DAVE DESPAIN, MAVTV AND A BIT OF RACING HISTORY

Apr 24, 2014

By: Dave Despain

I can only think of a few things good about growing old. I"m glad I got to see Don Garlits race "Swamp Rat 6B." I"m happy that I heard Sid Collins and Freddie Agabashian call the Indy 500. And I can remember how things we now take for granted - ESPN, for example - came to be the way they are. Today the "Entertainment and Sports Programming Network" is a multi-platform coverage colossus and Disney cash cow that totally dominates American sports. But I can remember when it was just another odd idea.

ESPN made its debut in 1979, testing the notion that Americans might actually watch sports 24 hours a day. Lacking rights to cover the sports Americans actually cared about, the fledgling network served up round-the-clock coverage of Australian rugby, Canadian football, West Coat Frisbee competition, Chinese children tumbling and the Great Eastern Skeetshooting Championships. Response was underwhelming.

And then came NASCAR.

We all know that year - 1979 - was a TV bonanza for stock car racing. The afternoon of the Daytona 500 half the American population was snowed in, stuck in front of their TV sets as CBS presented the first live, flag-to-flag coverage of the big race. It ended of course with a last-lap crash and post-race brawl which prompted my mentor Ken Squier's now-famous exclamation, "And there's a fight!" Ratings went through the roof.

But a week later at Rockingham there was no national TV and diehard NASCAR fans fell back on trusty MRN radio for their live race coverage. Sure, in the post-Daytona excitement big networks showed big interest in big NASCAR races, but that enthusiasm did not extend to such relative TV backwaters as Richmond, Bristol and North Wilkesboro.

And then came ESPN.

Sensing an opportunity, the new little network in Connecticut embarked on a brilliant strategy. First, ESPN made deals with various NASCAR promoters (usually for a song) to televise their events live. Next, ESPN rallied NASCAR fans to the cause of increasing its circulation. The key was to convince individual cable companies to carry the new network so those fans, fantastically loyal to their sport and desperate to see it on TV, were encouraged to "call your cable company and tell them you want to watch the NASCAR races on ESPN." The campaign was a huge success. Soon all the Winston Cup races were on television and ESPN was in millions of households.

I don"t think it's an exaggeration to say that ESPN built its original network on the backs of NASCAR fans. But if you need further proof that the "call your cable company" concept works, consider 1983. By then ESPN was a thriving enterprise eager to expand. It did so by creating ESPN2, initially unavailable on most cable systems. Remembering its history, the mother ship promptly off-loaded much of its now-substantial racing inventory to the new network, which most Americans couldn"t didn"t get. Race fans were again encouraged to "call your cable company and tell them you want to watch racing on ESPN2."

This now-familiar strategy worked just as well the second time around and so by circuitous route we arrive at my point, which is the future of MAVTV.

I am obviously pleased to have joined the MAVTV family. The siren song of retirement was a great temptation but no match for what I perceive as the network's devotion to grass roots racing. I"m eager to host MAVTV's impressive roster of big race events - the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, Knoxville Nationals, etc. - and even more excited about the new "Dave Despain Show," a series of in-depth interviews with a wide variety of my favorite racing stars, in which I am determined to show you a side of your heroes you have never seen before.

Because we want as many people as possible to see these new shows, MAVTV's immediate priority is the same as ESPN's 35 years ago. We need race fans to "call your local cable company and tell them you want MAVTV." Hey, it worked twice for ESPN and it will work for us too!

Lots of things have changed since I first saw "Big Daddy" in action and listened to Sid and Freddie on the radio. Today, Sprint Cup TV rights are worth billions of dollars and ESPN wants so badly to be done with NASCAR that it tried to bail out of its contract a year early. (What's up with that?) Other things, fortunately, have remained the same. Diehard fans still want their racing fix and cable systems are still in the business of giving people what they want. So what are you waiting for? Pick up the phone. Tell your cable operator you want MAVTV. Who knows you might be contributing to the next great racing television success story!