NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Couch Potato Tuesday: How ESPN Can Be a Victim of… Itself?

The fall race week at Charlotte Motor Speedway is the NASCAR equivalent of homecoming week. Heck, we even had a Powder Puff event (the Better Half Dash) on Thursday night.

With that in mind, putting on a good show at home is crucial for NASCAR. By extension, it’s important for NASCAR’s TV partners to be on task as well.

Unfortunately, ESPN effectively screwed itself over by trying to be too many things at once.

With everything that happened Saturday night, I’m just going to focus on the Cup telecast in today’s critique. Otherwise, the piece is likely to push 4,000 words, which would irritate the editing staff. I will definitely cover the Drive for the Cure 300 in Thursday’s edition of the Critic’s Annex in the Newsletter.

Bank of America 500

I first noticed that the race was scheduled to follow the Baylor-TCU game (for most of the country) last Sunday (Oct. 5). The minute I saw that, I knew it was going to be trouble. Likely not as much trouble as it turned out to be, but it was going to be an issue. Baylor’s general style of play lends itself to longer games because of additional time stoppages. Add TCU, which has adopted a similar style of play in response to schools like Baylor and you have a Texas Shootout. It’s sort of funny when you think about it. Hurrying up your offense leads to slower games.

Ultimately, neither game that was scheduled for the 3:30 p.m. slot on ABC finished before 7 p.m. The other game, Michigan State-Purdue, finished about 7:10. However, Baylor-TCU went all the way past 8 p.m., which created a perfect storm scenario.

Normally, ESPN would push coverage onto their many cable channels. However, nearly all of them were busy with live games. ESPN had Alabama-Arkansas. ESPN 2 had Penn State-Michigan. ESPNEWS was the desired option (and even announced as such), but the Cleveland Cavaliers blew a 16-point lead, resulting in their preseason game versus the Miami Heat in Rio de Janeiro going to overtime. The other ESPN cable networks (ESPNU, the SEC Network and the Longhorn Network) are all dedicated to college sports only and were airing live sports. It’s as if ESPN desperately needed a special overflow channel, like what RSN’s (Regional Sports Networks) have when multiple local sporting events are at the same time (Ex: the Knicks are on MSG, while the Sabres are on MSG 2).

The oft-forgotten ESPN Classic could have been an option, but ESPN is slowly making the channel into an On-Demand service. Those of you who have Dish Network only have access to ESPN Classic in this fashion today. Also of note, ESPN Classic has less subscribers than even FOX Sports 2 at this point (according to FierceCable, a site that is dedicated to the cable television industry, that number is 27 million, as compared to FOX Sports 2’s 37 million). It would have been the definition of burying the race had ESPN gone down that road, so it appears that it was never actually considered.

Ever since the infamous Heidi Game from 1968, broadcasters generally do not cut away from live broadcasts of sporting events (here’s a hint: the final 14 points in that linked box score occurred after NBC cut to Heidi). However, many viewers in the Northwest (but not within 75 miles of Seattle) were angry on Sunday because they missed most of the first half of Seahawks-Cowboys because they were assigned bonus coverage of the Bengals-Panthers game that ended in a 37-37 tie. There are times that broadcasters can’t win and this past weekend gave us multiple examples of it. The whole situation had nothing to do with where ESPN or FOX’s allegiances lie, regardless of the fact that ESPN is a lame duck in regards to NASCAR coverage. ESPN stacked the schedule for Saturday on its family of networks, and it came back to bite the network. Simple as that. Of course, having said that, I don’t expect any changes to how ESPN operates to come out of this nightmare.

After the race, ESPN put out a statement regarding Saturday night’s quagmire.

“We started the race on ESPN3, which is available to 95 million homes,” ESPN stated. “We’re fortunate to have multiple TV networks available, but tonight there were live events on all of them, including an epic football game on ABC and an overtime NBA game on ESPNEWS. We joined the race on ABC at lap 26.”

There’s just one little problem with that statement. You can claim all you want that you put the race on ESPN3. If fans can’t access the feed on there, it adds up to bupkis. That was my experience Saturday night. When ESPN announced it was going to start the race on ESPNEWS, it also said that it would be simulcast on ESPN3. So, I went to WatchESPN to get the feed. It wasn’t there; I refreshed at least half a dozen times. The link to the race feed never showed up for me, even 15 laps into the race. If any of you managed to get access to the race on there, good for you. You achieved quite the feat.

