Who Wins with NASCAR on ESPN?

Wanda Little Fenimore. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 3: Television. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009. 

When ESPN was purchased by Walt Disney Company in 1995, the sports network inherited a genetic disorder—Disney’s penchant for marketing a product ten times every millisecond.

—Michael Freeman, ESPN: The Uncensored History

The first full-length broadcast of a NASCAR race was the Daytona 500 in 1979 on CBS. Interestingly, ESPN was also launched in 1979. I doubt anyone had an inkling of what the future held in store for both of them. In 1979, NASCAR was a regional sport hungry for exposure on national television, while ESPN was a fledgling cable network searching for programming. As they say, the rest is history: A lucrative relationship was borne with each partner using the other to build popularity and profits. For nearly 20 years, until 2000, ESPN was the home for NASCAR and has been widely credited for helping popularize the sport.

Fox, NBC, and TNT took over televising Nextel Cup races in 2001 with a 6-year, $2.4 billion contract. During its absence, ESPN president George Bodenheimer repeated that the one TV-rights package he most wanted to obtain was NASCAR’s Nextel Cup races. When NBC declined to renew its contract, ESPN/ABC got its chance, for a mere $270 million! Beginning with the 2007 season, the 36 Nextel Cup races are split among Fox, TNT, and ESPN/ABC. The networks bought the rights for a combined $4.48 billion over 8 years; the deal boasts a 40 percent increase over the former contract. At this price, ESPN/ABC didn’t get the broadcast rights to all 36 races. ESPN/ABC will broadcast the last 17 races of the Nextel Cup season, including the final 10 races in the Chase for the Cup. NASCAR’s return to ESPN seems like a reunion between long-lost friends. However, being owned by Disney situates ESPN as another avenue for opportunistic marketing. NASCAR racing is definitely big business, but with NBC bowing out, why was ESPN/ABC willing to pay such an exorbitant amount of money? Second, how will it recoup this investment? And, most important, what does this new contract mean for fans watching every Sunday?

The Money

There are several possible reasons why ESPN/ABC wanted the NASCAR broadcast rights. NASCAR touts itself as the number two spectator sport in the United States with over 75 million people identifying themselves as fans. That’s a lot of eyeballs and wallets tuned in for about three hours every Sunday. Sports programming is perceived as the best, and sometimes only, way to access the hard-to-reach male viewer. Having sports allows a network to approach advertisers who want to put their products in front of the elusive male. Susan Tyler Eastman and Gregory D. Newton state that, “With a seemingly endless proliferation of television channels, sport is seen as the programming that can best break through the clutter of channels and advertising and consistently produce a desirable audience for sale to advertisers.”

As the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports,” adding NASCAR to ESPN’s line-up fills a noticeable void previously filled by Fox, NBC, and TNT. Sports offer networks an opportunity to distinguish themselves from their competitors. For example, News Corporation’s acquisition of NFL rights put Fox on the map. Instead of being seen as an upstart, Fox became a significant contender among the Big Three (ABC, NBC, and CBS). Also, by acquiring NASCAR’s broadcast rights, ESPN and ABC eliminated their competitors. Although NBC turned down its option to renew with NASCAR, CBS and other cable networks, such as Comcast’s Outdoor Life Network, could have entered the picture if they were willing to put up the money.

Finally, NASCAR offers an ideal promotional vehicle for programming: Tyler Eastman and Newton offer that “[b]ecause sports has such high visibility and popularity with both vocal fans and advertisers, the networks expend billions of dollars obtaining television rights, and one of their many justifications is the value of sporting events as a platform for promotion of prime-time programs.” ESPN and ABC have an opportunity during a Nextel Cup race to promote their other programming.

Although several political, economic, and social changes have contributed to the process, deregulation opened the door to ESPN/ABC having access to the millions of dollars necessary to acquire broadcast rights. The political climate of the 1980s, along with an enduring atmosphere of deregulation in the 1990s, led to numerous media mergers and acquisitions. Disney, along with other companies, took full advantage of the opportunities afforded by this environment. As a consequence, media ownership in the United States is concentrated in a handful of companies; a small number control a large percentage of the media acquiring a monopoly over the content, form, and meaning of the images and news items disseminated to the public. With their extensive holdings and resources, these megamedia corporations dominate their competitors. While this may seem to be simply a business situation, it also affects media viewers because this concentration of ownership limits the sources and availability of programming, news, and information. Overall, it reduces the range of choices and increases uniformity.

