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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

ESPN's Nascar Coverage: At least there's hope for improvement

One of the most common complaints of Nascar fans is the broadcasting. Missed restarts, ignored drivers, too many commercials and overall poor coverage top the list of reasons why fans are fed up with TV’s packaging of their beloved product.

With NBC leaving in favor of ABC/ESPN, there is the hope that things may change. Many things will stay the same. Commercials are a necessary evil and the number will stay the same. Missing race action is also unavoidable, there won’t be split-screen action seen in IRL. ESPN does have the chance to improve in several areas over its rival stations.

I’m not a big fan of ESPN overall. Sportscenter is so over-produced and full of itself it is no where close to the original idea that made it great. I can’t even watch it anymore. Most of their programming is either obnoxious, lacks substance or both. The one key exception to this is their live sports coverage. Save for Joe Theismann, their broadcasters are usually some of the best in their respective sports, and their coverage is also usually excellent. There are a few things I'd like to see from the new television package.

Fans, diehard or new to the sport, don’t buy in to the sport based on flash. Too many graphics and production elements distract. Does anyone tune in to appreciate the dancing NFL robot on Fox? I don't need to see Tony Stewart grinding metal as they go to break or Kurt Busch making tough guy faces. I definitely don’t need Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond driving a fake car in front of a blue screen. These small promo clips can cost up to 30 seconds each. It doesn’t seem like much, but that’s one additional commercial per break that could be squeezed in. Say three or four of these imaging spots are cut per race, suddenly that’s an entire commercial break eliminated at the end of the race.

In the same breath, I don't need Nascar 101 every race. I understand the desire to attract new fans and educate them on the rules. It is totally acceptable to review the basics at larger races like Daytona or the Brickyard. Every week is overkill. You never hear other sports give a review of the rules every game. Why must NASCAR announcers constantly remind us how the Free Pass works, or that the top ten drivers will make this thing called the Chase at the end of the year? If a new fan doesn’t know what is going on, they’ll either figure it out or ask someone. Don’t insult the majority of the audience in the meantime.

To further that point, overreacting about the points standings in April seems pretty silly. How many times during the year does an announcer work up a lather over something like, "If the Chase began after the Coke 600, Carl Edwards wouldn't make it!" That's super, but the Chase doesn't end after 13 races. In-race updates in the first 100 laps do nothing either. If Jimmie Johnson pits and falls to the end of the lead lap, the chances are pretty good he will work his way back to the front.

All I ask from the broadcast team is to tell me something I don't know, or can't know from watching the race. Jeff Hammond's greatest asset is his crew chief experience and car know-how. He does a great job explaining what is happening in the car. One of his worst traits is his awful sense of humor. There is nothing wrong with lending humor to the broadcast, but most attempts are too strained and contrived. Again, no one tunes in to watch the announcers. They have the chance to add to the coverage, but will never, and therefore shouldn't try to, replace the on-track action.

That covers the main complaints, although there is one more small request for ESPN: Steer clear of ride-alongs. Wally's World was original, then the Fox guys tried it (beat it dead?). What more can be done with that gimmick?If ESPN is smart, they'll pass on that.