NASCAR Race Weekend Central

ESPN Proud to Present the Danica 300 – At the Expense of Everyone Else

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:

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.”

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 Busch as the two Sprint Cup regulars battled for the minor league trophy they decided to run for – since challenging Jimmie Johnson 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 3-4 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 racecar?

“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-five, 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 three 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.

Frontstretch’s Jay Pennell contributed to this report.

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