In 1984, ABC bought ESPN for $225 million and was then acquired by Capital Cities in 1985; Disney merged with Capital Cities/ABC in 1996, bringing ABC as well as ESPN into the Disney family. The Disney empire is the world’s second largest media conglomerate (behind Time Warner) and includes assets encompassing movies, music, publishing, radio, television, Internet, mobile communications, theme parks, and sports. ESPN may have been able to get NASCAR without being a part of Disney, but in 2000, it lost the broadcast rights to other networks who were willing to pay more. The current contract substantially increased the networks’ investments. Without the financial backing of Disney, ESPN may not have been able to take advantage of NBC’s bowing out. Disney is the epitome of deep pockets—it can purchase almost any entity or media property it sets it sights on thereby shutting out its competitors.

The Strategy

First and foremost, media conglomerates, including Disney, have a single goal, which is to “dominate the markets in which they are engaged by attracting as much market share and revenues as possible, as well as engage in economies of scale and scope to improve efficiencies and lower the cost of operations.” Because media in the United States are not controlled or financed by the government, they are dependent on other sources for funding, notably advertising. With the structure of advertiser-supported media, ABC and ESPN make money with higher ratings that translate to advertising dollars. With high ratings, ESPN can sell commercial time at a premium to prospective advertisers. For example, in my local market, Roanoke-Lynchburg, Virginia, of approximately 30,000 households (cable subscribers), the rate for a 30-second commercial on ESPN Monday Night Football is $135.00, and the rate for Nextel Cup on TNT or ESPN is $65.00. For non-sports programming on other cable networks, for example, CNN, Food Network, Lifetime, Hallmark, and TBS, local commercial rates range from $3-$12 each.

In order to consistently earn high ratings, Disney implements a strategy that takes advantage of all its media platforms, with each property an extension of other properties as well as a separate revenue stream. This strategy includes cross-promotion with multifaceted campaigns utilizing multiple forms of media. According to Adam Arvidsson, “When a particular media product (or ‘content’) can be promoted across different media channels and sold in different formats, what is marketed is not so much films or books, as ‘content brands’ that can travel between and provide a context for the consumption of a number of goods or media products.” Along with generating revenue from multiple sources, the company also has the opportunity to cross-promote. The process is very efficient because it decreases costs and increases profit. However, smaller companies without multiple media holdings cannot take advantage of it, thus, “[f]irms without this cross-selling and cross-promotional potential are simply incapable of competing in the global marketplace.”

Synergy is the word often used to describe this process. Basically, synergy refers to components of a company working together to produce benefits that would be impossible for a single, separately owned unit of the company; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Synergy is effective when a company owns multiple media holdings because it involves promoting a single project across different platforms. For example, synergy becomes a force when a book develops into a movie, soundtrack, television series, and licensed merchandise because one entity owns publishing, motion picture, music, and broadcast holdings. The company then employs all these holdings to promote the project. Although parents may not term this process as synergy, they are cognizant of its effects. For example, when a Disney movie such as Shrek (Adamson & Jenson, 2001) is released, parents begin by taking their children to the theater. Buying continues with soundtracks, books, and cartoons, along with merchandised products such as lunch boxes, purses, clothing, stuffed animals, and so forth. The process continues with Shrek-themed McDonald’s Happy Meals. Once the theater run is over for the movie, the DVD is released, and not long after, the movie airs on Disney’s networks. In recent years, these platforms have expanded to include the Internet, video games, and ring tones.

One of the major elements of synergy is cross-promotion. Cross-promotion also requires multiple media holdings because it involves promoting a single concept across various media. With television, a company that owns broadcast and cable networks can promote its programs in the most valuable time slots while at the same time bumping other advertisers. For example, News Corporation owns Fox and F/X and partners with Speed Channel. Viewers of programs on Fox will see promos for F/X’s programming. During Nextel Cup races, Fox will include promos for NASCAR-related programming on Speed Channel. At the same time, Speed will promote Fox’s coverage of the races. Though viewers may not call it cross-promotion, everyone sees it. Because it is “free,” networks commonly employ the device.

