January 21, 2010
Hi. My name is Jay, and I'm a member of the media.
I'm the reason why you don't like NASCAR like you did when you were younger.
I drag your beloved sport through the mud, staining its image like vomit on a bridal gown.
Were it not for me and my ilk, you'd be swimming in NASCAR bliss, awash in the warm glow of love given and reflected.
So, um ... sorry?
Yes, if you believe NASCAR and some owners, not only is NASCAR not struggling, it's doing just swimmingly -- and any suggestion to the contrary is purely media-created.
NASCAR and its drivers have spent time crafting a hopeful, fan-friendly message, and throughout Media Week, they've stayed on message. But since there's considerable negative chatter about NASCAR -- attendance, rules changes, sponsor defection -- NASCAR and its owners have apparently come up with a playbook right out of politics: blame the media.
Their ire has mainly focused on broadcasters, but I nonetheless have an obvious vested interest in this. So what I'll do here for the next few paragraphs is present some of the quotes from both sides for your review. (Gracias to media good guy Dustin Long for originally compiling these.) This'll take awhile, so settle in -- get yourself a drink and a snack, find a comfortable chair or tell the boss you're working on an important project, and then follow along below.
First off, we have Jack Roush teeing off on the media:
"We have not had the level of support from the TV studio box that the other sports have. I would hope that Fox and ESPN and everybody else really thinks about what they're doing. We had more passes last year than we ever had. We had more passes for the lead than we've ever had. We had more different winners than we've ever had. [Long notes that there were more winners than 2008, but less than 2007.] We had more cars finishing on the lead lap than ever had. The competition was great. It wasn't bad. It wasn't subject to critcism for every move that NASCAR made or every move a team made but sometimes it sounded that way back from the communication box.''
"[International Speedway Corp.], they've done an analysis ... and for all of last year all of their race tracks had not had one complaint from anybody who bought a ticket about something regarding the race not working the way they thought. So there's no complaint from the fans regarding competition. The complaints have come from reporters and from media that has maybe a vested interested. if you look at Darrell Waltrip, you look at all the other ex-drivers, Rusty Wallace, the ex-crew chiefs that are out there, it's not unreasonable to say that they've got some ax to grind over something that frustrated them in their careers on the firing line. We need to reel that back in. That needs to be something that is not carried out front to the fans and to the public. We need to talk about how many passes we're having. We need to talk about how close the racing is on the final laps, we need to talk about how contentious things are in the garage and the rest of it and not fault the teams for the decisions they make and not fault NASCAR for the government they provide. NASCAR racing is the best run form of motorsports any place in the world. They may be the best form of sport any place in the world.''
I'm not going to go so far as to say that if Mr. Roush believes that there have been no complaints from fans about competition, he's more out of touch than one of those Japanese soldiers living in caves who thought World War II was still going on in the 1970s. Not going to say that at all. But I will recommend that he visit more websites than roushfenway.com once in awhile.
Fox and ESPN, the targets of Roush's criticism, weren't quite so restrained. Fox Sports spokesman Eddie Motl offered this reply:
"Our on-air team is as passionate about NASCAR as any driver, owner, crew chief or fan, and our analysts speak their mind based on the immense experience and success they enjoyed during their on-track careers. The broadcast booth is not a pulpit, neither is it a mouthpiece, and FOX Sports respects that. It is place from which to describe the action and provide thoughtful commentary, which all fans deserve. NASCAR fans know their sport and they'll know if a broadcaster holds back, and once you cross that line, all your credibility is gone."
George McNeilly, senior director of communications for ESPN, had this response:
"We have a very simple-to-understand mission at ESPN and that's to serve sports fans. One of the ways that we do that, maybe the most pronouced way we do that is that we hire authentic and credible former athletes, former drivers, former crew chiefs, former coaches to analyze what is going on on the field of play. That's what we do."
You can criticize Fox or ESPN for their technological composition of a race or for their goofy sidelights (Digger ... ugh), but I don't believe anybody can criticize the former drivers for their lack of passion. (The transplanted hosts, like Chris Myers and, from a few years back, Brent Musberger, are another matter. Those guys do broadcast like they're punching a clock -- surely NASCAR doesn't prefer that to passion.) You align with a guy because he connects with the fans, you can't get upset if he doesn't always toe the corporate line.
I can understand the position that NASCAR is in here. You can receive a thousand compliments, but one stinging criticism -- particularly one that hits you in a spot you know is weak -- will obliterate all the goodwill. It's almost a betrayal of sorts, a sense that the broadcasters are abandoning ship, getting while the getting's good, et cetera.
But really, blaming the media is a tired, fake-populist approach, and a shortsighted one at that -- just as the media needs NASCAR, NASCAR needs the media. Picking a public fight with the exact people who can help you craft your image -- and, if they were so inclined, could tarnish that image in a heartbeat -- is both bad business and bad personal relations. Mark Twain used to say you don't pick fights with a guy who buys his ink by the barrel; he was referring to newspapers, but you could just as easily translate "buying barrels of ink" to "counting site visitors in the hundreds of millions."
NASCAR is trying the hack political tactic of setting oneself up as the one true bastion of truth, which necessarily means that anyone who disagrees with you is peddling lies. Politicians do this, as do broadcast networks, radio talk show hosts, and your significant other. But it's flawed at its core -- no side has a monopoly on, or claim to, the absolute truth. It's all opinion, perspective and spin.
NASCAR and the media have a fine opportunity here to really grow this sport, but it'll never happen if both sides are simply sniping at each other or, worse, failing to recognize their own flaws. And I've gone on way long here, so I'm going to wrap this with a big finish.
My fellow NASCARites, what unites us is far greater than what divides us. Let us acknowledge our differences, respect one another's views, and always strive to move foward. Only the racing should go in circles! God bless NASCAR, and God bless America!
(What, too much?)
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