The Frontstretch: ESPN Proud To Present The Danica 300 - At The Expense Of Everyone Else by Bryan Davis Keith -- Thursday February 11, 2010

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ESPN Proud To Present The Danica 300 - At The Expense Of Everyone Else

Bryan Davis Keith · Thursday February 11, 2010

 

Earlier in Speedweeks, when asked by Frontstretch about his network’s planned approach for handling Danica-mania as the Nationwide Series prepared to make its season debut, ESPN’s Vice President of Motorsports, Rich Feinberg, remarked that he found “SPEED’s presentation [of last Saturday’s ARCA race at Daytona] was very balanced.”

In short, that means race fans tuning in to see any of the 42 drivers not named Danica Patrick today will be sorely disappointed.

For starters, claiming SPEED’s ARCA coverage was balanced makes you question whether ESPN was watching the race on drugs. After all, there was only one driver who had their wreck analyzed a dozen times from a dozen angles. There was only one driver whose in-car camera was featured nearly every lap. And there was only one driver that got more post-race press coverage than the guy that actually won the race – even though it was his record sixth Daytona trophy (Bobby Gerhart).

As I wrote earlier this week, viewers that tuned into the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 last Saturday “didn’t see an ARCA race. They saw Danica.” And if what we’ve heard and seen this week is any indication, expect to see more of the same from ESPN’s Nationwide Series coverage this Saturday.

Feinberg’s comments came just hours before the first Nationwide Series practice turned into the equivalent of the “Danica Patrick Show.” For more than half of the two-hour broadcast, fans were treated to the driver’s every move on the racetrack, chronicling the smallest of details while she wheeled the No. 7 Chevrolet. The coverage was so overblown, any other driver simply making it on air seemed like an awkward production mistake that didn’t jive with the “Danica drama.” But just don’t take my word for it … ask the NASCAR drivers themselves. Twitter was abuzz with derogatory comments, with Regan Smith even throwing out this zinger: “Maybe ESPN could cover Danica on ESPN2 and the other 50 plus cars on ESPN Classic or something.” That was just the tip of the iceberg, with Scott Speed even joking Danica was being toted as Jesus.

And so it went, 140 characters of potency that punched the network’s philosophy in the face. But things turned serious Friday when drivers stepped away from their laptop and in front of reporters to complain – including none other than the defending series champ.

“The only thing I will say is that TV has been doing a horrible job,” Kyle Busch claimed. “They’ve been covering her way too much. Which isn’t a problem, that’s fine, but if you’re going to have this much attention drawn on the series, let’s put it toward all the people. If you’ve got all these people watching TV that want to hear about Danica, well, take advantage of that and show the less-funded teams, the underprivileged that want to have funding so they can race the rest of the year. Danica is only going to be here for 12 races. It would help the rest of the teams that want to make the full run at it get the coverage they need – and the exposure they deserve to race the full season.”

Danica likes to acknowledge her fans on race day with a simple wave to the crowd. But so far, television coverage of her every move hasn’t been quite as low-key.

Kyle’s words sound good in theory, right? But consider ESPN’s longtime knack for beating a story into the ground. Just look at last season’s spring race at Phoenix, where literally the entire event jumped between Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch as the two Sprint Cup regulars battled for the minor league trophy they decided to run for – since challenging Jimmie for a real man’s trophy was too hard. Look at the network’s coverage of the spring Texas race, where the crew in the booth posed the question, “How good is Kyle Busch?” on at least three separate occasions over the course of an afternoon that saw drivers such as Michael Annett, who ran in the top 15, literally not mentioned once on camera.

So if there’s been one common element to ESPN’s coverage of the Nationwide Series, it’s been that they find a flavor of the week and ram it down viewers’ throats ad nauseum. This week, it’s Danica.