In the end, I had to rely on PRN Radio’s feed for the first 26 laps. I was home at my house when the race was on. I shouldn’t have to do that to get anything at all. It’s agitating, to say the least; the whole situation left a terrible taste in my mouth. In the future, NASCAR needs to have better contact with its TV partners in regards to other telecasts airing. I know the race was on ABC, but they were already scheduled to go beyond 11 p.m. ABC doesn’t have late night programming on Saturday nights. Getting to the news at precisely 11 p.m. so that your late night programming could air on schedule was not an issue, unlike in 2003, when NBC failed to air a Victory Lane interview with Tony Stewart.

NASCAR admitted in a statement that it was disappointed in fans being unable to watch the start of the race. However, NASCAR is at least a little bit complicit here. I have no doubt that the powers that be knew what was going on. There’s Twitter, after all – something on which NASCAR has an account.

What NASCAR should have done was hold the start of the race (or heck, even the start of the pace laps) until the Baylor-TCU game ended. Maybe spend that extra time doing a little extra drying on pit road since it was quite damp even after the race started. Notify the fans in the stands what was going on. They’ll understand, especially since it was a Saturday night race and not Sunday afternoon. The likelihood that they needed to be back at work the next day was lower than normal.

Why go to that trouble? Let’s face it: TV butters the bread of NASCAR today. Having the TV audience in place is very, very important. I know that it was only 26 laps, but imagine if something extraordinary happened during those 26 laps.

Heck, let’s step away from NASCAR for a moment. Earlier this year, one of the more historic moments in the history of the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge (CTSC) occurred when amputee racer U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Liam Dwyer co-drove the winning Mazda MX-5 in the Street Tuner race at Lime Rock Park. It is likely the only time that the series has ever made SportsCenter (at least, it’s the only time I can remember off the top of my head). That just so happened to be one of the two race weekends for the series this year without TV. The only media on hand for the race were a number of photographers and approximately three writers, one of whom was me. To say IMSA hurt itself there is an understatement. Ryan Eversley told me that weekend that the lack of TV coverage hurt the series, and that was before Dwyer shared in the win. Ultimately, the CTSC did not see any kind of bump because of Dwyer’s feat. Also, Dwyer hasn’t raced in the series since Lime Rock.

By the time ESPN finally got to Charlotte, the competition caution was out. ESPN got lucky with that being issued, along with Baylor’s kicker (Chris Callahan) making the 28-yard field goal as time expired. Tire wear was expected to be an issue with all the rubber from Friday night being washed away by heavy rains, but it was ultimately no issue at all. Regardless, we did still get a look at what Kevin Harvick’s tires looked like after said caution. The conclusion: not so bad.

During the competition caution, ESPN tried to explain the issue that got Matt Kenseth sent to the rear, but didn’t do the best job. Then again, it’s arguable that no one did a good job explaining that mess. How the deuce do you get sent to the rear for a decal? Did NASCAR start enforcing 1960s-era appearance rules? Is it now against the rules to get an 11th-hour sponsor? That wasn’t the case with Kenseth, but it sounds like NASCAR gave the No. 20 the equivalent of the NFL’s $10,000 fines for wearing Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. There needs to be a better explanation for that stupidity and ESPN failed to provide it.

During the race, I still felt a little lost at times, although nowhere as much as at Dover. An example was lap 106, when Casey Mears and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. had rather blatant contact on the backstretch that forced Mears to make an unscheduled pit stop. The way that Mears seemingly intentionally bashed Stenhouse would indicate that something else happened before the backstretch contact. However, no footage of additional contact was shown and Dale Jarrett appeared to be a bit perplexed.

The coverage of the actual racing seemed to be focused on the Chasers, likely to the detriment of the broadcast. That focus resulted in ESPN revealing Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s vibration issues early on, right after the competition caution. The vibration led to the broken shifter that ruined his night. ESPN seemingly didn’t connect the two issues for quite a while. What would have made its coverage there a little better was if we got an interview with Steve Letarte where we got a somewhat detailed explanation of what exactly happened to cause the mess. Did the shifter break off in a drilled hole like what happened with Johnson at Atlanta, or did the whole thing just pull out on Earnhardt? I don’t know; it wasn’t made clear.