Disney is the authority on branding; just consider the worldwide recognition of a certain mouse’s ears. Within the realm of media, branding involves exclusive distribution of proprietary symbols across multiple platforms. Branding develops a highly stable corporate product.  It not only involves symbols but also “signature” events, especially sports programming such as the NFL, Olympics, MLB, and now NASCAR. Networks use these signature events to keep audiences aware of their other programming. David Rowe notes that “Leading sports and events (notably the Olympics) become the equivalent of well-recognized labels and logos in an increasingly ‘mediatized’ sports environment.” Along with differentiating itself from its competitors, acquiring sports programming associates the network with the sports’ values, another facet of branding. With NASCAR, this is a significant association because fans are steadfastly loyal. In his analysis of NASCAR from a business perspective, Robert G. Hagstrom observes that “No sport matches the unique relationship that exists in NASCAR between athletes and fans, or the depth of loyalty the fans feel.”

Although other media corporations employ synergy, cross-promotion, and branding, Disney elevates the process to a capitalistic masterpiece. These practices directly impact what fans see on the races—a never-ending commercial for consumer products, ESPN and ABC programming, and NASCAR.

The Races

Does synergy really affect how races are televised and what viewers see on the television screen? To demonstrate that methods employed by megamedia corporations do affect the structure of televised spectator sports, I carefully watched and analyzed four races: Daytona 500 (February 18, 1979, Daytona International Speedway, CBS), referred to as 79 Daytona; Champion Spark Plug 400 (August 16, 1992, Michigan International Speedway, ESPN, re-broadcast on Mid-Atlantic Sports Network on October 26, 2007), referred to as Michigan; Sharpie 400 (August 27, 2007, Bristol Motor Speedway, ESPN), referred to as Bristol; and Ford 400 (November 18, 2007, Homestead-Miami Speedway, ABC), referred to as Homestead-Miami. In my analysis, I considered the races from the start to finish, green to checkered flags, and did not include any pre- or post-race coverage. Table 5.1 outlines the length of each race, including commercials; the time the actual race was on the screen; the number of breaks; the combined time of all the breaks; the average length of each break; as well as the number of network programming commercials.

With advertising increasing across multiple venues in recent years, it is fairly safe to predict that the total commercial time would increase from 1979 to 2007. What is a bit surprising is that the commercial time during the Homestead-Miami race was more than twice that during the 1992 Michigan race. By taking the total time of each race divided by the number of breaks, the 79 Daytona averaged a break about every 9 minutes, Michigan every 7½ minutes, Bristol every 8 minutes, and Homestead-Miami every 10 minutes. On the surface, this seems fairly consistent, except the breaks during the Homestead-Miami race, on average, were over twice as long as breaks in the 79 Daytona race, two and half minutes versus a little over a minute.

More problematic than the amount of commercial time is the actual content of the commercials. During the 79 Daytona 500, 8 commercials totaling 2 minutes 25 seconds were allocated to CBS programming. The commercials were for other sports programming including the Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open (golf), Super Fight, a boxing event, Challenge of the Sexes, and NBA Regional Games. There were two promos each for the CBS Sunday Night Movie and CBS Tuesday Night Movie.

The Bristol race on ESPN included 11 commercials, totaling 4 minutes 10 seconds, for programming on ESPN and ABC. The commercials included sports such as the IRL Grand Prix at Sonoma, the World Series of Poker, and Monday Night Football. Also included were ESPN Fantasy Football, The Bronx is Burning, and SportsCenter. However, the most number of commercials were for the Little League World Series being televised on ABC.

The Homestead-Miami race included 15 commercials dedicated only to ABC programming. Featured programs were Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money, October Road, Samantha Who?, and Grey’s Anatomy along with one-time events such as the American Music Awards and Dancing with the Stars finale. None of the 15 programming commercials were for any sports or events on ESPN, but ABC did not disregard ESPN as we’ll see shortly.

From a fan’s perspective, the increase in network programming commercials may not be significant. After all, a commercial is a commercial, right? If all I am interested in is watching the race, what difference does it make if ABC bumps a local advertiser in order to promote its programming? It makes a difference because it limits my choices. Instead of being offered products from a variety of sources, my options are restricted by ABC. This may seem to be far-fetched, but quite often we learn about local businesses through advertising. If local advertising is confined to off-hours because desirable time slots in premium programming are unavailable, it is less effective. The goal of advertising is to increase sales, and more than one business has closed down because of unsuccessful advertising campaigns and subsequent low sales.

