ESPN Got It Right This Time

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This past week, ESPN announced two moves concerning their coverage of the Indianapolis 500 and the IZOD IndyCar Series. Not that it matters to them what an over-aged blogger in Nashville, TN thinks – but I heartily approve of both moves.

The first move involves the change of the host for the upcoming telecast of the Indianapolis 500. Gone is Brent Musburger, who has held the role of host since 2005. He is thankfully being replaced by Lindsay Czarniak. Who, you might ask? Lindsay Czarniak, that’s who. If you watch ESPN SportsCenter, you’ve probably seen her. Trust me, she’s good.

I grew up watching Brent Musburger on The NFL Today on CBS and thought he was second to none as a broadcaster. When he was curiously fired on the eve of the 1990 NCAA Basketball Championship game, I thought CBS had completely lost their mind. Musburger went to ABC/ESPN and immediately became a fixture for their college football coverage. With the retirement of Keith Jackson, I still consider him to be their best play-by-play announcer for football.

But when it came to the Indianapolis 500, Musburger was clearly out of his element. I never once heard or saw him at any other motorsports event anywhere. He mispronounced names and didn’t seem to understand the basic racing concepts he had been charged to discuss. The ABC telecast hit a new low in 2005, when Musburger became host of a telecast that also featured the totally inept Todd Harris as the announcer. It seemed as far as the two of them were concerned, it was Danica Patrick making her rookie debut that year, against thirty-two other drivers that really had no business being there.

Fortunately, Harris did not return for a second year. Musburger did, however. I’m sure he was instructed to hype the Danica angle, but he went way overboard in his enthusiasm for wherever she was on the track. You got the impression that she was the only reason ABC was covering the race.

Enough has been said here and elsewhere about Musburger’s comments about the girlfriend of one of the players in this year’s college football championship game, that I won’t go into that again. Besides, I don’t think that had one thing to do with this move. This decision was based simply on how to improve the race broadcast. While I still think that Musburger is an excellent football announcer, he needs to leave motorsports coverage to someone who understands the sport.

Bristol, CT - July 18, 2012 - Studio F: Lindsay Czarniak (l) and Kevin Negandhi on the set of SportsCenter.<br /> (Photo by Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)

That is where Lindsay Czarniak comes in. Although Brent Musburger is more than twice her age, Lindsay Czarniak has much more experience covering motorsports than Musburger. Her broadcast career began in Jacksonville, FL before moving to the Washington DC area. She has worked for SPEED TV and served as a pit reporter for NASCAR races on TNT before becoming a pre-race studio host. Translation – she knows the business. She joined ESPN in 2011 and has become a popular personality on the all-sports network.

Some will say that ESPN replaced a veteran broadcaster with a babe to spark ratings. I disagree. I think that it was time for Musburger to go from the Indianapolis 500 broadcast. Other than his trademark “You are looking live…” introduction to the broadcast, he brought nothing but his name to the table. There is the argument that having Brent Musburger’s voice on the broadcast told the viewer that this was a big deal. That may be true, but I think the name “Indianapolis 500” is enough of a big deal in its own right. Maybe other races could benefit from having Brent Musburger associated with them, but not this one.

I think Lindsay Czarniak will bring a younger and brighter perspective to the broadcast, and quite frankly – more knowledgeable. I wish her well in this new role.

The other move announced by ESPN was to have Eddie Cheever on all six of the ABC telecasts of the IZOD IndyCar Series this season. I’ve seen comments saying that this is not a positive, but I’ll tell you why I think it is.

In 1998, at the first of the two races at Texas Motor Speedway that season – Eddie Cheever crashed out early and was credited with a twenty-sixth place finish. For whatever reason, he was asked to join Paul Page and Tom Sneva in the ESPN booth since he was such an early out. I wish I had a recording of that race. Cheever was hilarious! He was cracking jokes, was full of one-liners and showed a very fun-loving personality as well as conveying his driver’s perspective in a unique fashion. He came across as a natural to the television booth. I think anyone who watched that race came away thinking that as soon as Cheever’s driving days were behind him, he had a great broadcasting career awaiting him.

When Cheever mercifully replaced Rusty Wallace in the ESPN booth for the 2008 Indianapolis 500, I was expecting more of the same that I had seen that night ten years earlier from Texas. Instead, we got a version of Eddie Cheever that seemed stilted, muted and extremely uncomfortable. One almost got the sense that he had been told to cut out the jokes and focus strictly on racing. His sense of humor seemed to have left him and there was no chemistry between his cohorts Scott Goodyear and Marty Reid. Little has changed even though the trio has done five Indianapolis 500’s together as well as the ill-fated 2011 season finale at Las Vegas.

It’s tough to build chemistry when you work with a group one day a year. Perhaps that’s why ESPN now wants him to do the entire ABC season. If the three work together all season, they will double the amount of races they have done together in the past five years and possibly form a more noticeable bond.

INDIANAPOLIS IN - MAY 27, 2012: ESPN on air talent Marty Reid, Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear pose with the Borg-Warner Trophy prior to the IZOD IndyCar Series 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway<br /> (Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN)<br /> - RAW FILE AVAILABLE -

Much has been said about Scott Goodyear being stiff, monotone and boring. I really don’t feel that way. When Goodyear was paired with Paul Page from 2002 through 2004, I thought he was excellent. The two of them gelled quite nicely and I think Paul Page brought out the best in Goodyear – just as any good play-by-play (lap-by-lap) announcer will do. The late Pat Summerall was a master at setting up John Madden and allowing him to blossom into one of the best analysts in all of sports. Once Paul Page was unceremoniously dumped, Goodyear’s performance suffered as he was paired with on-air “talent” with the likes of Todd Harris and Marty Reid.

