'Playing Out The String'
Spring 2000

The recent negotiations over NASCAR's television package for 2001 and beyond resulted in a windfall profit for the organization. NBC and FOX paid record amounts for the rights to televise NASCAR races beginning next year. As a result, ABC/ESPN and CBS/TNN were left out in the cold.

Due to the foresight of CBS and ESPN, NASCAR ascended from a regional sport to a national phenomenon. As its popularity increased through the 1990's, ESPN, CBS, and TNN were there every step of the way. CBS brought the viewer closer to the action with the in-car camera. ESPN brought the viewer into the action with the roof cam. Together they brought viewers to NASCAR.

NASCAR accepted the bids of NBC and FOX over its traditional partners. The move surprised Disney (owners of ABC/ESPN) as well as CBS. The 2000 season is their final year broadcasting live Winston Cup and Busch events. Instead of leaving the viewers with something to remember, they seem to be leaving the viewers with something to forget.

If you're ever changed jobs, you might know how CBS, TNN, and ESPN feel this season. Before leaving your old job, the traditional move is to give your boss two weeks notice out of courtesy. Those last two weeks are not easy. It's difficult to put your heart and soul into something that you're not going to see to fruition. That's kind of how those networks have felt since receiving the news from NASCAR. Except that they're not leaving in "two weeks." They're staying around until November.

There has clearly been a lack of promotion in regard to television coverage this season. Gone is the "ESPN Ride Along Program." Gone is the ESPN Sportscenter commercial with Dale Jarrett. RPM2Nite is spending more time on open wheel and top fuel racing this season. Bristol race weekend produces non-stop action. Almost 100,000 fans jammed Bristol Motor Speedway for the Busch Grand National race on Saturday. ESPN did not show the event live preferring to show women's college basketball. It was a move that puzzled NASCAR officials. If the Bristol move puzzled them, it was a sign of things to come.

The Busch race at Texas Motor Speedway drew more fans than most Winston Cup events. Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, and Jeff Gordon were just a few of the marquee names in the event. During a rain delay, CBS announcer Mike Joy told viewers the race would be televised on TNN (its cable station) when the track dried. At 6 pm eastern time, the green flag waved at Texas. Except TNN did not break into its regularly scheduled cartoon programming to show the conclusion of the race.

CBS kept its cameras rolling and showed brief highlights of the remainder of the event in its pre-race coverage of the Winston Cup event the following day. However, for fans wanting to see the Busch race, that's unlikely to ever happen. CBS does not make a practice of rebroadcasting races like ESPN does. Unless you were at Texas Motor Speedway on that rainy Saturday, the race only exists in newsprint.

Following Dale Earnhardt Jr's victory at Texas, CBS did a good job covering the emotional scene in victory lane. However, lost in the revelry was the finishing order. CBS showed the top 10 finishers and went off the air. Weren't there 43 drivers in the race? And the points standings were never mentioned at all.

The message from the networks is clear: NASCAR screwed us so we'll screw them. Except the networks are not screwing NASCAR; they're screwing the fans. The very people who supported the networks over the past 20 years. The very people who tune in every week and sit through an inordinate amount of commericals (under the green flag no less). The very people who made them what they are.

In negotiating the new contract with NBC and FOX, NASCAR insured that the networks would be required to broadcast races to their conclusion. Whether on the network or one of its cable affiliates, if they're racing next year it will be shown. Count on it.

It's time for NASCAR to step in and order ESPN and CBS to broadcast the races live to their conclusion. Don't let them just play out the string. In terms of television coverage, race fans have given ESPN and CBS their time, loyalty, and dollars. It's time for the networks to give back. Right to the very end.

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