So far, I’ve discussed commercials promoting the networks’ programming. These are actual breaks during the race, and the programming commercials run adjacent to commercials for other products. At other times, the networks’ programming is also featured during the race without any break from the action on the track. It can appear as a supposed unobtrusive scroll across the bottom of the television screen, a pop-up in the corner, or an opaque logo. However, these devices are not only becoming more numerous, they are invading more of the viewing area. As a result, even though the race isn’t interrupted by a commercial, it is disrupted by graphics, logos, animation, and audio from the booth commentators. ESPN and ABC are not the only networks to implement this technique, but it is worse on them because of Disney’s philosophy of maximum exposure, prolonging and exacerbating the disruption.

ESPN regularly features 18/58; at 18 and 58 minutes after the hour, a scroll appears across the bottom of the screen with news, scores, and of course, programming information. The appearance of the scroll is signaled by distinctive music, an ESPN trademark. During the Bristol race, the 18/58 scroll appeared six times, each time reminding viewers of SportsCenter coming up after the race. In addition, an orange programming scroll appeared across the bottom of the screen upon each return from a commercial break, a total of 19 times. This scroll included information about the current program as well as upcoming programs on ESPN, including SportsCenter and the following week’s race. If all that isn’t enough, another mechanism is SportsCenter’s 30 at 30 Update: 30 seconds of sports news and highlights on the half hour with a mention of SportsCenter after the race. During the nearly 3-hour Bristol race, 30 at 30 intruded 4 times. With the orange scroll, 18/58, and SportsCenter 30 at 30, SportsCenter was mentioned 31 times during the Bristol race. This translates to viewers being reminded about every six minutes to watch SportsCenter.

For the Homestead-Miami race, let’s return to the intermixing of ESPN and ABC. Though referred to as sister networks, ESPN and ABC are really more like conjoined twins, especially during Nextel Cup races on ABC. Disney’s new branding formula is “ESPN on ABC,” although the race is seen on ABC. The ABC logo is in the lower right hand corner while the ESPN logo is in the upper right hand corner, so which one is it? The race looks as if it is on ESPN; instead of 18/58, “BottomLine” is used for sports scores, news, and of course, programming. The commentators and pit reporters are the same as ESPN. The SportsCenter Minute powered by Vizio replaces SportsCenter 30 at 30. The animated graphics after each break feature the ESPN logo or the “ESPN on ABC” logo, not the ABC logo by itself. I was watching a race on ABC that wasn’t included in this analysis, and I thought it was on ESPN. I didn’t realize it was ABC until I tried to change channels and realized where I was on the dial.

What does Disney gain by televising a race on ABC but framing it as ESPN? Traditionally, advertising rates on broadcast networks are higher than cable networks. With programming like Nextel Cup racing, a network can charge premium advertising rates. Place the high-demand programming on a broadcast network and the rates are even higher. Locally, commercials in Nextel Cup races are $2,000 each on ABC and $1,200 each on Fox, compared to $65 on ESPN. Unlike the local cable system, the local ABC and Fox affiliates reach approximately 100,000 homes. While an advertiser is theoretically reaching many more homes, the increase in viewers is not proportionate to the increase in broadcast advertising rates.

Also, as I mentioned before, sports programming offers an excellent opportunity to promote other programming. Typical ESPN viewers may not tolerate ABC programming promos as well as ABC viewers. Another reason may be that Disney, along with NASCAR, hopes to reach potential fans who don’t normally watch ESPN by placing the races on ABC. Though the set-up is subtle, it’s inarguably clever.

The networks are not the only ones who take advantage of cross-promotional opportunities; NASCAR is very savvy about promoting races and its other ventures. During the Bristol race, NASCAR had commercials for the upcoming race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway featuring one of the most popular drivers, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., as well as promos for TrackPass, a paid interactive service offering fans an inside look at their favorite driver during the race. The Homestead-Miami race included four commercials for the nascar. com Superstore. Keep in mind that this race was November 18, 2007, during the holiday shopping season.

NASCAR also developed an entertaining campaign of commercials promoting attendance at live races. Called “Go to a race. See things differently,” the commercials offer different vignettes of how going to a race changes your perspective. For example, a teenage son is in the bathroom shaving for the first time. His father steps in with model military plans, holding them above the son and making jet engine sounds. The reference is to the military jet fly-bys at every race during prerace ceremonies. All of the commercials are funny but probably only have meaning for fans who understand the experience of a live race. According to Jim Obermeyer, VP-brand and consumer marketing for NASCAR, “The spots are a wink and a nod to the NASCAR insider who understands the world through a NASCAR lens.”

