Another Marriage Ends

Can you name the longest running affiliation between a single network and a sporting event?  If you guessed the Masters and its annual hand-shake deal with CBS Sports, you’d be right. The marriage between the green jackets and CBS began in 1956.

The Network and Augusta National have never had a long-term contract for the television rights to the event.  In fact, they don’t have a written contract at all.  Instead, every spring the President of CBS Sports and the Chairman of Augusta National sit down and shake hands on an agreement to allow CBS to continue “A tradition unlike any other.”

The one-year deal is just fine with CBS because they want to keep broadcasting the event and it allows Augusta National to continue to micro-manage how the event is broadcast.  The rules Augusta National has for its broadcasters are ridiculous.  Don’t say Gallery, it’s patrons and it’s not rough it’s the primary and secondary cut.  And don’t you dare venture outside those rules or you will be banned for life.  Just once I’d like to see what Augusta National would do if Jim Nantz threw aside their playbook and veered off script.  As long as polarizing Johnny Miller is in the booth at NBC, the network need not even inquire about broadcasting from the famed Butler Cabin.

It’s the second longest affiliation between a Network and a sporting event that you probably don’t know and when the twin checkered flags signify the winner of this year’s Indianapolis 500 on May 27th, it’s over for at least the next three years.

This will be the 54th and final broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 to appear on ABC.  ABC first began broadcasting the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, although it wasn’t much of a broadcast.  The network showed highlights of the event as part of it’s long-running iconic Wide World of Sports anthology series.  In 1971, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway gave the network permission to broadcast the entire race…sort of.

Just like Augusta National controls CBS, IMS has long controlled how ABC televises the Indy 500.  From 1971 to 1985, IMS refused to allow ABC to cover the event live.  Instead the network showed the event on “same-day tape” usually beginning at 9:00 p.m. The race was edited down to fit into a two or three hour time period.  It was easier for a person to avoid the results of the 500 in those days.  All you had to do was just avoid the live radio broadcast, which of course is produced by IMS’s in-house radio network.  Now, you’d literally have to put yourself in a closet all day with no smart phone to avoid the results if the event were still taped delayed.

IMS finally relented in 1986 and allowed ABC to go live with the broadcast for the first time.  With a catch of course.  The race is blacked out in the Indianapolis market and other parts of the state of Indiana to protect race attendance.  I’m not sure that makes much of a difference though because next to basketball, there is nothing bigger in Indiana than the 500, and certainly nothing bigger in the City of Indianapolis.  It’s a month-long celebration with festivals and parades.   Even casual sports fans in Indianapolis are passionate about the 500.  Hey they need something to be passionate about because since Peyton Manning left town, the Colts suck.

Unlike some networks approach to motor sports, generally speaking ABC didn’t treat the 500 as a nice little niche event.  Consistent with late Executive Producer Roone Arledge’s approach to big event television, ABC used it’s most iconic broadcasters on the 500 including Jim McKay who did play-by-play of 14 of the network’s 15 “same-day taped” events interrupted only by another broadcasting icon Keith Jackson in 1975.

To fill the host role, ABC used another legend in Chris Schenkel, Dave Diles (best know as the host of ABC’s Prudential College Football Scoreboard Show which was fantastic when the network would move those wooden slats to reveal the scores), and Formula One Driver Jackie Stewart who just loved to talk about the “motorcar” in that distinct Scottish accent. Roaming the pits for ABC were legendary broadcasters Chris Economaki, Bill Fleming and Jack Arute.  In 1971, ABC even used a young Indianapolis weather man from its affiliate WLWI-TV as a roving reporter named David Letterman.  He made quite a name for himself in television and actually has a 500 win as a co-owner of a race team when his Rahall-Letterman team won the 500 in 2004.

Of course, all good things typically come to an end and when the 500 went live in 1986, ABC – with Arledge now officially gone to ABC News full-time – began making some curious decisions with its broadcast.  The first two live 500s were called by Jim Lampley, not exactly a motor sports broadcaster.  ABC replaced him with long-time IMS radio host Paul Page in 1988 and Page did 11 straight 500s on ABC.  Solid broadcaster with tremendous knowledge of the sport, but annoying as hell at times.  After a three-year run with ESPN’s then top-NASCAR voice vanilla Bob Jenkins doing the race, ABC went back to Page from 2002 to 2004.

