The Frontstretch: You Think You Hate Missed Restarts? ESPN Hates Them Even More by Mike Neff -- Friday October 12, 2007

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In NASCAR blogs and forums throughout the internet one of the key themes that fans often turn their attention to is not the quality of the race, as much as the quality of the race broadcast. If you’ve read the reader comments at the end of many of our articles, you’ve probably noticed a fairly consistant theme there also, specifically, the number and timing of commercial breaks. Thursday, I sat down with ESPN’s Vice President of Motorsports, Rich Feinberg, and talked about the broadcaster’s policies and commitment to you, the race fan. What came out of this discussion was that broadcasting is not only a media that delivers the excitement of NASCAR racing to fans that would otherwise not have any way to see them, but also that first and foremost, broadcasting is a business. In order for ESPN to justify their expenditure to carry NASCAR races, they have to be able to make enough revenue to cover their expenses and still make some money.

In order to understand how that part of the business works you need to know that before the race can get to your 46” high def, there are two kinds of costs that have be paid for. First, there are the broadcast rights fees that ESPN must first pay to NASCAR to be allowed to broadcast races so that NASCAR can pay their bills in Daytona, and if you’ve seen the reported dollars that ESPN paid, you’ll have to agree, that’s a big nut right there. Then, there are the production costs that go into bringing the actual race broadcast to the fans. These production costs range from the equipment that is at the track, the technology that it developed to bring new innovation into the sport, and the money required to employ enough people to make the race broadcast feasible. ESPN employs the services of over 250 on a race weekend to bring the race telecast to the fans. They have to not only pay those people for their time and effort, but they must transport them and house them during a given race weekend.

The revenue that is used to offset those production costs and rights fees comes from both the advertisement income that is created by selling commercial time during the broadcast and also affiliate revenue that comes from the cable and satellite providers that license ESPN for their services. A fact that isn't well publicized is that NASCAR limits the number of commercials that a broadcast company is allowed to air during a telecast, so ESPN is limited to that commercial time allotment and they use that allowed time to block out their commercial schedule during the race.

When the commercial breaks for a race weekend is planned out, the production team looks at both the size of the track and the average lap times both under green and caution. Those times are used to determine the length of the commercial blocks that will be broadcast during the race. At tracks like Daytona and Talladega, commercials are run in two-and-a-half to three minute blocks, while a track like Bristol, where lap times are considerably shorter, the blocks are only one and a half to two minutes in length. Knowing the amount of time that can be spent in commercial, the blocks are allocated out across the length of the broadcast and the commercials to fill those timeslots are planned out using both viewer habits and past races at that track.

The viewership of NASCAR races isn’t constant throughout the race. It acutally grows throughout the duration of the event with the smallest audiences occuring at the beginning of the race, and then immediately following the checkered flag. As the race continues from the drop of the green flag, the audience grows at a consistent rate, reaching its maximum point around the final 20 laps of the event. If ESPN had the option to make race fans completely happy, they’d run the commercials all in the first third of the race and go commercial free from there on out. It simply isn’t an option, so they try and plan it out as best they can to show the maximum amount of race action because naturally, advertisers want to have their commercials viewed by the most people possible for the amount of money they are spending. In order to charge the maximum amount that they possibly can to try and achieve the highest possible return, ESPN must air commercials at the beginning and the end of the race to equalize the average viewing audience and be able to receive the highest possible price for those commercials.

As a race progresses, the time that commercials air is determined on the fly based on the activity on the track. There are people in the production truck, utilizing different technologies to try and anticipate the caution flags, the fuel windows, and the duration of the caution flags to try and decide when blocks of commercials are aired. When a caution flag is in effect, ESPN attempts to show the pitstops during that caution, and then air commercials before the race goes back to green. With the help of NASCAR race control the production team tries their best to determine how long a given caution period is going to take and time out the commercials to return to action before the green flag flies. The odds of them catching the green on the super speedways is far greater than on short tracks simply because they can let the commercial run to completion before coming back for the green when they are informed of one lap to go. At a track like Martinsville, if they are informed of one lap to go, there is only a window of 25-30 seconds before the race is going to go back to green. If ESPN breaks out of a commercial before it is completed, they have to rerun the entire commercial at a later point in the race, in addition to the commercials planned for that later point. As soon as they miss a commercial, it throws off the rest of the allocation of commercials, and the air time for racing has to be reduced to make up for it.

Just like the teams in NASCAR, ESPN can look at historical data on races and anticipate, with some accuracy, how many cautions will fly during a race and attempts to plan commercials around that time. Like investments though, past performance is not always indicative of future results. Planning on five cautions in the first 100 laps of a race, that ultimately runs green, can throw off the entire production plan. If the production team tries to wait for a caution that doesn't happen, they eat into the air time that can be shown later in the race because they have to make up those commercials at some point in time to earn the necessary revenue to make the production feasible.

One thing became abundantly clear in talking with the people who work on the ESPN broadcasts. The people that are running the show and making the decisions are race fans. Not just casual fans, but passionate fans who love the sport. They hate missing restarts as much as the fans at home hate not seeing them. Unfortunately, the whole process is ultimately a business, and they have to make sure they achieve the proper revenue to justify their expenditures. Could the system be tweaked to make it better, there is no doubt. Over the next few weeks this writer intends to do some charting of caution flags and commercial times and see if he can come up with a strategy that might be possible to try and help out the folks at ESPN to make it more of a rarity to miss restarts than the norm. In the meantime, rest assured, the folks behind the scenes really do try their very best to make it back to the track to try and see the green flag fly at the end of caution periods.