ESPN also should have sent one of its pit reporters to interview Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard when they had their engine failures. Both drivers were having decent runs; Menard had a car good enough to finish in the top 10 at least. The only reason he wasn’t up there in the hunt at the time was because his crew got busted for jumping over the wall too soon during the competition caution. Bowyer might have gotten there as well, for all I know.

Credit: CIA Stock Photography
Clint Bowyer should have been interviewed after his engine failure Saturday night but was instead skipped over on the TV broadcast. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

The post-race shenanigans allowed ESPN to redeem itself to a certain degree. However, even then, we couldn’t exactly see everything. Footage of the Brad KeselowskiDenny Hamlin chase in the garage wasn’t made available until FOX Sports posted it Monday afternoon. Also, based on post-race interviews, it seems like Hamlin hit Keselowski after the checkers, perhaps in turn 2 or on the backstretch. That contact provoked Keselowski to try to spin him out in turn 3. There was no footage of that contact.

Otherwise, ESPN had great placement. Ara Dramm (an ESPN cameraman) was perfectly placed to catch Matt Kenseth going after Keselowski next to the No. 2 hauler. Of course, Kenseth’s sneak-attack prompted comparisons to the WWE’s Attitude Era, probably not the best entity that you want to be compared to if you’re NASCAR.  Also, it probably didn’t sound like it, but I’m sure that Allen Bestwick was shocked that Kenseth went after Keselowski.

Getting all the main principals involved to talk on-air was quite the accomplishment, but ESPN pulled that off. The only person involved in the post-race mess who didn’t get interviewed was Tony Stewart. However, with everything that’s been going on in his life, it appears he’s turning down almost all interview requests right now. My guess is that ESPN did try to get an interview with Stewart, but he declined.

Overall, Saturday night was a brutal night for ESPN, but a lot of what happened was beyond ESPN’s control. The coverage of the actual race is still centered upon the Chasers. The Chip Ganassi duo of Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray are still doing all that they can to crash that party. They can’t do it alone, though. Luckily, we’ve got Talladega coming this weekend. It’s hard not to cover the field equally with everyone in a big pack.

What you’ve read above is my take on the live broadcast on ABC. However, many viewers, including some of my colleagues who were at the race Saturday night, couldn’t watch that telecast. They had to depend on the 3 a.m. condensed repeat that aired on ESPN 2. Mike Neff was one of those people and described what he saw in Monday’s edition of Thinkin’ Out Loud.

For lack of better words, the repeat was a dumpster fire. You could barely ascertain anything that happened other than the shenanigans at the end of the race. Neff described the telecast to me in a text message as, “…it seriously looked like a high school kid edited the race two hours before it had to be turned in.” The truth is probably not that far from that. The re-air started three hours after the live telecast signed off. The person responsible for the re-air edit was probably in Bristol and may or may not have been an overworked PA (the hours that PAs work at ESPN are legendary) who doesn’t know much about racing. Despite that being in play, airing 14 of the first 289 laps in a 334 lap race in a two-hour slot is inexcusable.

Heck, when I went to Watkins Glen for the Cup race as a 14-year-old in 1998, I still got home in time to tape the 9 p.m. repeat of the race off of ESPN 2. It was the full broadcast, no cuts. I taped the Sears Point repeat that year as well because I was out of town on a Boy Scouts advancement trip. Despite it looking like they cut out green flag racing, they really only cut out wall repairs on the frontstretch after Jeff Burton backed into the wall.

The early Sunday morning repeat is exactly the kind of telecast I fear when we get delayed telecasts of sports car races, or overseas touring car races during the off-season. The kind of coverage that’s just slapped together without a care for the fans.

Finally, as seen on Black Flag, a sub-blog of Jalopnik, ABC covered the brawl on Monday morning’s edition of Good Morning America and proceeded to make it all about Tony Stewart, creating an alternate story out of nowhere. Those dudes clearly have no idea about NASCAR at all. It’s all correlation, sensationalism and ratings. They should be ashamed. If anything, Stewart was just an innocent victim of the stupidity going on around him.

That’s all for this week. Next weekend, the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck series return to action at Talladega Superspeedway for 750 miles of action that churns my stomach. In a special treat, the Camping World Truck Series will return to network television for the first time since 2009.

