the race. Most of the fans I talk to are tired of that and pretty bored with the chase. It's really simple, just show up, be prepared and show and call the race as it happens, not as someone thinks it ought to.

Jerry Punch is a great guy, but the PXP role simply didn't suit him and it is so nice to see him back on pit road and having the drivers comfortable with someone again.

I'm glad that Marty is in the booth each week. He has brought a really good vibe to each race. It was nice having Allen there for the Richmond race since it kind of felt like "home" since his voice and style are so familiar to me, but Marty is doing a great job and seems to manage Rusty and Brad very well. IMO they are still somewhat useless and extraneous and add little to the broadcast (along with Tim Brewer's stuff)being presented as you said, as if we had just landed from Mars.

So, ESPN better not just have one eye on July, they'd better bring their A game when it comes to ALL the races they cover. All the pieces are in place, due to the good decisions they've made, now ESPN needs to bring it.

Anonymous said...

Anon--from what I read a couple years ago, it's *NASCAR* that didn't want side by side, not the networks. Not sure if that's still the case, but I think ESPN said they'd be willing to do it. Perhaps someone has more info.

mshjamh said...

I love the changes that have been made by ESPN. I like Marty Reid. Sure... he isn't Bob Jenkins but who is? You will NEVER recpature the magic that Bob, Ned, and Benny had so let's not be unrealisitic. The booth has been doing a nice job. My only change is I personally could do without the crew chief aspect of the booth but I understand why they have it.

Now... and here is the big thing for me... I am all in with ESPN as long as they focus their coverage on the actual race.

As soon as they start focusing on the Fraud, I mean Chase, I am off to the NFL. I AM THERE TO WATCH THE RACE. I couldn't care less about NASCAR's contrived "championship" system. Obviously you have to cover it somewhat but the focus needs to be on the race for me to keep watching.

Anonymous said...

Oh, brother, here we go again. It's always a case of the grass is always greener. I can't wait until ESPN takes over and you start posting all these long columns about how bad their coverage is. And then the comments can be filled with "I can't wait until FOX comes back." And then FOX will come back in 2011 and you all can start wishing for ESPN again.

What a lame vicious cycle: it's never good enough, something better is always coming, what we have now is lousy, etc, etc, etc.

Anonymous said...

Well I am not fooled. I seem to be the only one who remembers how D-R-E-A-D-F-U-L the ESPN Chase coverage was last year.

Oh, sure, ESPN has made a few changes. Swapped people in a few jobs. Big deal. Do you all think it will make that much of a difference? I don't.

ESPN last year was HORRENDOUS with a capital H. Even if they doubled the amount of changes they have done so far, the best they could hope for would be to rise to the level of MEDIOCRE.

Sure, FOX has a lot of bells and whistles... but ESPN is a broken mess.

Kylie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Daly Planet Editor said...

Anon 12:44PM,

That a load of BS and you know it. ESPN was horrible last season, as reflected in my column. There was nothing that was worse since the TV contract began than what ESPN produced during the Chase.

It was FOX that decided to add Slice of Pizzi this season. It was FOX that chose to turn the pre-race show into sponsor-driven hype.

It was FOX, with American flags waving and military footage rolling, that chose to ignore the disabled veteran for whom the Richmond race was named.

If ESPN screws up when it takes over the Cup telecasts, you better believe they will hear about it right here at TDP.

I guess the intent of my column went right over your head. This is the first season in four that ESPN is delivering a quality product on the Nationwide Series races and is looking to carry that momentum over into the Cup side.

Instead of always aiming at me personally in your comments, how about sharing some views on the NNS and Cup coverage?


JohnP said...

I'm taking a wait and see approach with ESPN and Cup. ESPN is going to have to prove it to me after the last three years. Especially last year.

Nationwide: I really enjoyed the Nationwide race at Richmond. Nice work broadcasting. Big improvement.

Cup: I recall this from last fall. The Suits at ESPN would not let the announcers do their jobs. They were given scripts to go by. And it's imposible to have a script because no-one knows what is going to happen. Afterall, that is why we watch in the first place.