Outside of being at Daytona, “The biggest story, and quite frankly [the biggest] opportunity for all of us [at ESPN] is Danica,” notes Feinberg, firmly convinced that she is what needs to be on camera this weekend. “It’s our strong belief there will be people that turn on Saturday’s Nationwide telecast that perhaps don’t watch a lot of Nationwide races or NASCAR at all, because of the interest in her.”

“We want to serve that curiosity.”

But whether you agree or not with catering to a new audience, the fact remains that overwhelming saturation of coverage on the sport’s newest novelty is a completely ineffective mechanism to build a new audience for the Nationwide Series.

Why?

Because barring an about face by ESPN from the way they’ve handled coverage to date, this weekend’s telecast should be retitled the Danica 300 – just like last week’s Danica 200, the race Feinberg himself claimed to watch only because of her.

In the short-term, there’s no doubt it’ll have his network smiling all the way to the bank; after all, ARCA ratings were up 56% with Danica’s presence alone. But guess what? A three-hour Danica Patrick infomercial is NOT a Nationwide Series race. Focusing on one driver in a field of 43 is not an accurate representation of a Nationwide Series event. What ESPN viewers are likely to see on Saturday will not be a Nationwide Series race.

So how, exactly, is the series supposed to gain an audience when viewers aren’t going to see it? Yes, a novelty product (or in this case, driver) can and, as ARCA’s record ratings last week demonstrated, will bring a plethora of new viewers to a broadcast. But a novelty is just that… it’s not something that builds a long-lasting following of the sport. In the case of the Nationwide Series, the racing has to be the product that gets fans coming back. And even if you focus on the drivers… it’s the ones that are actually going to be on TV every weekend that have to get the fans revved up for every race. Well, there’s absolutely no way that a network which already does a pitiful job giving Nationwide Series regulars so much as a mention over the course of three-to-four hour broadcasts are going to somehow pull off getting a 43-car field covered if their own VP of Motorsports wants to see his network serve as nothing more than as a vessel for curious onlookers – a pile of gawkers peeking to see an overhyped open-wheeler whose greatest “talents” are going to be obscured by a firesuit and helmet.

What’s more, just as there’s no conceivable way that the boost in ratings the Danica 300 will provide to ESPN and the Nationwide Series will last beyond Danica’s first few races, there’s also no conceivable way to make the case other Nationwide Series sponsors are actually going to benefit from this extra attention. Face it, if GoDaddy.com is on the TV screen for well over half the broadcast (such was the case on Saturday), how are 42 other sponsors really supposed to get their money’s worth out of being on a race car?

“That’s why half of us don’t have sponsorship,” says Robert Richardson of R3 Motorsports, attempting to run a full schedule with a small sponsor (Mahindra Tractors) and an even smaller budget. “The media only portrays the Cup teams that run the Nationwide Series and only focus typically on the top 5, top 10 cars during the race, and don’t do a full field scan during the race to let everyone know who’s running where.”

Said another, “[Her debut] is good for no one but Danica.”

That reality has not been lost on some of her fellow woman competitors, either, fighting for years to claim the same television space she took up in the course of a few days. Take Alli Owens, for one, who despite outrunning Danica for most of Saturday’s ARCA event was all but unmentioned by the SPEED booth. From her Facebook page:

“I noticed I had an anger being built up toward Danica and was totally frustrated about her being there. I felt like I was racing in the DANICA 200 instead of the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200. We have struggled for 3 years to run a full season in ARCA, and finally are with a good team, was a threat all week long – and never once got good recognition for it.”

“For the media and everyone else, please realize that she is the same as the rest of us out there under a helmet and strapped into a car. I think her off-track brand and image is speaking louder than her on-track performance…”

There’s also that whole issue of catering to a certain group of fans. Isn’t that exactly why the sanctioning body is now having to roll back, with changes to competition rules and start times, after countless numbers of core race fans had enough and kissed NASCAR goodbye? Isn’t catering to short-term casual fans exactly what started a long-term mass exodus from their sport?

Well apparently, the powers that be have yet to learn the consequences of their actions. But they better start soon, because if anyone’s learned anything from Tiger Woods, it’s that growing a series around one person puts all of your eggs in one basket – leaving disastrous consequences if they break.