I’ve always said that Goodyear plays to the level of his on-air partner. If he could be paired with someone better, I think most fans would look at Goodyear in a totally different light.

For whatever reason, it doesn’t appear that Marty Reid is going anywhere. With that being the case, I think adding Cheever to the booth full-time will help with the ESPN broadcast. If he is allowed to be himself and he can insert his true personality into the broadcast, I think the perception of the entire ABC/ESPN part of the TV schedule can be perceived much more favorably by fans. Just remember, like those in the booth or not – ABC/ESPN is our friend. If you don’t think so, just check their numbers against those of NBCSN. As good a job as NBCSN does with their on-air product, they are still delivering miniscule ratings five years into their deal. With the Texas race being shown in primetime on network TV this summer, let’s hope that adding Cheever to the mix will help.

I’ve long been critical of ESPN’s coverage of the IZOD IndyCar Series. At times, you got the impression that they just didn’t really want to be bothered with the series, except for the Indianapolis 500. But I have also gotten the impression over the last two or three years that they are really trying to improve their product. Their hype machine and marketing power can make or break a product – and contrary to those who hate that terminology, IndyCar is a product. Keeping them on our side would probably be wise. I give them credit for making these moves.

George Phillips

Please note:  With the month of May quickly approaching, this is the last weekend in a while that there is no IndyCar racing related activity. Therefore, I will take a short break and not have a post here on Mon Apr 29. I will return on Wed May 1 – for the beginning of the month of May!

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13 Responses to “ESPN Got It Right This Time”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Not a big Cheever fan, but am glad to hear BM is gone… Now, if smarmy Marty Reid would lose his way to the broadcast booth, that would be ok with me…

  2. I’m glad I’m not the only one who remembers a looser, more interesting Cheever.

  3. Agree with every single word you wrote here, George. Good take.

  4. OK George, you’ve bought her a chance with me this year. I’ll grant you Lacklustberger’s declining relevance to major events, but my primary issue has always been w the booth.

    One commonality to the better broadcasts you noted was Paul Page. I don’t know who did what to whom, but clearly he was the voice of the 500 (still is in my ears) and learned much from one of the best – Sid Collins. Paul simply is still the best qualified, most well-versed person to host and call this race.

    I’ve liked Cheever when he doesn’t hold back and adds some serious color to the monochrome canvas that has been this Indy 500 booth.

    Please Paul, ABC/ESPN. Mend your relationship with regard to Indy, return Paul to the booth, and you will have given the viewers the best and most rightful person for the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.

  5. H.B. Donnelly Says:

    I remember when channel 4 in DC hired Lindsay; she was good then, I was happy when I first saw her pop up in pit lane with TNT, and she’s done well with SportsCenter. I think people will see her much in the same way they saw Lindy Thackston running the desk for Versus, and that’s probably a good thing.

  6. I think that having Lindsay Czarniak host the Indianapolis 500 is a most awesome desicion on ESPN’s part. I don’t think she is going to increase ratings but I do think that the quality of the broadcast has gone up. It was time.

  7. Bring back Uncle Bobby!

  8. I agree about Paul Page. His voice IS the 500. He has obviously pissed off the wrong person at ESPN. How else can you explain why he is nowhere to be found?

    I’m not sure why they need a host, but anyone will be better than Brent Musburger. He was awful! Now that he’s gone, Marty Reid should be next. He’s about as bland as it gets.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    I agree with you George, I like both decisions.

    I commented back in January on your post about Musberger, calling his presence on the broadcast, and the host role in general, an anachronism. I actually interpret this decision as ESPN recognizing that. There are no more Jim McKay-level multi-sport broadcasting personalities that add value to the 500 broadcast, so why not forget about using a big name and just make the broadcast better?

    I think Czarniak will do fine, and any addition to the Reid-Goodyear booth is a good one. Cheever can be engaging, and at the very least he likes needling Goodyear about 1992 and 1995 on air, which I find very entertaining.

  10. With apologiies to Lindsay, when I heard Musberger was not returning as “host,” my first thought was that ABC/ESPN had finally come to their senses and made room for Paul Page. That being said, Ms. Czarniak will be a decided improvement.

    I get that Paul Page isn’t “younger than springtime” anymore and that IndyCar NEEDS to skew younger. But, I would remind the powers that be that Tom Carnegie wasn’t so much of a kid, but was still an icon up to the day he died and beyond. Point being, Indy is all about tradition and regardless of whatever transpired between Paul Page and ESPN, Page is a part of that tradition, both on radio and TV.

  11. You and I see eye to eye in regards to ESPN’s commentators. I thought Goodyear was a good analyst when Paul Page (the modern-era voice of the 500) was still around. Maybe it’s a matter of chemistry, like a driver with a crew chief. I’ve always found Cheever to be a very articulate driver, and it’s important that a former 500 winner is providing insight for network TV; I’m glad we’ll be hearing more from him. Lindsay C is a BIG improvement over Mustangberger; now if milquetoast Marty and Mince Welch would simply “step aside” (as I cringe at the very though of that phrase) in favor of people more competent, ESPN would have a solid team.

  12. Page is not coming back. Czarniak has the right credentials; give her a chance. Replace Cheever or Goodyear with a more recently-retired driver like Carpentier who also has some charisma. Hire our favorite anarchist, Robin Miller, to cause trouble and gets enough right to cause Tums sales at Indy to skyrocket.

    • Ballyhoo Says:

      Hi Arthur – I totally agree with you. I am looking forward to Lindsay taking the lead for the broadcast. Maybe ESPN can work on the driver commentator slot for next year. It does need to be someone with pizazz. Speaking of fun personalities, I too think having Robin stirring the pot at Indy would make the broadcast even better!

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