IndyCar and ABC/ESPN renew relationship for six years despite fan backlash

THIS... is SportsCenter. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for ESPN)

That collective groan you just heard from IndyCar fans was the result of today's news that ABC and ESPN had re-upped to broadcast the Indy 500 and a handful of other IZOD IndyCar Series races until 2018.

Wrap your mind around that. An over-the-air network and the network that is synonymous with sports with the most recognizable sports broadcasting property in the world... and that pisses people off?

Wasn't it just yesterday that fans were bitching about the long-term deal with VERSUS and the attendant sub-0.5 ratings? Even on their worst days, ABC and ESPN drew more viewers than even the top-rated VERSUS broadcasts.

And yet the idea of seven more years of ABC/ESPN coming anywhere near IndyCar as a property has folks up in arms. Why is that?

There are two basic components to this story that need to be understood to provide context for the conventional wisdom. The first is the perception about how ABC/ESPN treats IndyCar as a property, and the second is the recent buyout of VERSUS by Comcast which will soon see the channel transform into the NBC Sports Channel.

ESPN's PR department will angrily disagree with me on this, but it's indisputable to the people that watch the network that as ESPN has grown, it has gotten worse at doing what it was created to do - broadcasting sports. Like MTV's transition from a music video channel to a reality- and awards-show monstrosity, ESPN's SportsCenter began its life reporting the sporting world's news; once it became the go-to source for that news, however, it started becoming the news. Its anchors turned into snarky, world-weary interpreters of sports instead of reporters, and its highlights packages became vehicles for sound bites instead of showing critical plays and events.

Some sports - such as the NFL and NBA - adapted to this change in atmosphere by introducing "SportsCenter Highlight" playmaking; athletes tailoring their performances for maximum exposure on the oh-so-brief clips that survived the jaded eyes of ESPN's reviewing staff. But other sports suffered as their play became a punchline instead of news.

The National Hockey League is another sports league that jumped ship to VERSUS rather than resign with ESPN and is now poised to take advantage of the new NBC Sports Channel push from Comcast. Greg Wyshynski, author of the Puck Daddy NHL blog at Yahoo! Sports, wrote a tremendous summary of pro hockey's tumultuous relationship with the SportsCenter network that details ESPN's "take-it-or-leave-it" attitude and how NHL commissioner Gary Bettman discovered that "once [ESPN has] you, there's no incentive to grow you because it costs them more money."

IndyCar fans have noticed all of these trends and believe it has contributed to what they feel is ABC/ESPN's penchant for "phoning it in" with regards to their race broadcasts. This is a harsh assessment given how hard the individual people involved with the broadcasts work to bring them to the public, but on a more macro organizational level it unfortunately has the ring of truth to it.

Think of how IndyCar highlights are presented on SportsCenter. Essentially, it's "Danica, and then some other stuff." Best case scenario, the SportsCenter anchors are indifferent... and in the worst case they are actively eye-rolling or visibly put-upon to even mention this ridiculous sport.

My opinion on the ABC/ESPN broadcast team drew significant ire from the network, but nothing has changed in a year's time to sway me to a different tack. The difference between ABC broadcasts and VERSUS broadcasts is night-and-day; the former are slick, corporate, and soulless, while the latter are less polished but certainly more interesting and invested.

But IndyCar still needs that presence on SportsCenter, no matter how casually IndyCar will be written off by the SportsCenter "family." Unlike the NHL, which has an enormous safety net set up across the US-Canada border to make the partnership with VERSUS/NBC Sports Channel less of a risk, IndyCar still needs that widely-distributed exposure of an over-the-air network and even cursory mentions on SportsCenter for the immediate future.

Fans need to remember that while the VERSUS rebranding and Comcast's push to elevate the NBC Sports Channel's profile will eventually push the channel into more homes and out of obscurity, the process hasn't even started yet and, most likely, will take years to develop. And let's be frank - fans who wanted to see NBC "take over" IndyCar programming don't even know for sure if NBC was interested in bidding on the ABC/ESPN package.

The bottom line is that we're saddled with ABC/ESPN for the next six seasons, so we'd better make the best of it. And look at it this way - the network finally wised up and put Allen Bestwick into the booth for its NASCAR broadcasts, so at least in a cursory fashion they are interested in improving their on-air product. Maybe Vince Welch or Rick DeBruhl will get a promotion sometime before 2018. We can always hope.

But for now, it's the eye-rolling SportsCenter anchors, the Danica-obsessed broadcasts, Marty Reid and Scott Goodyear, and the begrudging support of IndyCar's "partner." And so we roll on.

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