Still, no matter how loud the criticism, Danica-Mania is primed to march on unfettered. All attention towards the Series is now focused on a part-timer, a driver who’s here to experiment, not to make a home. All attention is now focused on one sponsor, one team.

Problem is, there’s still 42 other spots in the field.

ESPN would do well to remember that this weekend.

Jay Pennell contributed to this report.

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Swan Racing Announces Restructuring, No. 26 & No. 30 ‘Sold’ Off
Tech Talk with Tony Gibson: Taking Stock Of Danica Patrick In Year Two
Vexing Vito: Three Drivers In Need of a Role Reversal
Going By the Numbers: Top-10 NASCAR Variety Hard To Come By In…
Truckin’ Thursdays: Lessons Learned Just Two Races In
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P. Mathew
02/13/2010 01:50 AM
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I agree completely with all you have said. She is a good, not great driver who walks around half naked in overrated commercials and gets played up as being as good as Andretti, Foyt, Earnhardt, Petty, etc. Getting a quote from Alli Owens is solid, because I have never seen her face. If they would promote her or Chrissy Wallace or someone who actually cares about stock car racing, then female drivers in NASCAR may actually stand a chance. Danica is not much more than a side show meant to bring in a handful of fans who would not know Kevin Harvick from Kevin Connelly. ESPN’s coverage of Nationwide is horrible but that is how Nationwide has been shown since the new package came in 2001.

missouriracefan
02/13/2010 03:17 AM
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I applaud you for the forthright assessment of the shortsightedness of the television coverage (and print media not addressed here). Finally someone is eloquently stating just how frustrating and offputting the coverage during this first week of racing has been. So many quality young people, both female and male, have stories and dreams to explore. I want to be introduced to them so I can determine who I want to follow as they progress through the ranks. These are the drivers who should have the spotlight because they are the future of the sport, not a part-time dallier.

ESPN always scripts the race and covers only that predetermined storyline to the detriment of the race coverage. This year the story is exclusively Danica Patrick. Watching a race on ESPN (Nationwide or Cup) always infuriates me. This year I’m not going to bother. The drooling and pandering by the Fox/SPEED commentators defies professionalism.

The obnoxious overexposure of Danica Patrick is alienating many fans – the fans who actually attend races and spend their dollars for tickets and merchandise. One-time drive-by ogling will not sustain the sport. NASCAR, and by extension ESPN and Fox/SPEED, are again chasing that elusive new fan while rejecting the established fan.

SB
02/13/2010 07:54 AM
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Finding a pre determined storyline and sticking to it no matter what has been the downfall of most of ESPN’s race coverage. It seldom involves a Nationwide ‘regular’, and inevitably focuses on the Cup drivers. No wonder sponsors and fans have become frustrated with the series. However, blaming Danica for the short-sightedness of the network is silly. So far, she has gone out and done her job. She has no control over how the media chooses to react. Shame on them.

holdin5aces
02/13/2010 08:06 AM
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You are kidding right? ARCA was up 59 per cent and that was because Bobby Gerhart was up front? TV is there to cover the story, she is the story. I understand a lot of folks don’t like that, but it is what it is. And stories sell stuff. TV is not about presenting an event, it is about selling stuff while presenting the event. You elitist racing purists give me a pain. The racing product sucks and yoiu want to shoot the only engaging story line.

