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ESPN having field day with track coverage

F our weekends ago, ESPN2 was airing a Siena-Fairfield basketball game that ran past its scheduled 6 p.m. "off time." Meanwhile, a production crew was standing by at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury, ready to air the Boston Indoor Games from 6-7 p.m.

ESPN2 made the decision to stay with the game for its last 2 minutes 50 seconds, which turned into one of those foul/free throw/timeout tractor pulls, taking 22 minutes away from the track coverage.

Still, the station switched to Boston in time to show much of Haile Gebrselassie's 3,000-meter run that set a facility record.

Instead of complaining about the shortened window, the ESPN crew in Boston was gratified that part of the meet was shown live, with taped highlights of the afternoon's earlier events. It beats being shown in VCR time (1-5 a.m.) or three or four days later.

Track and field doesn't blow away the NFL when it comes to ratings for ESPN, but the sport holds its own, posting a 10 percent ratings increase last year and an 80 percent increase over the past six years.

ESPN2 is back in Boston again this weekend to cover the US Indoor Championships at the Lewis Center. It plans an hour of coverage tomorrow (6:30-7:30 p.m.) and another Sunday (6-7 p.m.), with Rob Stone as host. Larry Rawson will provide analysis, with infield reports from Dwight Stones and intermediate hurdler-turned-"Cold Pizza" news anchor Leslie Maxie.

They'll have some inspiring stories -- hurdler/sprinter Gail Devers and pole vaulter Stacy Dragila, for two -- in an Olympic year when the sport is under the cloud of THG-positive tests and suspensions and the fallout from the BALCO investigation.

The top two finishers in each event this weekend move on to the World Championships in Budapest. US viewers are scheduled to see taped coverage of that meet March 14 at 3 p.m. on FSN.

ESPN has two more weekends of coverage from West Coast meets in mid-June, and NBC has the Olympic Trials on the weekends of July 10-11 and 17-18.

Added punch

Boxing -- past, present, and future -- is in the news this week. Former heavyweight champion George Foreman, an HBO analyst since 1993, makes his farewell appearance tomorrow (9:30 p.m.) as he joins Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant at ringside to call the super featherweight title bout between Erik Morales and Jesus Chavez. The opening bout is a junior welterweight match between Miguel Cotto and Victoriano Sosa . . . Comcast (CN8) plans to air Vinny Paz's final fight as he chases career win No. 50 when he meets Tocker Pudwill March 27 (8 p.m.) from Foxwoods Casino in Ledyard, Conn. It's the first in a five-card deal between Comcast and Jimmy Burchfield of Classic Entertainment & Sports . . . NBC is getting into the ring with two upcoming boxing series. First is the renewal of "Budweiser Boxing," which will run five straight Saturday afternoons, beginning April 17, and lead into two of NBC's signature telecasts: the May 1 Kentucky Derby and May 15 Preakness. Participants in reality shows sign all sorts of contracts promising not to reveal how the show eventually plays out. But imagine the releases that participants in NBC's upcoming series "The Contender" will have to sign. It's a 16-week search for a new boxing superstar.

Exercises have floor

The opening ceremonies of the Athens Olympics are less than six months away (Aug. 13). For US gymnasts, tomorrow's American Cup (Channel 7, 4 p.m.) from Madison Square Garden is the start of the competitive road leading to the Games. NBC analysts Tim Daggett and Elfi Schlegel, who will work the telecast with host Al Trautwig and reporter Andrea Joyce, grew up in the sport and now give back by running gyms. For them, broadcasting continues to satisfy the need to perform, so vital an element in a gymnast's routine, even the retired ones . . . Speaking of reality show winners, Justin Peters of "The Big Break" on the Golf Channel is playing on the Canadian Tour this week, and also writing daily diaries for www.TheGolfChannel.com. The first installment, telling what's happened to his life after his win, is written from the heart . . . The copycat syndrome in TV is nowhere more evident than in the different mutations of "reality" shows. Self-serving billionaire Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is going to give away $1 million of his money in a six-part ABC series called "The Benefactor" this summer . . . John Daly didn't qualify for this week's World Match Play, airing on ESPN and ABC. Too bad for Daly but good news for USA Network, which has the Tucson Chrysler Classic (with Daly) tonight at 6 and the next two nights on tape at 11.

He's on ice

Best wishes to WBZ Bruins analyst Bob Beers, who is dealing with medical complications from an old hockey injury. Hall of Famer Johnny Bucyk has been filling in alongside play-by-play voice Dave Goucher on WBZ (1030 AM) for the past two weeks . . . Tonight's Raptors-Celtics game will be available on both FSN and ESPN. Brad Nessler and Sean Elliott are scheduled to make the call for ESPN. Cedric Maxwell will sit in alongside Mike Gorman on the FSN telecast, as regular analyst Tom Heinsohn is attending a reunion of his Holy Cross team. In the rotating seats, Ryen Russillo will work with radio play-by-play man Sean Grande on WWZN (1510). Russillo, thrilled at the opportunity, quipped, "I may be the first guy to go from Double A baseball [Trenton Thunder] to the NBA." . . . Last Saturday night, the clock had passed midnight and the Celtics were down by 35 to the Trail Blazers when Maxwell noted, "There's no way anyone's still listening to us." Turns out they were. "I came home to close to 100 e-mails sent after midnight that night," said Grande . . . ESPN Radio's daily programming doesn't have an all-day presence in the Boston market, but for those who catch it in their travels, Colin Cowherd will replace Tony Kornheiser in the 10 a.m.-1 p.m. slot starting March 29. Cowherd was host of "The Herd," a morning drive program in Portland, Ore. He'll bring the show title along with him . . . ESPN2 has unbeaten Saint Joseph's at Rhode Island tomorrow at noon, with Dan Shulman, Dick Vitale, and Doris Burke working the broadcast. It will be Vitale's first broadcast from URI in a career that has made his name synonymous with college basketball and elevated him to the list of 2004 finalists for selection to the Basketball Hall of Fame . . . Online chats can be tedious, but the trio of Peter Gammons, Jerry Remy, and Trish the Moderator produced a quick and informative session on www.theremyreport.com Monday night.

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is griffith@globe.com

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