Monday, August 27, 2007

ESPN Deals With "The Chase" For The First Time

NASCAR fans understand the problems with The Chase. When discussing this concept with casual racing fans, its easy to watch their eyes glaze over and the same questions pop-up. Every hardcore NASCAR fan has had the following conversation.

OK, so the top twelve guys get in and the rest stop racing? Can the other guys still win the race? What are The Chase guys chasing? Why do the other guys keep racing if they can't win The Chase? Is Dale Earnhardt Junior in The Chase? Ugh.

After carefully avoiding NASCAR like the plague, ESPN is now front-and-center when it comes to explaining The Chase to the American public. The results of their efforts so far this season have been both encouraging and frustrating.

Part of ESPN's agreement with NASCAR was their commitment to a daily NASCAR program. This show would have the news, the interviews, and the highlights of the sport in much the same way that the old RPM2Night updated the motorsports scene.

This one show, however, is only a small slice of ESPN's potential on-air exposure of NASCAR. The media company also has the ESPN News Network, a daily SportsCenter show, several general sports discussion programs, and even some long-form talk shows on ESPN2.

Certainly, the opportunity for exposure is tremendous, and that is exactly what NASCAR is counting on. Please note the counting on.

ESPN's team that handles the racing is a little busy to explain The Chase. They can use their sophisticated computers and the color coding and everything else, but they have a race to call. The vast majority of the chase information must come from ESPN programming other than the races themselves.

So, when is the last time you saw NASCAR treated with respect on Pardon The Interruption? How about the "no NASCAR or hockey" chants on Around The Horn? First Take did a nice piece after the rain-delayed Michigan race was over, seen any NASCAR since then?

ESPN News and SportsCenter are forced to run NASCAR stories when the network has races on-the-air. But, its a tough sell during the week when there are no highlights to show. Unless the story has Dale Junior or Tony Stewart in it, chances are it can wait until Friday.

NASCAR Countdown is the pre-race show ESPN does before the NEXTEL Cup races. In this hour, Monday Night Football sideline reporter Suzy Kolber and former NBA star Brad Daugherty are left to explain The Chase, and its format.

So far, their focus has been on Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his possible exclusion from post-season play. Never has either one of them done a stand-alone piece on what The Chase is, why it came about, or what ABC Sports viewers will see once it is underway.

NASCAR Now is the network's daily show, whose struggles have been well-documented on The Daly Planet as well as other Internet racing sites and publications. This is the first year for this new concept and the series has already lost an original co-host, been blasted by Tony Stewart for its tabloid-style hype, and continues to employ as the full time host a non-racing fan who is basically an ESPN Radio anchor on-loan to NASCAR.

When Erik Kuselias is working on the radio, he leads deep discussions about Major League Baseball, the upcoming NFL football season, and recently even a team-by-team pre-season breakdown of the league. His knowledge of stick-and-ball sports is outstanding. His knowledge of NASCAR can be put in a thimble.

Now, ESPN finds itself a couple of weeks from The Chase with no perspective from which to draw. Their coverage is new, NASCAR Now is new, and NASCAR on SportsCenter is new. First Take is new, PTI just won't do it, and Around The Horn can only criticize it.

How the company as a whole approaches The Chase and presents it to ESPN and ABC viewers will have a profound effect on the TV ratings for the last ten races of the year. It is this block of racing that suffered poor ratings because of the NFL regular season.

It is this block of races that was performing so poorly that NASCAR decided to alter its longtime points format and do something to breathe life into this final stretch run.

Now, the NASCAR torch is passed to ESPN in an ironic twist. It was this network, and programs like NFL Gameday and NFL Primetime that tore the focus of Sundays away from NASCAR and wrestled it back to the NFL.

In a way, this year its Chris Berman and Tom Jackson on NFL Countdown vs. Suzy Kolber and Brad Daugherty on NASCAR Countdown. Does it get more ironic?

The outstanding and award-winning NFL pre-game show on ESPN now previews the direct competition to ESPN's own NASCAR races on ABC. It certainly is going to be fascinating to watch this dynamic play-out on-the-air.

Don't you wonder how Chris Berman will handle reading a live NASCAR promo in NFL Countdown? Who says television can't hurt your brain?

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