Rick
02/13/2010 08:53 AM
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Although I’m still not convinced either way on what her future in stock cars will be, she has brought a much needed boost. I’ve been tired for years now of the attention Dale Jr. gets simply because of his name. If you base it on accomplishments, he would get about 1/4 of what he gets now. But,he’s popular,so he gets the press. Does he deserve it? Probably not.If any golfer but Tiger had done what he did, you wouldn’t even known about it. It got beat into the ground because of who he is. It’s the same with Danica. She IS popular.She’s pretty,smart,very well spoken,and she is TV ratings gold.Guess what,thats why networks are in business.If she had not been in the ARCA race, would the other female drivers have boosted the ratings 59%? Not even Jr. could do that. The TV ratings for all stock cars has been on a steady slide downhill,anything to fix that is what the networks are looking for. They can’t control the racing. Or the way NASCAR has butchered up what was once a very entertaining sport. Is covering one driver so much fair? Probably not.Does she deserve it,maybe not.Do I understand why? Yep.

jw4319
02/13/2010 08:55 AM
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The execs at the IRL, ABC and Versus must be giddy. What a wonderful present ESPN and FOX have given them – hours and hours of free publicity for their series marquee driver. All the Danica coverage is indeed building a viewer base, but not for NASCAR.

Roadracer
02/13/2010 09:13 AM
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I have met the real Danica. She is rudest and most self centered person anyone could ever meet. She is an average driver at best. She wrote a column that mentioned her interest in NASCAR was directly related to providing more exposure for her brand, not her racing abilities. And to think that she and her PR organization are not behind the exposure is sadly mistaken. She is all about being a celebrity, not a real race driver.

BTCC fan
02/13/2010 09:19 AM
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Oh joy, Here we go again! Another non-race about another overrated driver. Somehow Dani-can’t-Passit gets all this TV coverage because the hype machine follows her around like some kind of rash. Sure she won one race in Japan on fuel mileage and “almost” won at the Indy 500 because the other drivers knew their cars needed gas to go a few more laps. It seems that ESPN’s coverage will be worse than usual. I’m sure Darrel Waltrip was about to mess himself when the driver he has been talking about for the last thirty minutes actually does something. We may get to see ESPN do their split screen coverage. One side will only show Danica, the other side will only show Junior! We can all watch a big fat happy hype machine at its fullest capacity if the two actually get close to each other and can be picked up by the same camera. Who knows, somehow if you take both drivers that haven’t done anything in years other than win a race on fuel mileage and put them at the end of the race, NASCAR may call it a draw and Jr. & DP can be co-winners and all will be right with the world. Yay!

Sharon
02/13/2010 10:16 AM
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There is not much I can add to your article. I agree completely and wrote Danica’s star struck Rich Feinberg to tell him how bad the coverage was on the ARCA race. If the Nationwide is a Danica 300, off goes my TV or a change of stations. I had to mute the Danica 200. Disgusting.
I also liked your “Just look at last season’s spring race at Phoenix, where literally the entire event jumped between Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch as the two Sprint Cup regulars battled for the minor league trophy they decided to run for – since challenging Jimmie for a real man’s trophy was too hard.”

Joe from Pittsburgh
02/13/2010 10:20 AM
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I used to love watching the old Busch series races to see up and coming drivers nix it up with Earnhardt Sr,Mark Martin and others. Then I quit watching about 8-9 years ago because of the boredom of a Carl Edwards or Kevin Harvick just blowing everyone away all season long. So now for the first time in years I am tuning in to watch Danica (the same reason I even watched IRL in 05-07). So love her or not,she is injecting much needed ratings/enthusiasm into a quickly dying series. For that I think people need to just endure because your regular drivers did not do a damn thing to make me watch in recent memory.Again,I make the Jr. comparison in cup—we get inundated with Jr when he’s running maybe 25th all day. Bottom line is the Nationwide series has no stars other than the cup guy racing there. Embrace Danica as she can only help.

Don Mei
02/13/2010 10:29 AM
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Boy, talk about lack-of- penis envy!

The Mad Man
02/13/2010 10:50 AM
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Since the first days of speculation 2 years ago about her driving in “taxi cabs” up to now, this has been little more than one very slick, well-orchestrated over-hyped PR nightmare.

It takes about 6 months to get the merchandise ready to go, so she was already committed and signed before the actual announcement came. If she lives up to the hype, then NA$CAR may have a marketing boom and fans coming back to the track. If she flops, well, she’ll probably take over as the new top T-shirt seller.