NASCAR’s investing in an advertising campaign to drive attendance at live races may be its recompense to track owners for taking over broadcast fee negotiations from the tracks. Until 2001, each track was permitted to negotiate its own broadcast deal for its races. The previous patchwork deal was worth about $100 million, but the fees went to the track owners, not NASCAR. While profitable for the tracks, the procedure resulted in a fragmented presence for NASCAR on national television. In 2001, Brian France, Chairman and CEO of NASCAR, approached the 20 track operators to consolidate the television package. France drove the deal by consolidating rights in a single package rather than permitting individual racetracks to negotiate rights. The owners agreed to France’s proposal, and the first consolidation television package in 2001 eliminated ESPN and divided the NASCAR schedule among Fox, NBC, and TNT. The track owners may have agreed to the proposal because it increased the total amount of the broadcast fees with their receiving the largest percentage: 65 percent, with the racing teams sharing 25 percent and NASCAR receiving the remaining 10 percent. However, the France family owns 35 percent of International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and controls 65 percent of the voting power within the corporation. ISC, in turn, owns 11 race tracks that host Nextel Cup races.

According to France, “our new television lineup changed the sport. We instantly reached a broader audience. NASCAR went from a haphazard schedule of mostly cable broadcasts to a coordinated schedule that airs primarily on broadcast television.” While France asserts the new contract makes it easier for fans, or potential fans, to find the races on television, the schedule is still split among three networks instead of one. While NASCAR taking over the fees negotiation did substantially increase how much track owners receive, it also increased the networks’ investment that has to be recouped. Industry analyst Dennis McAlpine confirms the financial consequences of the investment, “The simple fact is the rights will be so expensive that whoever gets it will also have to spend a lot to promote it and try to get their money back,”29 hence, viewers of the Bristol race being reminded 31 times to watch SportsCenter after the race.

Of course, the most obvious way to make a profit on their investment is for the networks to increase ratings of the races. Prior to the first race on ESPN, commercials celebrating NASCAR’s return aired on ESPN and ESPN2. With their resources as part of the Disney family, ABC and ESPN created original programming to expose potential viewers to NASCAR. ESPN and its outlets, including ESPN2, air approximately 66 hours of NASCAR-related programming a week, including “NASCAR: The Dirt,” “Race Wizard,” and “NASCAR Tonight.” Also, by virtue of its pseudojournalistic position, ESPN can emphasize NASCAR in its reporting, “like it’s a real sport.” There have been suggestions that prior to the broadcast deal, ESPN increased its coverage of NASCAR in its news programming to gain favor. With the contract, ESPN has even more reason to feature NASCAR instead of other sports in its reporting. With its news reporting, ESPN can tantalize viewers by dramatizing the action of NASCAR with specially selected highlights from races.

ABC capitalized on the current reality TV craze by creating two original series, “Fast Cars & Superstars—Gillette Young Guns Celebrity Race” and “NASCAR in Primetime.” The first, “Fast Cars” built on Gillette’s advertising campaign featuring six young drivers: Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, and Jamie McMurray. The show featured 12 athletes and entertainers, such as John Elway, Tony Hawk, Jewel, William Shatner, and Bill Cowher, who after training and coaching by the drivers, competed on the track. “Fast Cars” premiered on June 7 and aired for seven weeks. ABC’s second NASCAR-themed show of the summer, “NASCAR in Primetime” aired for five weeks beginning August 8, on Wednesday nights at 10 P.M. This docu-reality show offered viewers the personal and professional stories of their favorite drivers. Presenting NASCAR in primetime was a very clever maneuver by ABC. These programs aired in the weeks preceding ESPN/ABC’s portion of the Nextel Cup schedule. By airing these programs in primetime, ABC exposed racing to viewers who may never have seen a race. “Fast Cars” and “NASCAR in Primetime” could reach non-sports viewers. The goal was surely to drive new viewers to the Nextel Cup races televised on ESPN and ABC.

