A common complaint among NASCAR fans watching this past Sunday’s Daytona 500 was the number of commercials during the race.
It sure felt like there were a bunch more commercials in the past few years compared to 20 years ago. But a graph posted by @GPLapsJake on Twitter showed that the number of commercial breaks and laps missed stayed somewhat the same from 2001 to 2010 to 2023. There are a few more commercial breaks, but we missed fewer green flag laps. Not to mention, we have the benefit of “side-by-side” commercials nowadays where we still get to see the action.
NASCAR Commercials in the 500, some analysis…
Its basically been flat since Fox picked it up in 2001, but somehow feels so much worse now pic.twitter.com/ovZNzfeKli
— GPLaps (@GPLapsJake) February 20, 2023
One reason why it felt like there were a lot of commercials is that Fox front-loaded their ad breaks. Frontloading for a NASCAR broadcast is when the network shows more commercial breaks earlier in the race in order to show fewer ads during the closing stages of the race. NBC does the same with their NASCAR and IndyCar broadcasts. In this year’s Daytona 500, Fox showed fewer commercials starting at Lap 150, having just four ad breaks in the final 62 laps and two of those taking place under caution.
NBC’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. elaborated on Fox’s commercial break strategy on his Dale Jr. Download podcast with guest co-host Steve Letarte. He mentioned the graph comparing the 2001 race to the 2010 race to the 2023 race, and revealed that producers will ask the on-air talent when it’s best to take a commercial break.
“It’s a tough spot for me and you to be in because we work in the booth, we work in the business, and we understand it a little bit differently. But I was surprised while I was watching the race.
“So I’m watching the racing, and Mike Joy talked about this on Twitter, and I thought, ‘Man they must be frontloading this race.’… A lot of times, we may try to frontload the commercials into the first stage. That gives us a chance to say at the end, ‘Hey man, for the last 20 laps we’re going to stick around.’ And so I thought that’s what they were doing. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. Mike Joy touched on that a little bit. That’s a common practice for them.
…“So I wasn’t bothered by the amount of commercials… or how often they were coming. I didn’t think I was really missing much when the commercials would come on. Now of course, we did have that one crash that happened during the ‘Side-by-Side,’ which is unfortunate, and it happens all the time…
“Our producers will come in our ear and say, ‘Hey, is there about to be a lead change? Can we go to commercial here?’ They’re trying. That’s to tell you, the fan listening, they are really making an effort to try not to miss any action. But if they think the lead changes happen, they’ll try to hold off. And usually they take a little direction from the booth. ‘Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart, what are you feeling? They about to wreck? We need to stay here.'”
One thing Earnhardt noted was the in-race ads taking place during Fox’s Daytona broadcast. In-race ads are lucrative, since viewers can’t tune out as easily. This could also be a reason why fans subconsciously think there are more ads now than in years past.
“One of the things, though, that surprised me, or I’ve learned, or come to understand and didn’t recognize. Like when I was watching races all of my life, I did, you [networks] got me on this one. But when I got into the booth, I’m like ‘Oh okay, this is how this works.’ It’s the ads that are happening while we’re watching the race.
“There was a moment when they went to interview Noah Gragson during a stage break, running 30th just because that was an ad buy by Wendy’s. So they went to Noah and said, ‘Hey Noah, how’s your race going? Okay, thanks Noah.’… And then immediately after that, we had a Toyota manufacturers ad buy where we went to set on cameras…of about three or four Toyotas.
“And those things, a lot of times, are happening and if you pay attention, you’ll pick up on when it’s an obvious ad purchase on-air. And so, I think that’s a necessary part of it. I understand that the networks are trying to take advantage of the opportunity to bring in ad revenue, they need to. It’s expensive to put on these races. Sometimes, though, I get, just the frequency of it, or how it’s done. Could it be done differently to where we don’t step away from where the action really is?”
I feel like Earnhardt hit the nail on the head about in-race ads. Everything is sponsored by something, and this isn’t necessarily a NASCAR-specific issue. Other sports broadcasts do the same thing, but it can feel weird when this happens at the wrong time.
When the broadcast goes away from the leaders to follow Gragson while he’s in the middle of the pack or show a bunch of Toyota drivers for the purposes of an in-race ad, it increases the chance of taking something away from the broadcast. For example, while following Gragson, a caution came out for Ryan Blaney’s blown tire while Alex Bowman made one of the most incredible saves ever. Blaney’s blown tire was shown on the Fox broadcast but Bowman’s save, one that honestly should be one for the highlight reel, was never mentioned on Fox. MRN Radio called out Bowman’s save at the time.
In-race ads are a necessary evil, and it’s not like Fox has a choice whether or not to do the ad based on if that driver is running well. But if Gragson was in the top 10 or a Toyota was leading when their in-race ad happened, their in-race ad would be a much smoother experience.
One in-race ad that wasn’t talked about is the Credit One final lap ad. I’m not faulting anyone for this. I’m sure Credit One is paying a lot of money to be a part of the last lap as that not only is when most people watch, but will be on highlight packages until the end of time. Though, a play-by-play person doing an awkward “final lap sponsored by Credit One Bank” ad-read at the climax of the race can be awkward. It’s like when a piece of background music doesn’t fit the tone of a scene in a movie.
Sometimes, it feels like a promo competition that’s occasionally interrupted by a NASCAR race. For instance, if Ken Squier tried to squeeze in a Credit One ad read when Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough battled at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500, or Mike Joy did the same when Dale Earnhardt finally won his ‘500 in 1998, those moments might feel less special over time.
These in-race ads weren’t a thing in 2001 or even 2010. So even though we see slightly more commercial breaks over the last 20 years, the number of in-race ads is adding up and making this feel worse than it actually is.
Some of this is in order to make up for the rise of rights fees and production costs. Fox and NBC pay hundreds of millions per year just for the rights to show NASCAR races, and pay millions to produce the broadcasts each week.
For Fox, the Daytona 500 is the most-watched NASCAR race of the year. Fox gets more than double the viewership for Daytona than any other race during the season. Ad rates will be much higher, and it makes sense for Fox to strike while the iron is hot and capitalize on showing ads during the biggest race of the year.
That being said, Dale Jr. has a point. The number of ads isn’t the issue, and sometimes the broadcast will be in commercial when a crash happens. Though maybe in-race ads could be done in a different way where in-race ads improve the broadcast instead of taking away from a broadcast.