The third network to cover the Sprint Cup Series takes their turn at glory this week, as ESPN/ABC begins their NASCAR coverage at the historic Brickyard on Sunday, July 27th. The final 17-week stretch to finish off the year follows a 21-race schedule that was covered by both FOX and TNT. Those networks had their ups and downs over the course of their second season under NASCAR’s current TV contract; but overall, they delivered the results that people expect from networks that have plenty of experience covering the sport. However, both FOX and TNT did have some major flaws that ESPN can learn from – and not repeat.
Two major things stand out amongst the array of complaints received about FOX: less Digger and less Darrell. Digger, for those who do not remember, is the little camera that is positioned on the fringe of the apron of the racetrack that cars practically run over as they jostle for position. But although the camera provided a good angle to cut to during the broadcast once in a while, the over-promotion of Digger merchandise was cheesy at best and annoying at worst. Darrell Waltrip also tried to be the center of attention for most of the broadcast, lessening the love affair with him that fans had at the beginning of FOX’s foray into the sport.
TNT’s main problem this year was technical glitches, as there was one major satellite feed failure and several audio mistakes. The content of the broadcasts was solid, however, as there was less promotion of programming and merchandise than FOX. Bill Weber was more tolerable in 2008 than in years past, and Kyle Petty’s second year in the booth led to dramatic improvement, as he really started to come into his own with the type of honest analysis you can’t get from anyone else. All in all, it was a valiant effort from a network that – although they have been covering the sport for years – underwent so many personnel changes between 2006 and 2007 that their team is essentially in just its second year together.
ESPN is also in their second year of what for them is an outright return to NASCAR, but needs to drastically improve over last year’s showing if it wants to be seen as a legitimate disseminator of NASCAR coverage. However, based on the network’s performance of broadcasting the Nationwide Series and NASCAR Now so far in 2008, it seems poised to show marked improvement over the next several months.
ESPN’s return to covering NASCAR in 2007 was very similar to Toyota’s debut in the Cup and then-Busch Series that same year. The broadcasts were very inconsistent, particularly in the realm of on-air talent. The Busch (now Nationwide) Series coverage was nearly a disaster, as the network couldn’t decide who should be the leader of those broadcasts. Suzy Kolber and Brett Musberger were among the in-studio lead anchors used throughout the season, but were replaced by the more capable Allen Bestwick, a man far better suited for that role. But even after Bestwick settled down the pre-race show, the broadcast never seemed to gel, and rookie pit reporters Jamie Little, Shannon Spake and even Marty Smith (in a limited role) all had growing pains.
But as close to a disaster as the Nationwide Series coverage was, NASCAR Now was Hindenburg-like. Eric Kuselias began the year as the host of the daily NASCAR News magazine and immediately proved that he did not know the sport at all. Kuselias’s inability to catch onto the show and to NASCAR prompted ESPN to use other hosts, such as Marty Reid, Chris Fowler and Doug Banks (who is, by far, the worst host I think I have ever seen). The show also had poor content, and had equally poor ratings to show for it as a result.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Cup coverage last year also had major growing pains. Rusty Wallace, Dr. Jerry Punch and Andy Petree did not build the chemistry that they needed to during the first half of the season when covering the then-Busch Series. The pit-road team also remained fairly green and needed more time to grow accustomed to the fast pace of their jobs.
By the end of the year, the universal mood toward ESPN was one of disappointment. How could the Worldwide Leader In Sports fall short on its coverage of one of the world’s biggest sports? Didn’t ESPN used to cover NASCAR? These thoughts hung around like rain clouds as Daytona’s January testing approached.
But ESPN’s 2008 coverage has been taking a huge step in the right direction. The network solidified its lineup of hosts, tabbing Bestwick – a NASCAR veteran with television know-how – to be the host of the show’s biggest episodes. Young talents Nicole Manske and Ryan Burr also handle the hosting duties of the show throughout the week. In the middle of this season, Bestwick began hosting an analysis roundtable of the weekend’s events, a great addition to the show. The new Monday format resembles the Sunday morning ESPN show The Sports Reporters, where each reporter, driver or other NASCAR personality gets their chance to weigh in on a topic. In fact, after all the improvements, watching NASCAR Now today is nothing like the train wreck it used to be. I used to watch it to see how bad it was; now, I watch to get caught up on the latest NASCAR developments and take in analysis from an array of ESPN NASCAR reporters.
In accordance with Dale Jarrett’s retirement, ESPN also announced that Rusty Wallace was moving from an analyst’s role to the at-the-track studio with Brad Daugherty. Jarrett took Wallace’s spot in the booth and immediately, improvements began to show for the broadcasts. Rusty sometimes searched for words to explain what was happening on the track, but that’s something Jarrett seems to not have as much of a problem with. However, ESPN is smart to have kept Wallace in the fold, as he is a NASCAR champion and one of the biggest names in the sport. His interaction with Daugherty on the pre-show set has seemed a far better fit for him than calling races up in the booth.
ESPN has the opportunity to cash in big this season. TV ratings are up for the first time in a couple of years, because track attendance has been down. This will give them more leverage to sell some advertising, and give NASCAR another success story to brag about during the January media tour. Unfortunately, poor attendance at races and sometimes excruciatingly boring racing will be big storylines that the network will cover, too, a fine but necessary line they must cross that could take away from the exciting image they want to promote for the sport.
Leading up to their 2008 Cup debut, ESPN’s Nationwide Series coverage has been solid; the pit crew and the boys in the booth all seem to be more polished than last season. But there’s one notable exception: Tim Brewer has continued to struggle a lot as the team’s crew chief. He is by far the weak link for the broadcasting team, and this year is a make or break year for the former NASCAR crew chief. If he does not perform more solidly this season, Brewer may be looking for work come 2009.
Another interesting storyline for the network to follow as the summer rolls on is the future of analyst Brad Daugherty. Last week, he and JTG Racing announced a partnership that will make Daugherty a part-owner of the team, with JTG planning to field a Cup car for Marcos Ambrose for the full 2009 season. Will his presence on the broadcasting team be a conflict of interest for this new venture? My answer is “no.” Rusty Wallace owns two Nationwide Series cars but still works during those races. Jeff Hammond partially owns Red Horse Racing in the Craftsman Truck Series and Darrell Waltrip used to own a Truck Series team – while talking way too much about his brother Michael and his team in the Cup Series. So, although there will be a conflict of interest for Daugherty, he should still be able to provide objective analysis of the races without much of a problem.
In closing, there is no reason that ESPN should not succeed in its NASCAR coverage. The network has more money to spend than the others, and also has the best graphics, equipment and talent depth. But then again, money doesn’t always buy success, and the proof is in the pudding as to how the network’s coverage was so disappointing last season. The way I look at it, their lackluster performance was akin to the New York Yankees not winning the World Series with Major League Baseball’s highest payroll.
With those types of expectations on the table, expect this team to make the most of their second chance. For no question about it, heads will roll at ESPN if the quality does not bump up to the next level during the Cup Series portion of their schedule.