We’re three weeks into the 2011 NASCAR season and there is no denying things are on an upswing in big league stock car racing.
A memorable Daytona 500 with a fresh faced first time winner, one of the sport’s most popular and best known drivers ending a 66-race losing streak in Phoenix and a solid candidate to unseat Jimmie Johnson as this year’s champion winning in Las Vegas have given NASCAR a trio of compelling story lines to start the season.
The on-track product has been quite good and despite a sedate opening half to last week’s Vegas race, overall competition and racing has been excellent.
Attendance has also been very strong in the opening weeks of the season with sell-outs reported in both Phoenix and Vegas and Daytona drawing an announced crowd of 183,000.
And television ratings, which were down 13 percent overall last season and dropped significantly during the Chase, are way up in 2011 with all three races drawing much larger audiences than last year.
However the headlines around the sport have been about anything but these upbeat trends going on.
Rather one of the biggest stories so far this season focused on a reporter being fired for clapping in the press box. Next came an alleged fight between Robby Gordon and Kevin Conway that outside of the two combatants doesn’t appear to have been witnessed by anyone. And the icing on the cake was delivered in the form of some fan unrest over FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip getting a two-year contract extension?
Obviously the Charlie Sheen -ization of the world has invaded NASCAR.
It’s very apparent that to some sitting behind a keyboard or a microphone and spewing constant negativity is a much easier task than reporting the facts. Now that the tide has turned somewhat in NASCAR at least in the early part of 2011 after an admittedly rocky year on several fronts, those who would rather nit pick what’s wrong with the sport are left to sift through the scraps.
So in turn items like debating the ethics of cheering in a press box or a police report being filed in the aftermath of two second tier drivers (who have a business beef with each other) scrapping in the garage area suddenly becomes front page news.
It’s not my job or anyone who works in the media to be a cheerleader for NASCAR. You have to report warts and all when one’s job is to be the objective eyes and ears of fans and those who are interested in the sport.
I have the opportunity to go outside the realm of simply reporting and provide commentary as well in the form of opinion pieces and columns like this one at CBS Sports.com in addition to co-hosting “The Morning Drive” on Sirius NASCAR Radio.
But in both those roles I believe there should be a sense of fairness in either criticism or praise.
It is interesting to me that others both in the press as well as some fans conveniently ignore a positive story when it presents itself, choosing rather to latch onto more sensational headlines.
The discussion about television coverage is one that really gets under my skin in the unfairness department.
It’s true that in terms of ratings NASCAR has benefitted from good stories and solid competition as well as having it pretty open on the television stage. There are no Winter Olympics to compete with this season and except for some regional college basketball, an NBA game or two and golf; Sunday afternoons aren’t jam packed with sports viewing options right now.
That will change in the coming weeks with the NCAA tournament, NBA and NHL playoffs, baseball’s opening weekend, The Masters, etc.
But the reality is that for whatever the reasons, more people are watching again this year, which would contradict the theory some “experts” and fans have that the NASCAR television product is unwatchable.
To listen to some, you’d think FOX, TNT and ESPN position one camera on top of the grandstands at a racetrack and just turn it on when the green flag flies and switch it off when the race ends. There are blogs that dissect every race telecast down to its most microscopic minutiae to point out everything from camera angles being too wide or tight, pit stop shots bungled, not showing every car crossing the finish line, announcers occasionally misspeaking or telecasts going to – gasp – a commercial break.
Running times are calculated between commercial breaks and minutes spent on various topics, exposure for different drivers and cars and even how many sponsor mentions are given get tallied up every week.
And as for the people working as announcers, reporters or analysts, for the most part this group of disenchanted viewers wouldn’t want them behind a microphone if they were taking orders at Taco Bell.
Fair enough and these folks are entitled to their opinion. It’s not one I personally share nor do I believe was ever a reason people weren’t watching NASCAR race telecasts in the first place.
Television sports has a laundry list of polarizing commentators and controversial announcers including Howard Cosell, Dick Vitale, John Madden, Billy Packer, Johnny Miller, Tim McCarver and yes even Darell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace .
But if you are a fan of any particular sport would you not watch a game or race you love because of a dislike for announcers? Trust me, I’m not a fan of everyone who broadcasts sports on television and there are some guys (and women) I like more than others. However you can count me among the group that wouldn’t miss an event I’m interested in watching simply because of the announcers and commentators.
I don’t buy that it’s a reason NASCAR’s ratings have suffered in recent years.
The people that have these jobs in NASCAR are grown-ups and understand taking some heat is part of the job. But some of the criticism in my mind goes beyond constructive and has become quite personal as well as unprofessional in my opinion.
Here’s the bottom line for me. People watch and follow sports for one reason (NASCAR included) and one reason only – to be entertained. The second a game or race loses that, whether on television or in person, is the time when people tune-out, lose interest and find something else to occupy their busy lives.
It’s only been three races and there is still a long season ahead. But so far this year I think NASCAR has been very entertaining and judging by the uptick in television viewers and ticket sales, many others agree.
Shouldn’t that be a story to receive its fair share of coverage?
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