As far as actual ratings, ESPN and ABC have some work to do. The Daytona 500 historically scores a rating of 10-11.5; each ratings point equals 1 percent of U.S. households. The fall race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina, had a 5.1 and 4.7 rating in 2005 and 2006, respectively, when NBC broadcast the race. In 2007, on ABC, the race had a 4.2 rating. However, Game 2 of the MLB American League Championship Series was on NBC at the same time and scored a rating of 5.8. To put these numbers in perspective, for the week of October 8, 2007, the week of the fall Charlotte race, the highest-rated show was Dancing with the Stars with a 12.8 rating. The same week, NFL Sunday Night Football (New Orleans Saints v. Seattle Seahawks, NBC) scored 7.1, while the Cowboys and Bills on ESPN Monday Night Football scored a 9.6. Broadcast and cable networks along with advertisers are able to break the total number of households down into subgroups based on sex, age, race, and so forth. For example, although the Charlotte race on ABC seems to have a low rating, it may have scored higher with certain groups, such as men in the 18 to 34 age group. An advertiser such as Budweiser or Interstate Batteries will place its commercials based on the ratings for their potential customers, probably not the ratings for the total number of households.

As for Disney’s coup in synergy: the movie, Cars (Lasseter 2006). The movie premiered in May 2006, at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was released in the United States on June 6, 2006. Cars was produced by Pixar (now owned by Disney), presented by Walt Disney, and distributed by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution (owned by Disney). The movie features Pixar’s signature computer-generated animation, in this case, anthropomorphic cars. The lead character is “Lightning McQueen,” a rising rookie in the Piston Cup. The voices of real race car drivers such as Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., unmistakably link the movie with the Nextel Cup series. The movie was a box office hit grossing over $244 million, domestically. Although it was released one year prior to ESPN’s airing Nextel Cup races, the movie definitely reached potential viewers of the Sunday races. Without an insider confirming the fact, there is no definitive way of knowing if Disney was already in contract negotiations with NASCAR when Cars was in production. However, NBC informed NASCAR of its decision against renewing its contract in late summer 2005. It certainly is an interesting coincidence that Disney produced an animated movie with a racing theme and a year later begins televising races.

Personally, as an enthusiastic fan who watches every week, I have to commend how ESPN and ABC use technology to improve my viewing experience. Television is definitely the best medium for sports, but the advances in technology really put the fan in the thick of the action. There are usually at least six cars in the race with in-car cameras; the cars are spread throughout the field ensuring coverage all over the track. Instead of just one camera, the cars usually have three: one inside the car, one on top, and one on the rear. Along with the in-car cameras, ESPN/ABC also place between 60 and 75 high-definition cameras around the track and in the pits. Having all these cameras really enhances the viewing experience with replays, close-ups, and different angles. However, on the flip-side, these cameras represent additional capital expenditure, not to mention employing all the crew members to operate them. Along with the broadcast fees, ESPN/ABC incur considerable expense in order to televise the races in innovative and creative ways to keep viewers engaged.

Another technological advance that ESPN/ABC utilizes during the races is broadcasting the radio communications between the driver and his crew. Fans attending live races use scanners and select which driver they want to listen to, but in the past, fans at home haven’t been able to enjoy this insider perspective. ESPN/ABC selectively incorporate driver/crew chief communications, but they are most often included when a driver is having trouble with his car or has wrecked. Another exciting time viewers hear is during what ESPN calls, “Full Throttle.” During a restart after a caution, the commentators are silent so the only audio is the cars roaring past the start/finish line and the spotters telling the drivers to go, go, go, when the green flag waves.

Although it doesn’t directly relate to the racing action, ESPN has created an animated (though it appears real) gigantic television screen that appears to be suspended at the very top of the grandstands at the races. It is not really there, and of course, fans at the race can’t see it, but for fans at home, it is fascinating and an amusing gadget. The screen does not show scenes from the race but promos for ESPN programming. When the promos are finished, the screen folds down like a laptop computer. Despite myself, I find myself paying attention to the promos because of the novelty of the television screen—probably the reason for it all along.

The Implications

My intention is not to present Disney, ESPN, or ABC negatively. Disney’s capitalizing on marketing opportunities as well as creating its own opportunities is not unusual among megamedia corporations. Murdoch’s News Corporation, Viacom, and Time Warner practice the same methods, but as an enthusiastic Nextel Cup fan, I am more aware of how these practices manifest on ESPN and ABC. I think it’s a safe prediction that an analysis of most any televised professional spectator sport will consistently reveal the same techniques, no matter what network broadcasts the event.

