Versus May Have Some Explaining To Do
We’ve all had a couple of days to reflect on the events of Sunday’s IZOD IndyCar Series race in Toronto. There has been a lot of finger-pointing among drivers as well as fans. Who punted whom? Who cut across whose nose? Who was at fault? Who should be penalized? Who was just involved in a racing incident? It has certainly generated a great deal of buzz. The problem is, I’m not sure the buzz has transcended our own little online IndyCar community and entered into mainstream sports dialogue. Still, it’s been fun listening to it all.
One situation that hasn’t been as joyful is wondering if Versus got its facts tangled up when they reported that Dario Franchitti had been issued a drive-through penalty for getting into Will Power and turning him around in Turn Three. Then when Franchitti failed to comply with the so-called penalty, Versus reported that Al Unser, Jr. and Tony Cotman had reviewed the tape and decided to rescind the penalty. When Unser, Jr. was interviewed after the race, he said that no penalty was ever assessed nor rescinded against Franchitti. I’m sure that left the foursome in the Versus booth scratching their heads.
You can’t blame them. They just reported what they were told, yet ended up looking foolish in the process. Covering Motorsports is fast business. There is so much going on at a very quick rate, that the crew in the booth cannot take the time to validate reports. They have to trust what they are told to be true.By the time they get to the booth, they have to run with it. If they sit on it for a few minutes, it is no longer relevant.
If Versus did, in fact, play with the facts – then they need to be held accountable. When I first heard Little Al say this, I assumed he was either covering his tracks or else his boss, Brian Barnhart, had made a ruling on his own without consulting Unser, Jr. or Tony Cotman. Now it appears that what Unser, Jr. said was true. If Versus manufactured supposed facts, the result is a Versus network that had one of their largest audience ever for an IZOD IndyCar Series race, that ended up with egg all over their collective faces.
Assuming that Versus is the culprit in this debacle – and I stress that it is an assumption right now – how does this happen? Who along the food chain, decided that they should just go with what they thought might happen and report it up the line as fact? Then when no such penalty came, they decided to fabricate a story where the incident was reviewed and overturned by Barnhart’s subordinates. If this is the way it actually turned out, it is inexcusable.
Although I’m not a fan of the long-term deal with Versus that ties the series to a contract with a low-profile network that seems to be forever buried in obscurity – I’ve always thought they did an excellent job covering the races. They’ve done such a good job that ABC/ESPN has taken notice and improved their own coverage this season. The on-air team of Bob Jenkins, Wally Dallenbach, Jr., Jon Beekhuis, Lindy Thackston, Kevin Lee & Marty Snider is strong and all seem to mesh together well.
Remember the days before Versus, when ESPN would join the telecast with cars on the pace lap and sometimes would barely get an interview with the winner before cutting away to the LPGA? Versus has given us the luxury of a minimum three-hour window in which we get a lengthy pre-and post-race show. ESPN has countered with more generous amounts of time on each side of the races they cover.
But it’s a sign of the struggle the league faces with Versus when everyone is giddy with what is now being reported as a 0.5 rating for Sunday’s race. Yes, it’s an improvement, but shouldn’t we be further along than a 0.5 after two and a half seasons with Versus? Everyone points to the new association with NBC and their plans for Versus as to where they can take the IZOD IndyCar Series. The peacock network may indeed lead the series to much greener pastures, but Versus potentially suffered a black-eye on Sunday.
I agree with Curt Cavin that this is too serious to ignore. This wasn’t just a case of getting some information wrong, like saying a driver broke a half-shaft when the problem was in the engine. This was wrongly reporting something that was made up and never was true. It misled the viewers and had the potential to cause an outrage when it was reported that a driver was given a penalty then had it rescinded. It undermined the credibility of the league. It made Brian Barnhart appear weak, indecisive and inconsistent – all areas where Barnhart doesn’t really need any help. But in this case, it appears Barnhart was innocent.
This was a major gaffe of epic proportions and somehow it seems that they are getting away relatively unscathed. To take this to the potential extreme; this seems like it possibly could be a deal-breaker for the league to work its way out of the Versus contract. After this year, there are still seven years remaining on the deal. Can the league afford to gamble that NBC is going to suddenly make their new sports channel as recognizable as ESPN?
We can complain about the way the IZOD IndyCar Series has been treated by ESPN, but they have the power to make or break a sporting entity. I don’t see an NBC Sports channel gaining that type of power over the next seven years. Maybe this gives Randy Bernard the "out" he has been needing. That may sound a little far-fetched, but I’ve learned that anything is possible with a foul-up like this – if this is indeed what happened
In a perfect world, I would take all of the on-air talent from Versus and their production crew and try to put every race on NBC and hope that they can promote it as much as they do the Triple Crown, Notre Dame football and the Olympics. Before everyone points out that the Olympics are far and above IndyCar racing as far as revenue dollars – I already realize that. But they still would have the power to effectively promote the series.
But Randy Bernard should have some leverage in his pocket now, with this non-existent penalty against Franchitti. Some will call this me over-reacting, but I don’t think so (obviously). It gets back to what I wrote about last week – journalists need to stick to reporting the news instead of creating the news. Otherwise, you end up with a lot of confusion and some explaining to do. If this is what actually happened on Sunday, I think Versus might have some explaining to do on this one.