If they go with the All Danica All the Time coverage, which seems to be the indication, ESPN had better be prepared for even lower ratings than last season once the “new” wears off.

Blu
02/13/2010 10:59 AM
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I cantseem to voice what im trying to say except that ..NASCAR (ie Brian France) has done more to ruin a sport that I used to love than any other human being ever has.

Fox, and now ESPN seem to be folowing suit in further alienating the real old time fans still left.

Fox first with the grinning idiot savant DW and his endless HMS brown nosing at every given opportunity, and now ESPN with this Danicamania BS.

At least i understand the ESPN thing, shes the flavor of the month.Wonder what flavor is in DW’s mouth?

Wouldnt it be nice to just really actually see a race (not just seea few of the favorite drivers), and hear a race actually ..you know…announced due to the action on the track (not turned at the whims of a brown nosing has been with an inferiority, or Rick… excuse me..“Mr. Hendricks” is God envy) with a thru the field showing occasionally be REALLY refreshing to see and hear??

WHAT a concept!

It seems so simple…

dawg
02/13/2010 11:43 AM
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Did, & Do, you expect anything else?? WELL, DID YOU??

mkrcr
02/13/2010 12:03 PM
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Maybe we’ll all get lucky and she’ll get a “welcome to stock cars” boot right into the wall. I’m sure there is more than one driver out there who would be willing to do anything to get their sponsor on TV. But then we may not see any race coverage since it would shift to every moment of loading the car, breaking down the pits, and following the hauler down the highway. ESPN wouldn’t know what else to do with all the unscripted time on their hands.

Dan
02/13/2010 05:39 PM
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Just finished watching Nationwide race.Unfortunate that Patrick got taken out by being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but at least I was able to enjoy the rest of the race without a Danica update almost every lap.

Gordon82Wins
02/13/2010 07:08 PM
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I’m sick of Danica already. Who would have thought NASCAR and ESPN would milk her for all she was worth?

terry
02/13/2010 07:56 PM
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Thanks for the wisdom. Between last weeks ‘ARCA’ race and today’s ‘Nationwide’, the coverage on her is too much. As you note, very little coverage of the other gals in the ARCA race, much less any of the other cars. Hopefully will be a flash in the pan. But the whole CA$HCAN family of sports is a mere pittance of its former self. Fans must be heading for the exits in droves. I rarely watch an entire race any longer. Kinda sad.

otto
02/14/2010 12:53 AM
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I didn’t expect any less from ESPN. I missed the ARCA race but did watch the Nationwide. Danica looked as she was doing good for someone who had so few miles in a stock car until she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A few things not mentioned was where was Kelly Bires? He was hired to run Nationwide. If they wanted Danica to run then why didn’t he drive Jr’s car? He would probably would have done better than Jr.since Jr totaled his car. To give Bires car to Danica was a slap in the face. Guess Jr got what he had comming. Look back at when Jr was planning to leave DEI, he knew where he was going but all the lies that were told until the offical anouncement. Same with Danica more lies told and even most reporters knew the story but JR Motorsports denied it all until offical announcement.
Now on to the Waltrip family. Most all the two 150 races all brother Darrell could talk about was how Michael was doing and if all his cars would be in the 500. The secomd race Michael sat his butt in the Hollywood Hotel to watch the race and Speed could not broadcast the race for having the camera on him. They even showed him while he was crying with joy that all his cars made it into the race. I am SICK SICK SICK of anyone in racing named Waltrip. I sure glad Darrels kids were girls and I hope they choose a career other than racing or boadcasting.

Shirleeanne
02/14/2010 04:27 AM
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Haven’t you noticed? Mikey W. has had his daughter at his side constantly and doing commercials begging to drive the race car? Heaven help us…. one more thing…sure hope DW decides to leave that bottled red hair at home this year….fakest looking hair ever…Wish all the sports casters didn’t think they had to look 20 yrs. old with wrinkles at that!!!