When ESPN announced its return to NASCAR coverage a couple of years ago, I was excited. The network that did the best job ever of producing NASCAR coverage was finally returning after a six-year layoff, and I had missed them greatly.
I looked back fondly to the days of Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons, and Ned Jarrett in the booth. Terry Lingner's production of the races was always stellar, and pit reporters like Dr. Jerry Punch and Bill Weber set a standard that no reporter since has ever achieved.
While none of the old team was returning, and the few who were coming back were rejoining in different capacities, I still felt as if, once they got their act together, they'd be an upgrade over NBC since Weber took over as play-by-play announcer.
The first couple years of ESPN's return have seen a fair share of mistakes. Some have been remedied—namely, placing Rusty Wallace in the broadcast booth, and having college football specialists host NASCAR coverage—but some, like the criminal under-utilization of Allen Bestwick, have not. (I feel as if Bestwick is a better play-by-play announcer than Punch; if I was in charge, they'd swap positions for a couple of races as an experiment.)
Now, I can forgive some of the issues with ESPN's NASCAR coverage, even though it's been three years and the kinks should have been worked out by now. It's better than that infernal Digger character (and if a driver ever hits and kills Digger at 200 MPH, I think he should be given a contingency bonus). But there is one issue with the coverage that I cannot forgive, and will actively crusade against until it is remedied.
Here's an example: "NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Pocono presented by Old Spice."
Never has a broadcast network done something so downright money-grubbing nasty as this. ESPN circumvents both NASCAR and the race title sponsors by selling the naming rights to their broadcasts. For a race sponsor to be mentioned on TV by the ESPN announcers, they must pay ESPN as well as the race track.
If you didn't recognize the race I named above, try the "Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500."
That's right; ESPN sold out broadcast rights to take away advertising time from the American Red Cross. That's like putting a giant Nilla Wafers ad in the back of a church and using them as the body of Christ.
Let's go a little more in depth: Check out the ESPN.com schedule pages for NASCAR's top three series, Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Trucks. I want folks to notice something here. Even on ESPN's web site, they refuse to refer to the races by their proper names in Sprint Cup and Nationwide. They don't even give the proper names for the races in Sprint Cup that they don't broadcast.
But look at the Camping World Truck schedule: Everything is completely accurate. Note that the Speed Channel, not ESPN, handles Truck broadcasting duties. Obviously, ESPN saw no point in devoting any energy to making a quick buck off that series.
Hell, look at Jayski.com's series pages—the pages for the two series ESPN broadcasts have shiny new layouts; the Truck page still has Jayski's old one.
Not only is ESPN cheating the race sponsors out of exposure during their 17 Sprint Cup and 35 Nationwide races a season, they're showcasing bias and presenting factually incorrect reporting. What ESPN calls the races is not what they are actually called.
Metaphorically, it's like ESPN is the mafia, charging a poor small business owner for "protection." It's also like calling the Super Bowl "NFL Championship Game presented by GoDaddy.com." Does that fly with you, loyal fans?
I feel like this issue will eventually drive race sponsors away, and that's one of the last things NASCAR needs. Why should a sponsor pay a race track all that money for exposure when ESPN won't even mention your product unless you pony up even more?
Worse, it sets a standard that could cause even more problems as television technology improves. What if sponsors begin paying the broadcasters to superimpose their logos over the entire car?
What if McDonald's decides to tell Burger King "up yours" and pays to have the golden arches superimposed on Tony Stewart's hood? Would you stand for that?
It'd likely be cheaper for McDonald's, because they wouldn't have to pay Tony Stewart anything, but it'd make it pointless for the sponsors to pay any of the race teams directly. With no race teams, you can't run a race. I know this is an exaggeration, but it is the path on which we're headed.
We all know that NASCAR is driven by money, but there needs to be a line. I have no problem with ESPN tagging a phrase like "Broadcast presented by Old Spice" onto the end of the race name, but the current system is ridiculous, unethical, and compromises any journalistic integrity ESPN's NASCAR coverage has. Somebody—be it the NASCAR or the FCC—needs to step up and put an end to this.