So really, what does all this mean for fans? As much as television viewers complain about commercials, privately owned media is a better alternative when compared to media controlled or financed by the government. However, having periodic commercial breaks for consumer products is vastly different from the current structure of races. Disney resourcefully integrates all its holdings to drive viewers to its programming. In the process, the races are disrupted and interrupted by graphics, promos, and audio above and beyond mere commercial breaks, effectively reducing the race to a commodified form. One can walk away or change the channel during an actual commercial break, but one can’t avoid the promos on ESPN and ABC because they are embedded in the race. Watching the race means being bombarding with the networks’ self-promotion.

Looking beyond the races, the concentration of media ownership should be a concern for everyone because it limits the number and diversity of sources of information. This concentration of ownership is power—power to determine what is available for consumption or viewing. As Ben Bagdikian eloquently summarizes the dilemma,

The threat does not lie in the commercial operation of the mass media. It is the best method there is and, with all its faults, it is not inherently bad. But narrow control, whether by the government or corporation, is inherently bad. In the end, no small group, certainly no group with as much uniformity of outlook and as concentrated in power as current media corporations, can be sufficiently open and flexible to reflect the full richness and diversity of society’s values and needs.

Because ESPN and ABC had the money, by virtue of Disney, to contract with NASCAR, they determine what fans see on the screen, whether it is the actual race, advertised products, or promos for their programming. As a result, these networks, intentionally or accidentally, minimize our options.

The Future

With the current broadcast contract, ESPN and ABC, along with Fox and TNT, will be the home for NASCAR until 2014. If, upon the expiration of the current contract, NASCAR determines to keep the same arrangement for broadcasting races, then fans are in for more of the same, especially if the broadcast rights fees increase another 40 percent. As I stated before, programming promos during the races are more or less free for the networks. The networks have to recoup their investment some way. The most obvious method is by increasing ratings of the races as well as their other shows so they can raise advertising rates.

Between now and 2014, NASCAR can assess the NFL Network’s model. Currently, the NFL Network is embattled with cable providers, and many subscribers do not have access to the games. The fewer homes that have access to games means the less the NFL Network can charge for advertising. Also, the NFL Network is not receiving the maximum amount of cable subscriber fees. Until it can resolve this issue, the NFL is not profiting from having its own network. However, if the NFL can negotiate with cable providers so that the NFL Network is part of basic cable packages, NASCAR will take a hard look. Having its own network will give NASCAR more control over programming. While it may seem that NASCAR would lose the broadcast rights by having its own network, it will gain subscriber fees from the cable providers as well as advertising revenue. ESPN earns one of the highest subscriber fees at $2.70 per subscriber and is in 85 million homes—that is a lot of money!

For NASCAR to take this step, a couple of things have to happen. First, the NFL Network has to be profitable. Second, NASCAR has to be convinced that it has the clout to demand its network be included in most basic cable packages. Lastly, NASCAR has to be certain that it can command high subscriber fees and even higher advertising rates. Based on NASCAR’s power and popularity, these events are highly probable. Of course, NASCAR may partner with a successful network, such as ESPN. With a partnership, NASCAR can still retain control, along with the profits, while at the same time supplement its business savvy with the television experience of an established cable network. In that case, the NASCAR Network is not in the too distant future for race fans.

What will races look like on the NASCAR Network? Much as they do on ESPN or ABC, maybe even worse. Like any other network, the potential NASCAR Network will not survive financially by only selling advertising during three races each week (Nextel/Sprint Cup, Busch/Nationwide Cup, and Craftsman Truck Series). It will have to drive viewers, and advertisers, to its other programming. The sport will become even more commodified because NASCAR will have to commercialize everything associated with the races—drivers, drivers’ personal lives, crew chiefs, sponsors, motors, engines, technology, tracks, and car manufacturers—under the guise of bringing fans closer to the action and offering “insider” information. The one-car team and less popular drivers will be ignored because they won’t raise as much money for NASCAR. Even some national companies will not be able to afford to advertise during races, much less local advertisers. But the biggest loss for fans will be that NASCAR will funnel and control all information about the sport. It will decide who to feature, what to report, and what makes good racing; unfortunately, I think its decisions will be based solely on potential profits, thereby limiting fans’ choices.