July 25, 2007

NASCAR comes home to ESPN: ESPN's return to NASCAR coverage could mean much more than just some extra minutes on Sportscenter.

This is one old NASCAR fan who is thrilled to see ESPN coming back to one of the mainstays of the early days of the network. Not for the sake of ESPN, but for NASCAR.

Bill France Jr., the president of NASCAR, is thrilled because it means ESPN will be able to cover more extensively even Cup races it does not broadcast. More minutes on Sportscenter equals more national interest he says.

Bill France Jr. is an idiot.

Don't get me wrong, the absence of Nextel Cup coverage on the best known sports report on television has certainly not helped as we have watched the ratings decline. But two or three extra minutes on Sportscenter will not stop the bleeding.

And let us not forget that it was the France family that, in their pursuit of every dime they could squeeze out of their TV contracts, signed exclusive contracts that barred ESPN from conducting any interviews within the confines of the track. Only outlets that were paying to broadcast races could do that. So when ESPN lost out in the bidding wars to broadcast the sport they had made mainstream, they basically could not cover it at all.

But this is not really about Sportscenter. The big reason the ratings have declined is simple.

The TV coverage sucks. Nobody has come close to doing it as well as ESPN did it when their coverage suddenly made Cup racing a national player.

It's not the fault of the personalities on the mikes. For the most part they are competent (though every time I hear Waltrip say "boogedy, boogedy, boogedy" I want to crawl inside the TV and rip his throat out. Maybe that's just me.)

The fault, and hopefully the soloution, lie in the trailer. ESPN had brilliant direction. Their people understood this kind of racing. They knew there was almost always something exciting happening on the track and they found it and put their cameras there.

Nobody wants to watch a leader with a three second lead ride around the track by himself hitting his marks. Yet we have been subjected to hour upon hour upon endless hour of just this shot since ESPN left.

If the 55 car is driving right on the edge of control and the other drivers are giving him a wide berth in the turns and then trying to rush around him on the straights, that's compelling video, whether it's for third place or thirty-third.

That's the kind of story within the race that ESPN was great at finding and showing to us. Somewhere on the track somebody was passing and getting passed. That's why NASCAR Cup racing became a national sport.

I can only hope that ESPN can recapture that level of coverage. In the years since they left no one else has.

posted by gradioc to commentary at 07:00 PM - 0 comments

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