Back when the deal was first announced that ESPN would be returning to NASCAR broadcasting, and would also be giving the Nationwide Series a steady, permanent home, I was absolutely thrilled. What could go wrong here: a network whose Wide World of Sports coverage was largely responsible for NASCAR’s ascension from a niche to a national pastime and a mainstream TV home for NASCAR’s second-tier series?
How could I have been so naïve?
ESPN’s coverage of the Nationwide Series race at Texas was without question the worst of their NASCAR broadcasts I have ever seen. And while Nashville was an improvement, much of what was wrong with the Texas telecast was again evident during coverage of the first standalone race of 2009.
Over the last two weeks, I can’t count on both hands the number of solid runs by NNS regulars and their teams that have gone all but unnoticed on the air. Did you know that in the last two weeks Michael Annett scored his career-best finish? That Scott Lagasse Jr. has moved into the top 10 in points on a streak of four consecutive top-20 finishes? That Casey Atwood is running full-time for the first time in years? That Jeremy Clements made his first NASCAR start of the season on Saturday? That Kelly Bires is very, very good… good enough to school Carl Edwards in his concrete castle?
If all you’ve been doing is watching ESPN’s broadcasts, you hardly know any of that. How do I know that? Because if you’ve been watching on TV, you’ve only heard about Lagasse’s ascent up the standings in passing when the points are put on screen after the checkers have flown. You only saw a brief glimpse of Bires putting the moves on Edwards late in the race before cutting away. And as for the tidbits on Annett and Atwood… you definitely didn’t find out about those on TV, because they weren’t even mentioned (if you heard them and I didn’t, you’ve got quite the ears).
It is unacceptable for a network whose contracted responsibility is to cover a development series to have a driver like Annett finish 11th on the lead lap at Texas and literally get less on-air recognition than Johnny Chapman and Terry Cook, who both were mentioned during green-flag coverage when they took Phil Parsons’s Nos. 90 and 91 cars behind the wall 10 miles into the race. But, unfortunately, that’s become par for the course when it comes to ESPN’s Nationwide Series coverage. Because there is only one word that can describe the excuse for “coverage” that they are broadcasting:
Laziness is perhaps the only explanation I can come up with for why ESPN somehow didn’t have a good angle of Joe Nemechek’s late-race wreck at Nashville, one of the most dramatic events that NASCAR has seen at any level in 2009. How can the same network that covers the Cup chase not have a camera at the exit of turn 4?! Do you honestly think if the Cup Series had been running at Nashville that the exit of turn 4 would not have cameras all over the place to give fans a breathtaking look at one of the most aggressive examples of driving in recent memory?
Maybe budget cuts had something to do with the lack of camera angles in the Music City. Maybe the camera crew was really honed in on the solid battle between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. Whatever rationale you put forward, however, perhaps the defining image of the NNS series so far this season was captured from a grainy distance. That’s a failure in coverage. Period.
ESPN’s lackadaisical efforts with regard to the Nationwide Series were further evident this past weekend during their coverage of practice and qualifying. As noted by fellow writer Phil Allaway, the network had outdated graphics on hand for several entries in the field, and, in the case of Ryan Hackett, had none to display during practice.
That’s a joke. The entry lists for Nationwide races are made available a week in advance of hitting the track. It’s understandable that, unlike in the Cup ranks where a special paint scheme is a breaking news story, it is much more difficult – especially in the back of the pack – to know what paint schemes are going to look like. Fair point. But it is NOT difficult, nor is it too much to ask, to have a generic No. 76 available, especially when the entry list has again been public for a week.
More importantly, though, this complete failure to account for a number of entries in the field (including Rick Ware’s No. 31 car, a full-time competitor) is just one tangible example of how lethargic ESPN has been in chasing the stories of the Nationwide Series garage. And I point the finger squarely at the network much the same way as I did at Auto Club Speedway earlier this year when they managed to draw only 15,000 fans to their Nationwide race: They’re treating the Nationwide Series as an afterthought, a perquisite to getting their hands on Cup stuff.
TV broadcasts with a lack of camera angles. Scoring charts and graphics that are not prepared to handle the field of cars contesting the race. A broadcast booth that is seemingly aloof as to who the drivers in the pack are, or what they’re doing on and off the track.
If that doesn’t scream afterthought, I don’t know what does.
And yes, alongside all of this, there is the 800-pound gorilla issue in the room that everyone is sick of hearing about: the Cup drivers making the Nationwide ranks their second home. But, this issue and ESPN are inextricably linked.
Why? ESPN being lazy, they’ve got no need to chase the stories of the Nationwide garage… they just need to hit up their Sunday stories a day early. Why bother getting to know smaller teams, greener PR reps and drivers trying to make a name for themselves when you can just ask Edwards about how the No. 60 car is handling instead of the No. 99? Why bother learning about 30 other drivers when you’re going to be seeing the 10-12 running up front Saturday on Sunday anyway?
Seriously, isn’t it just a little bit ironic that, in the week preceding the Texas NNS race telecast that saw the crew in the booth pose the question “How good is Kyle Busch?” three times in three separate venues, ESPN’s senior NASCAR writer, Ed Hinton, published an article describing the same Kyle Busch as “NASCAR’s newest media darling?”
April 1, Hinton writes that Kyle Busch is on-track to becoming “inevitably, a legend.” April 4, Kyle Busch mows down a minor-league field and is gushed over for it like his win at TMS was a legendary accomplishment. That’s more than irony. That’s a surefire sign that ESPN is doing to the Nationwide Series, and to NASCAR, what they’ve done to college football: They’re creating the news as much as they’re reporting it.
Sure, ESPN does provide a stable home for televising Nationwide races, and they do offer the Series exposure that it wouldn’t get on SPEED or another network. But at what cost? Is it worth gaining exposure in exchange for lackadaisical broadcasts and a coverage team that is content to rehash stories about the same handful of drivers week in and week out?
The answer is no. The product that is being put on TV week in and week out is not something that is going to encourage new sponsors to enter or garner substantial exposure for up and coming talent. The teams that need more exposure and sponsors are the same ones that aren’t getting airtime during telecasts.
ESPN on paper was the perfect home for the Nationwide Series. But while what it is doing right now might provide short-term gains in terms of TV ratings and sponsors for a handful of teams, the current model that its coverage, the lifeblood of the Series, is leading the Nationwide circuit on is not sustainable. Either ESPN needs to change, or the Nationwide Series needs to go elsewhere.
And trust me, ESPN isn’t going to change.