Also, there are a couple of changes to the schedule that have occurred recently. Essentially, Saturday’s schedule has flip-flopped. Originally, qualifying was set for 12:30 p.m. with live coverage on FOX, followed by the truck race. That’s not happening. Now, the truck race is first, with qualifying airing on ESPNEWS afterwards. Here’s your listings.

Tuesday, October 14

TimeTelecastNetwork
1:30 a.m. - 2:00 a.m.F1 ExtraNBC Sports Network*# (from October 12)
2:00 a.m. - 3:00 a.m.NASCAR America: Celebrate the StatesNBC Sports Network#
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network

Wednesday, October 15

TimeTelecastNetwork
3:00 a.m. - 5:00 a.m.IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge: Road AtlantaFOX Sports 1*/# (from October 3)
5:00 a.m. - 6:00 a.m.Rolex Monterey Motorsports ReunionFOX Sports 1*/# (from August 14-17)
7:00 a.m. - 7:30 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from October 14)
11:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge: Road AtlantaFOX Sports 1*/# (from October 3)
4:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.Formula DRIFT: Throwdown, Part No. 1NBC Sports Network*/# (from July 18)
5:00 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 1

Thursday, October 16

TimeTelecastNetwork
7:00 a.m. - 7:30 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from October 15)
5:00 p.m. - 5:30 p.m. NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 1

Friday, October 17

TimeTelecastNetwork
12:30 a.m. - 2:00 a.m.Red Bull Global RallyCross: SeattleNBC Sports Network*# (from September 27)
7:00 a.m. - 7:30 a.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network*# (from October 16)
1:00 p.m. - 1:30 p.m.The 10: Talladega MomentsFOX Sports 1#
1:30 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.K&N Pro Series West Toyota/NAPA Auto Parts 150FOX Sports 1*/ (from October 11)
2:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.Sprint Cup Series Practice No. 1FOX Sports 1
3:30 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.NASCAR LiveFOX Sports 1
4:30 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.Sprint Cup Series Happy HourFOX Sports 1
5:30 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.Camping World Truck Series QualifyingFOX Sports 1
7:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 1
8:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.The 10: Talladega MomentsFOX Sports 2#
9:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.Rolex Monterey Motorsports ReunionFOX Sports 2*/# (from August 14-17)
10:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.Sprint Cup Series Happy HourFOX Sports 2*#

Saturday, October 18

TimeTelecastNetwork
4:30 a.m. - 5:00 a.m.The 10: Talladega MomentsFOX Sports 1#
5:00 a.m. - 6:00 a.m.Sprint Cup Series Happy HourFOX Sports 1*# (from October 17)
10:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.K&N Pro Series West Toyota/NAPA Auto Parts 150FOX Sports 1*/# (from October 11)
11:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.Sprint Cup Series Happy HourFOX Sports 1*# (from October 17)
12:30 p.m. - 1:00 p.m.NCWTS SetupFOX
1:00 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.Rolex Monterey Motorsports ReunionFOX Sports 2*/# (from August 14-17)
1:00 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.Camping World Truck Series Fred's 250FOX
4:30 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.Sprint Cup Series QualifyingESPNEWS
9:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.Monster Energy Supercross PregameFOX Sports 2
9:30 p.m. - 12:30 a.m.Monster Energy Cup: Las VegasFOX Sports 2

Sunday, October 19

TimeTelecastNetwork
12:00 a.m. - 2:00 a.m.motoGP World Championship Grand Prix of AustraliaFOX Sports 1
12:00 p.m. - 1:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceDayFOX Sports 1
1:00 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.NASCAR CountdownESPN
1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.Monster Energy Cup: Las VegasFOX Sports 1*# (from October 18)
2:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500ESPN
4:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.Moto3: AustraliaFOX Sports 2*
4:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.Blancpain Sprint Series: ZolderCBS Sports Network* (from October 18-19)
4:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.Formula DRIFT: Throwdown, Part No. 2NBC Sports Network*/ (from July 19)
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.Moto2: AustraliaFOX Sports 2*
6:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.motoGP World Championship Grand Prix of AustraliaFOX Sports 2*/#
6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.DTM: Hockenheim No. 2CBS Sports Network*

