Monday, July 25, 2011
The Boys Are Back In Town
Apparently, nine billion dollars is a pretty strong motivator. After all the blustering, legal wrangling and angry comments it appears that the NFL owners and players are ready to settle the current lockout.
ESPN's Adam Shefter is reporting that lawyers are putting the final touches on an agreement that will be offered to the players for ratification on Thursday. If that goes well, the NFL will be back in business on Friday and ready for the regular season on time.
While NASCAR Chairman Brian France said earlier that the NFL situation is not on his radar, it certainly is for ESPN. Nine of the final ten Chase races are on Sunday afternoons directly up against the regional NFL games carried by local TV stations across the country.
No sport guts the NASCAR fan base like NFL football. Just like NASCAR, it appeals to both men and women. The NFL also has what NASCAR can't deliver and that is a home team. Football has been the biggest TV frustration in building an audience during the Chase.
One of the reasons for "Boys have at it" was the TV struggles of the sport down the stretch. Despite the made-for-TV playoff format and subsequent tweaks, the Chase has not resonated as a successful TV product up against NFL games.
A key reason in this equation is ESPN. The NFL dominates ESPN like no other sport. While the network's Sprint Cup Series races do get a post-race show, NASCAR takes a clear backseat to the total "NFL surround" experience offered by ESPN's various media platforms.
Now in season five, it's been a struggle to figure out how to present the Chase races on TV. It's been well-documented that the major conflict is how to balance the action in the race with the drama of the Chase. There are two very distinct stories unfolding on the same track at the same time.
The result on TV is often confusion. Drivers not in contention for the Chase but in the top five of the race can fall off the TV screen, even while leading. When a top Chase contender has trouble the cameras follow, regardless of how poorly he was running in the race. It's a tough assignment.
Meanwhile, the NFL has no such problems. The games unfold play-by-play with TV commercials integrated without ever missing a down. Halftime gives the networks an opportunity to insert a studio presence and promote the second half through analysis and highlights.
Now that the NFL is returning, the clear challenge for ESPN is to brand the network's Sprint Cup Series coverage in a unique way that will keep the NASCAR fan base from straying to the regional football games. While we don't know what that might be, we certainly know from the last four years what it should not be.
The jokes about ESPN inserting Chase standings continually into four hour races are endless. There has to be a better balance. The screams of protest from fans of non-Chase drivers never mentioned in the entire telecast also need to be heard. Fans don't change favorite drivers seven months into a season.
Wouldn't it be interesting if ESPN produced the Chase races focusing on the race? Wouldn't it be interesting if the best racing on the track, regardless of position, was put on the screen? Figure out how to update the Chase without affecting the race coverage and as they say in the sport, business will pick up.
Simply put, focusing the TV coverage only on the Chasers alienates the fans of more than two-thirds of the entire starting field. When those fans get frustrated, we know where they go. It's a familiar location right down the dial. It's a familiar sport and a familiar team.
It's time to sit up straight and face the fact that unless something changes, the TV results of the Chase will be the same. Especially now that we know the boys are back in town.
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