Then it gets weird.  ABC used little known lightweight broadcaster Todd Harris on the race in 2005, before going to Marty Reid – another broadcasting lightweight who never saw any broadcast preparation he’d actually like to do – from 2006 – 2013.  Reid’s bumbling approach to television cost him his job in 2013 and he hasn’t been heard from since.  Since 2014, Allen Bestwick – who cut his teeth on NASCAR – has been the lap-by-lap announcer and he’ll be behind the mic for ABC’s last Indy 500 this year.   That despite being part of ESPN’s mass layoffs last year.

If you think the way ABC chose lap-by-lap announcers was odd, try some of the analysts they used.  Over time, ABC (and since 2007 the race has been produced by ESPN as ABC no longer has a sports division) has used some dude named Larry Rice as an analyst (I assume someone knows who the hell he is), Jason Priestly, who was an actor on Beverly Hills 90210 (which is a show I can proudly say I never saw a single second of), and Rusty Wallace whose only exposure to IMS was racing in NASCAR’s Brickyard 400.  ABC tried former 500 winners Tom Sneva, Danny Sullivan and Arie Luyendyk in the analyst role with no success.  This year, two-time 500 runner-up Scott Goodyear will broadcast his 17th consecutive and final 500 along with former winner Eddie Cheever who will be in the booth for the 11th straight year.

One place ABC didn’t whiff on – until recently – was the host role.  Al Michaels hosted the race in 2001 and from 2005 to 2012, super smooth Uncle Brent Musburger was the host.  In recent years, ESPN personality Lindsey Czarniak hosted, and this year, ESPN’s Nicole Briscoe – an average Sports Center anchor – will host.  I guess it doesn’t hurt that she’s married to a one-time Indy Car driver, Ryan Briscoe.

ABC hasn’t had a sports division since 2007 when the network pulled the plug and allowed ESPN to produce the events the network actually broadcasts which aren’t many.  ESPN has in turn been bailing from the motorsports business and now only broadcasts Formula One racing which it has to spend no money on as they take the Formula One produced world feed.  After several years with NASCAR, ESPN chose not to bid on a contract in 2014 and it’s looking like a wise decision.  NASCAR signed a lucrative 10-year deal with Fox and NBC that those networks would probably love to get out of right now.

The costs of production with all the required whistles and bells that viewers insist on these days have sky rocketed.  It takes a small army to broadcast just a single race, while ratings are plummeting and attendance is down at the tracks.  NASCAR has absolutely no one to blame but themselves for that.  36 events are entirely too many and do you need to go to Pocono twice?  Or, for the that matter, do you even need to go to Pocono once?  When the contract comes up again in 2024 I’ll be surprised if anyone wants to get into business with NASCAR under it’s current business model, but someone will.  Digital outlets like Amazon have shown a willingness to pony up money for rights fees.   I’m just not sure that at my age, I’m willing to watch everything on Twitter.

While NASCAR is declining, Indy Car which frankly has more entertaining races at least on its oval courses has seen a 38% increase in its television ratings over the past 4 years.  Striking while the iron is hot, Indy Car went to its two current broadcast partners ESPN/ABC and NBC Sports Network and essentially told them that one network was going to be their dancing partner in the future.  ABC/ESPN, which had jettisoned it’s most iconic racing voices like Dr. Jerry Punch, wasn’t willing to broadcast all 17 Indy Car events so Indy Car – which is owned by Hulman and Company the same group that owns IMS – signed a three year deal with NBC Sports Group.

The new deal changes the playing field.  Currently ABC televises 5 Indy Car events plus Indy 500 qualifying.  The balance of the races are on NBC Sports Network.  Next year, NBC gets all of the Indy Car events with 8 events including the Indy 500 appearing on the main NBC Network.  The balance will remain on NBC Sports Network.  And, as a sign of the times, NBC will stream Indy Car events directly to the consumer over their laptops, tables and I-pads.

Expect NBC to pull a page of the Arledge big event playbook.  For the Indy 500 host role, there is no way that either Bob Costas or Mike Trico doesn’t fill that role and while NBC Sports Group uses Leigh Diffey as its play-by-play Indy Car announcer, I’m figuring that the network’s top NASCAR announcer Rick Allen is in line to do the Indy 500 at least.

Yes, nothing stays the same forever, but over the past two decades we’ve seen Fox get involved in the NFL and bring consumers the most obnoxious pre-game show in the business, ABC shut down its sports division, ESPN layoff massive amounts of personnel as they could no longer print money like they did in the 80s and 90s, and College Football be broadcast exclusively on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.  I guess the latest move of the Indy 500 from its only home during my lifetime is another sign that I’m not getting any younger.

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