If ESPN truly going to change this year during their Cup coverage the Suits will have to walk a different path. If they walk the same path, it does not mater who is in the booth whatsoever. Is that a word? Lol.

ESPN has the assets(people) in place. But if their not allowed to do there job, ie, run the broadcast, they are simply set up to fail.

And like someone mentioned, if this is a 4 hour love fest with the Chase, it's going to be really really ugly this year. I know this fan will walk.

So, I'll take a wait and see approach.

bevo said...

Excellent points about the changes at ESPN however the big issue as it always is with them no matter the sport - story lines.

Instead of focusing on the action there always has to be a "story" to tell. Sometimes they get lucky and the two are the same but far more often the "story" has nothing to do with the unfolding action.

I wish they would adopt the SPEED philosophy for the Truck races. Less is more. Let the action on the track tell the story.

Richard in N.C. said...

NASCAR coverage is one of the few bright spots at EESPN in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Fox thinks that they can do what they want because they have been covering the races for 10 yrs. We tune in each week to watch racing not just five cars and what DW thinks is gonna happen to Kyle's car. ESPN on the other hand have improved tremendously . It seems that their agenda this year is to show the racing whether is for 30th position on the track. Their announcers are fun to listen to and they give each other the chance to talk unlike Larry Mac and DW who always take over the broadcast.

Kylie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Marty Reid is no prize either i say bring back Bob Jenkins.

Jonathan said...

Hey JD I think the comment on the vicious circle may be right.... Cause I do remember last year when some of the Nationwide races were getting very positive reviews on this sight (just like they are this year) and it was looking good for ESPN but then came the Sprint Cup Series and they feel apart and very quickly!!!! Just saying maybe Anon has something there but we will see. Looking foward to TNT and ESPN but always have a soft spot in my heart for Fox!

Charlie said...

I think Espn has improved. Now that they have personal in the right places. The make or break for me will be the camera coverage. The camera work has to keep getting better.
Less cams and wide shots has been good for Espn and they should keep it this way.

Chris from NY said...

Can't wait till July to see how TNT and the improved ESPN coverage stack up. FOX was terrible this year and it'll probably be a relief to see better come from these two.

TNT has the advantage of a LONG off-season for them, hopefully they can use that for their advantage, and ESPN has the advantage with the Nationwide Series as their testbed, and so far they've succeeded.

FOX, however, takes no review of SPEED and that's one thing that put them down the toilet drain, as well as the recent lack of good programming there.

Vicky D said...

Great column, JD. I'm looking forward to ESPN's cup coverage with the changes you mentioned in the broadcast booth. I like MR doing the NW races but I think when DJ goes on vacation, they should put RL with him, RW blasts me out of the room. Guess we'll soon find out.

Anonymous said...

the only good thing espn has done this year was friday night. with AB in the booth it just felt like old times. Marty Reid has potiential, but he stutters some, has terrible problems with pauses, and has some awkward phrasing sometime. Nicole Manske in the pit studio is a winner. Im surpised no one is commenting on it. She has been great in the studio hopefully they will keep her there, leave AB in the booth, and put marty back where he belongs, Indycar. Fox has a lot of problems. DW and larry scream about everything, miss half the stuff thats happening on the track, and just run over mike joy. I think its just run its course. theyve been at it for 10 years its time to make a change. would be nice to see a new face in the hotel during pre race instead of having DW dominating the tv time in there too. Also Mike Joy, Randy Pemberton, and Kyle Petty did an excellent job doing nationwide qualifyin

Anonymous said...

I agree with the post above. Marty has great enthusiasm but he does stutter and have awkward phrasing. Talladega was particularly bad in my opinion. At points he kept giggling like a school girl and stumbling over his words.

Allen was great to listen too and I think ESPN would by far be the class of the field with him in the booth and Nicole in the infield studio.

Richard in N.C. said...

It does seem to me that FOX, EESPN, and TNT all have a common, big organization problem - the management people who agreed with and then promoted up the chain the spending of money for expensive, new technology then have a vested interest in encouraging their subordinates to use the technology, at least in part to justify that the expenditure was worthwhile. Thus, I expect that most bells and whistles will continue to be used by the networks.