On paper it all looks good when it comes to NBC Sports’ announcement Tuesday that driver Jeff Burton will be part of the network’s broadcast team when they jump back into the fray of Sprint Cup Series coverage in 2015.
Burton’s reputation as the “The Mayor” of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series seemingly brings all the intangibles to the table that someone could want in creating the perfect analytical voice for television coverage of NASCAR events.
Over the last decade of his career Burton has developed a reputation with the media covering the Sprint Cup Series as the go-to guy in the garage when looking for insightful, objective analysis of any number of topics in the sport.
And on Tuesday, after NBC’s announcement concerning Burton, many involved in the sport sang high praise for the move. And it is a smart move for all involved, there’s no arguing that.
But the masses speeding to anoint Burton as the next great television voice of NASCAR coverage need slap on the restrictor plate and give it some time.
Across the realm of the sports landscape, predicting how athletes end up morphing into roles as television analysts is the ultimate crapshoot.
Sometimes it’s the guys nobody expects will succeed who blossom. Look at Michael Irvin and Keyshawn Johnson with the NFL. During their playing careers there were surely few among the masses who could have predicted that one day each would become influential and well versed members of the media covering professional football.
And there’s the other side. Sports television is riddled with so many instances where the athlete that seems to have all the right makeup to be a smart voice as an observer loses that voice the minute they stop participating and the microphone on their lapel goes hot.
Also remember, Burton will be working not for a news entity but an entertainment division, where positive promotion of a sport is far more important to the bottom line in many instances than fair analysis.
That factor of finding the balance between entertainment vs. objectivity can be a prickly one for those moving from participant to paid provider of educated analysis.
In NASCAR, the biggest example of where things can take a sharp turn in a different direction when it comes to entertainment vs. objectivity is the muting and morphing of Darrell Waltrip in his role as a broadcaster for the Fox Sports coverage of NASCAR.
Much like Burton, in his competitive days Waltrip was a sought out voice among the top drivers in the sport. At times he could undoubtedly be over the top with some opinion, but he brought a fair perspective to analyzing the sport day to day.
Then he traded in the helmet for a microphone and objectivity and fair analysis was traded for playing the role of NASCAR promoter, and often times apologist for the sport. Waltrip’s strong voice wilted under the lights to the point where, after a decade in the booth he has more or less become a caricature of the man once known as “Jaws” for his fearlessness for speaking is mind.
And behind Waltrip, Rusty Wallace followed in line at ESPN as another smart voice as a competitor that morphed into more of a pom-pom bearer for NASCAR than objective voice.
It’s no guarantee that Burton won’t flourish in his role with NBC, but those expecting the reasoned and fair opinions “The Mayor” brought to the table as a competitor might be surprised how TV can change the voice of those suddenly thrust into the role of blindly promoting all that is the perceived good about a sport one’s employer is paying to broadcast.