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10/12/2007 10:57 AM

Gee, simple solution. Show a small box with the race action. That way, you may actually not change channels when commercials are on. And, we’ll never miss a re-start!

10/12/2007 11:02 AM

I’m sorry, but those excuses don’t fly. Fox didn’t have this problem. NBC didn’t have this problem last year.

It’s really pretty simple when a caution comes out. As soon as things sort out, cut to commercial. Run a couple of comeercials, then come back for the lead lap pitstops. Now, during the lapped car pitstops show replays of whatever brought the caution back. That doesn’t cover them 100% of the time, but it would give them a baseline to work from that would put them a heck of a lot closer to what they need to do than they currently are.

The problem is these ESPN producers come from stick and ball sports where you have a very small period of time to show the replay of the action. So their instincts tell them to do that, and it’s all wrong.

M. B. Voelker
10/12/2007 11:11 AM

Fox and TNT manage to cover most of the restarts. They cover the pitstops. They reset the field before the green flies. They keep fans aware of pit road penalties and of various teams’ pit strategies.

ESPN could have analyzed the last couple years’ race broadcasts and adopted the best features from the various networks’ presentations. Instead they decided to try to come up with something all there own and made a mess of the thing.

10/12/2007 11:33 AM

You know NBC was infamous for the incredible amount of commercials they ran,but with that said they still got the restarts broadcast. Fox would break in during a commercial if there was a wreck. Maybe ESPN should call them up and see how they did it.

10/12/2007 12:33 PM

Okay, so they have to make money. Not an excuse for the lousy timing and terrible broadcasts. The complete ESPN family of stations are terrible when it comes to Nascar. Also what about all the drivers that just hate being interviewed by espn reporters. They ask such stupid questions. I’m not even going to get into how bad Nascar Now is.

10/12/2007 12:37 PM

Excuses, Excuses. All this really does is encourage people to DVR the race and skip the commercials. They need to keep that in mind when they are “forced” to miss a restart.

10/12/2007 01:18 PM

I believe that ESPN is just trying to out “Fox” Fox. They have added about 50,000 needless gimicks and forgot how to cover a race. Missed restarts are just a small part of their failing.

Kevin in SoCal
10/12/2007 01:30 PM

Advertisers dont want to pay to have their commercials in a split-screen box. They feel they arent getting their monies worth that way. So it will never happen in NASCAR.
I’ll just continue to record the races on my TiVo and fast-forward thru the commercials I wouldnt watch or buy anyway.

Brian France Sucks
10/12/2007 02:25 PM

Randy is right, as is Kevin in SoCal. Split screen w/ advertising/commercials, or just TIVO the race. Or, my personal fave for those of us w/o TIVO: Leave the TV on, mute the morons that cover the TV broadcast, and tune in Barney Hall, Dave Moody, and the rest of the MRN guys. They do an excellent job, and do not resort to using stupid phrases like “draft-lock”. If only someone could mute Rusty, Darrell, Larry Mac, and the rest of the “talent”.

10/12/2007 02:51 PM

I agree with Brian France sucks. I mute the expert analysis of Crusty, Andy, and Doc and listen to the MRN guys. What is “draft lock” anyway? Is that somehting that prevents you from winning a plate race? If so, that would explain why Crusty is an expert on the subject.

10/12/2007 03:29 PM

Not buying it. If other networks had the problems covering NASCAR that ESPN/ABC has, perhaps their excuses would be believable, but that’s not the case. We have seen good race coverage on NBC, FOX and (before this year) TNT.

It can be done. IF the network producing the races actually knows what it is doing, that is.

But with this year’s “glowing hockey puck,” a/k/a the “Draft Tracker,” talent that doessn’t know what’s happening on the track, and the network’s refusal to cover the race, opting instead to ignore most of the drivers on the track, it is clear ESPN/ABC does not know racing at all.

10/12/2007 03:34 PM

B the way, did you ask Feinberg why it is that ESPN won’t air all the practices, yet (most of the time) also refuses to let SPEED air them?

I’d love to hear their “we’re race fans too” rationale for that one.

10/12/2007 03:56 PM

Everybody knows ESPN is geared toward the sponsors,(commercials)pre-madonna’ s(over exposed drivers)and most of all,the critics(public relations dept.)Thus what we get on race day is a long and drawn out pre-race show followed by an event covered by individuals(Brent Muskberger) who seem to have no real understanding of the sport that they are presenting to the fans.

10/12/2007 04:21 PM

I work in sports TV (not for ESPN) and I understand the various factors that determine commercial breaks, but as many others have said here, the missed restarts happen on ESPN much more than on FOX or NBC. TNT’s coverage was so bad that missed restarts was the least of their problems. ESPN/ABC’s sales department sells EVERYTHING it can put a sponsor’s name on (which is one reason why sportscenter is completely unwatchable now)and they probably have sold so many items that it is not possible to avoid missing restarts. Don’t blame the guys in the production trucks who have their hands tied it’s the suits at Disney that are to blame. It’s certainly not the first good thing they’ve screwed up.

10/14/2007 12:27 AM

And as DR. Jerry always reminds us, any questions just log on to word/money.
ESPN doesn’t do it any worse than the other networks. They are just the current lemming following the others. FOX? NBC? TNT? These are the same networks that months ago everyone was ragging on. The days of NASCAR caring about the fans and the networks trying to provide a good product are over. Let’s just morn the sport because Brian Jr is driving it straight to the funeral.

10/18/2007 06:55 AM

Looks like Mike got “tooken” on his one. Don’t feel bad, though—they got David Poole, too.


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