Sunday, March 25, 2018

ESPN's "Coverage" of the Australian Grand Prix Was a Total Disaster and a Complete Embarrassment

Strap yourselves into your seats, folks, because this is a long one.

Photo: Speed Channel
I love Formula One. I don't think I need to explain that. I grew up with Bob Varsha, Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett, and Will Buxton bringing me personalized coverage of this great sport on Speed and later NBC Sports.

Photo: NBC Sports
So when I got the news on that Wednesday morning of October 4, 2017, that ESPN would replace NBC as the holders of the US broadcast rights, I had an uneasy feeling. I figured this meant we would, at the very least, lose Diffey as the play-by-play man. He's got enough going on with NBC, doing IndyCar, NASCAR, rugby, and the Olympics. I was hopeful, however, that Hobbs, Matchett, and Buxton would follow each other over to ESPN as they did during the Speed-NBC transition. Maybe Varsha would even come back and the original gang would be reunited again.

Your new "US" F1 broadcast team.
Photo: Sky Sports F1
Nope. Instead, ESPN announced that they would be bringing us Sky Sports F1's coverage from the UK, simulcasting it onto the ESPN family of networks throughout the season.

Well okay, but at least we would get a studio host or something to allow for smoother transitions in and out of commercials and set up the programming for us, right?

Nope, ESPN couldn't even give us that much.

Well alright then, but at least Sky did their best to make us feel included, right?

Nope. Again. Never once did we hear anything along the lines of, "we also welcome a new audience watching us on ESPN2 in the United States." Sky did not appear to have an obligation to make the US audience feel welcome as a part of the broadcast.

This doesn't mean that Sky's team is horrible, though. In fact, they're really the only positive I can take away from this "coverage" ESPN gave us. David Croft and Martin Brundle aren't as strong as Diffey, Hobbs, and Matchett in my humble opinion, but hey, the latter were given an honorable mention in's list of best broadcast teams in 2015, so they're tough to beat. "Crofty" and Brundle certainly know what they're doing, and Brundle's grid walks before the race do help fill the void created by Buxton's absence from the coverage.

Now on to the negatives. And boy, do we have a lot to cover.

Let's start with the pre-race show. ESPN2 was scheduled to air an E:60 rerun (for what it's worth, it was the "The Dominant 20" special, which aired Thursday evening) from 11:30 P.M. to 12:30 A.M. EDT. When that was over, "Formula 1: On the Grid" would come on the air.

Except it did not. After a few minutes of watching the raw world feed, ESPN cut to commercial. The raw feed then briefly came back, and before we knew it, "The Dominant 20" was back on the air. A message briefly popped up above ESPN2's bottom line that read: "Formula 1: On the Grid is experiencing technical difficulties. We are working to resolve the problem as quickly as possible."

Technical difficulties? Do you mean to say you encountered difficulty simulcasting the world feed from a foreign country's coverage? Seriously? Sky Sports wasn't having any problems. Why were you?

Regardless, the feed was back with audio around 12:50, just in time for the grid walk. The first 20 minutes of this new era of F1 coverage on ESPN consisted of nothing more than dead air and fill-in programming.

Above all, this was the single-largest problem, but the issues don't end there.

Sky Sports presents the Grands Prix with no commercial interruption. Admittedly, that's impressive. Even NBC took commercial breaks. Now, I'm not upset with ESPN for doing the same, but I am going to call them out on not, at the very least, having a studio host of their own to bring us in and out of the breaks without cutting off the Sky commentators mid-sentence without warning. Even IndyCar driver Graham Rahal called ESPN out on this. This is what Fox Sports does with their Formula E broadcasts. Ironically, this is now Matchett's new role on a part-time basis, so it's refreshing to see he's not gone from TV entirely.

Furthermore, the commercials came at the worst possible moments. We didn't get to hear anything about why Sergey Sirotkin and Marcus Ericsson retired from the race. We didn't get to hear Fernando Alonso's usual sass on the radio towards his McLaren engineers. We also missed the restart after the safety car period, one that completely changed the outcome of the race. It was almost as if ESPN had already planned out the exact moments they were going to cut to commercial and had no flexibility in changing them.

Finally, the post-race coverage was non-existent. Shortly after the race ended, ESPN took another commercial (this time without the side-by-side feature) before coming back for the podium ceremony. We saw Mark Webber interview the top three drivers, and as soon as he was finished...we launched right into a 30 for 30 rerun.

I'm pretty sure 99.999% of the viewers watching ESPN2 at 3:00 A.M. would rather watch post-race analysis than a rerun of an NC State/Jimmy V documentary.

By taking on this new TV deal, ESPN had the responsibility and obligation to maintain the interest of the F1 fanbase in the US, as well as to continue the work Speed and NBC have done for the last 22 years to grow it.

Did they do this? No. Not even close. If anything, they disillusioned us. They turned off the casual viewers. Heck, they even turned off some of the passionate ones.

I greatly miss Hobbs' perspective as a driver and Matchett's perspective as a mechanic. I miss Sam Posey, essentially F1's poet laureate here in the States, and his beautiful narrations. I miss the Off the Grid specials, F1 Countdown presented by Mercedes-Benz, and F1 Extra presented by Jaguar, among other things. And while Brundle is a talented pro, I still miss Buxton's grid walks. As a longtime US viewer, this did not feel like a Grand Prix.

I do believe there is time to make up for this farcical debut of a telecast, but only if sweeping changes are immediately made. As NBC's own Tony DiZinno tweeted last night, "without the team of good people there, the show suffers on the whole." ESPN needs, at the bare minimum, a studio host to play the same role Matchett has taken up with FS1's Formula E coverage. Having a full broadcast team to provide additional analysis and play-by-play would be ideal, and it also wouldn't be too difficult; aside from the races in Monaco, the United States, and occasionally Canada, NBC refrained from traveling onsite and instead called all of their races from their studio in Connecticut. Why can't ESPN do the same?

Above all, we need an indication that ESPN cares.
No, not a PR statement via Twitter apologizing for the first 20 minutes of last night's broadcast. That does not count.

In the statement, ESPN acknowledged that the US fans have "incredible passion for Formula 1." It is in the television broadcasters' best interest to have this passion as well. Speed had it. So did NBC Sports. Judging by the first race, I'm not sure anyone behind ESPN's production does. That's a major problem, and it leads to the disastrous things such as the broadcast that we saw last night. ESPN is capable of giving their viewers better things and ought to be held to a higher standard.

The fans who stay up until three in the morning watching it live, myself included, deserve it.

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