Monday, October 20

TimeTelecastNetwork
12:30 a.m. - 1:00 a.m.NASCAR Victory LaneFOX Sports 1*
1:00 a.m. - 3:00 a.m.Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500ESPN 2*/# (from October 19)
2:00 a.m. - 4:00 a.m.DTM: Hockenheim No. 2CBS Sports Network*# (from October 19)
4:00 a.m. - 6:00 a.m.Blancpain Sprint Series: ZolderCBS Sports Network*/# (from October 18-19)
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 1
7:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.NASCAR AmericaNBC Sports Network
7:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.NASCAR RaceHubFOX Sports 2*#

I will provide critiques of both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide races in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday. The Critic’s Annex this week will cover the Nationwide Series’ Drive for the Cure 300 from Friday night and FOX Sports’ coverage of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge season finale from Road Atlanta. For the Oct. 23 edition of the Annex, I’ll cover the delayed broadcast of the K&N Pro Series West from All-American Speedway in Roseville, notable for Michael Waltrip’s guest appearance in the race.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below, or contact me through the email address provided on the website in my bio. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons below. Finally, if you would like to contact any of the TV partners personally with an issue regarding their TV coverage from last weekend, please click on the following links:

FOX Sports
ESPN

At this point, there is still no public contact e-mail for NBC Sports. When they finally get around to creating a new link, I will post it for you.

As always, if you choose to contact the network by email, do so in a courteous manner. Network representatives are far more likely to respond to emails that ask questions politely rather than emails full of rants and vitriol.

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Upstate24fan

Yeah, I never found the race on ESPN3 too. I used my XBox One, IPad and the website and none of them had the beginning of the race. ESPN is really mailing it in now. I thought they redeemed themselves some with the post-race coverage, but then they lost me with the GMA garbage story. I find it hard that GMA couldn’t have talked to Marty Smith, Alan Bestwick, Jaime Little etc. for that story. They instead talked to Christine Brennan who knows nothing about auto racing. Her claim to fame is covering Tonya Harding. Just sham journalism.

I can’t wait till 2015 and NBC coverage. So far I like their NASCAR America show.

salb

Even if ESPN had actually bumped the start of the race, most of us would not have seen it. Classic, Watch, and E3 are not so readily available in many areas without extra charge.

Steve

People really need to stop complaining about ESPN and their lead in’s to the race. Yes it sucks that the games go long, and its really inexcusable that one football game lasts over 4 hours, but Nascar will never, ever win the ratings battle over college football or Lebron James, two of their biggest cash cows. Sorry, its just the way it is. Nascar is back to being a niche sport and the fans need to deal with that.

And I’m pretty sure Nascar fans would be upset if ESPN left the race with 10 laps to go to go to Sportcenter or another football game, which is essentially what you are asking ESPN to do to its football fans at the end of those games. You can’t have it both ways folks. I would rather miss the start, than miss the end.

As far as the coverage goes, if you are a fan of Jr., Johnson, Kenseth, or Kes (assuming he’s racing) you will have plenty to be happy about on Sunday. The rest of the field might as well be non existent. It will be about the Chase bubble drivers only, all of which are superstars of the sport, so it will all those 4 drivers all day Sunday. Enjoy.

JohnQ

Your contention that NASCAR has returned to being a niche sport is spot on. That doesn’t mean however, that there is no longer money to be made, just not as much. If NASCAR and the networks would focus on keeping the remaining fans rather than driving them off in the quest for the nonexistent new fan attendance and viewership may level off.

GinaV24

Well, I no longer bother to pay my cable carrier to have multiple ESPN channels. I don’t watch much ESPN, only MNF once in a while and races.

Since I was AT the race, I can tell you that considering the way it had rained/hailed earlier in the day, I would not have wanted them to hold the start of the race. It was overcast all night and having the end of the race be affected by rain would have annoyed me a lot. Obviously I wasn’t home to be trying to find the race on ESPN but let’s face it, ESPN is on its way out, they don’t care if they screw NASCAR over, they’ve been phoning the coverage in for a while and how much do we as fans really see of the race on TV? Not much IMO.

Ha, wow, someone actually thought that ABC/GMA would cover the NASCAR story fairly? Not a chance, most of them haven’t got a clue about any of the drivers.

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