Saturday, January 19, 2008
Over the years, I have written a number of letters to The New York Times. They have all been in reference to the same subject. That would be NASCAR.
The only professional sport that ends its season with a big New York City celebration is also the number one failure for the New York Times Sports Section. That would be NASCAR.
Let's face facts, the New York Times treats NASCAR like Superman treats Kryptonite. They admit it exists, but avoid it at all costs. Despite the fact that the NYT uses credible NASCAR reporters, the profile of NASCAR at the NYT does not fit the popularity of the sport in the nation. It has been this way for decades.
Over the years, my letters have been met with the stony silence of the Manhattan skyline. Once, an email was actually answered, and then published on the NYT website. The sports editor who responded told me in glowing terms of the expanding presence of motor sports at the Times and their assigning of reporters to "cover NASCAR."
One quick check of the nytimes.com website reveals something altogether different. In the Sports Section, there isn't even a category for NASCAR or motor racing. NASCAR is banished to the "other sports" clearance bin.
This weekend, reporter Viv Bernstein writes an "advancer" piece about Dale Earnhardt Junior. It is listed with stories on women's downhill skiing, Don King promoting a boxing match, and harness racing at the Meadowlands. On the same page, there is a guy in a bat suit that thinks he can fly. That one even has video.
Ms. Bernstein's story, which can be read by clicking here(free sign-up), tries to blame Junior's failure to have a good season as a key reason for the declining TV ratings. Basically, she uses the easy way out by saying that "as Junior goes, so goes the sport." Perhaps, other drivers with names like Stewart, Gordon, Busch and Johnson might have something to say about that point.
Everyone knows that if a popular athlete is in the playoffs, things are a bit more exciting. The issue Ms. Bernstein and the entire NYT sport staff has never grasped is the popularity of NASCAR nationwide.
Had Ms. Bernstein chosen to address the ratings issue head-on, she had a golden opportunity to ask the NASCAR TV partners what they would be doing in 2008, and who would be doing it.
Instead of getting a TV ratings opinion from Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage, she could have been asking ESPN President George Bodenheimer or Fox's David Hill if they thought Junior was the problem.
Like many newspapers, the NYT is transitioning to a website format with blogs attached. Needless to say, just like there is no Sports Section category for NASCAR, there are also no staff or reader blogs on NASCAR or racing.
Bernstein's last NASCAR story was November 19th, reporting on the NEXTEL Cup Championship. That says a lot about the commitment of the NYT to continue to cover NASCAR during the off-season. This is similar to the fan complaints about ESPN.
Unlike other professional sports, where the coverage shifts to human interest stories and tries to catch-up with the athletes and teams that struggled during the year, many big media outlets simply surrender to college and pro football the second the winning car crosses the line in Homestead.
TV ratings are a sum of many parts. Aside from the quality of the competition, and the consistency of the TV coverage, there is one other key ingredient.
That is the acknowledgement in the national press that this sport is important, exciting and popular. The current lack of New York City media coverage is exactly what Mr. France was trying to cure when he put the biggest NASCAR banquet right in the middle of Manhattan.
While Junior has to deal with things beyond his control, like racing luck and gas mileage, Ms. Bernstein and her partners at the NYT have no such problems. They can simply commit right now to making NASCAR a full time sports partner for 2008.
The inclusion of NASCAR text and video reports from February through November may lead to an entirely new group of readers seeking out the nytimes.com for the first time. Unlike the current NYT opinion of NASCAR fans, they are actually some of the most tech savvy when it comes to keeping up to date on the sport.
With three national touring series racing coast-to-coast and a multi-billion dollar TV contract on four different networks, NASCAR deserves much better from the New York Times than being plunked between Don King and the guy in a bat suit.
There are now four weeks to the 50th running of the Daytona 500. No timeline has yet been released for the bat suit jump.
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Just click on the title for a direct link to these recent columns and stories:
"John Kernan Comes Out Swinging" from 1/18/08
"ESPN Silent On NASCAR Changes For 2008" from 1/17/08
"Open For Benny Parsons Comments & Stories" from 1/16/08
"SPEED Wraps Daytona Sprint Cup Testing" from 1/16/08
"The New NASCAR TV Buzzword Is Convergence - Updated" from 1/15/08
"Larry McReynolds Leads The Pack At Daytona" from 1/14/08
"Ken Squier Kept The Excitement High" from 1/14/08
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