Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? It’s Not Just the Economy, Stupid; Tony the Terrible? & Testing

Did You Notice? The debate raging on over all the empty seats at Bristol? Everyone’s trying to figure out if the answer lies in the economy, a different style of racing or just plain ol’ fan disinterest.

So, which is it?

I’ve heard some strong, compelling arguments for number one. People claim that tough times mean tough choices when it comes to Bristol. After all, it used to be the hottest ticket in sports, where even the cheap seats didn’t come cheap. The lowest price for Bristol single-day walkup tickets was $93 – compared to a $40 seat currently available for Richmond’s Saturday night Cup show on May 1.

Bristol is also notorious for jacking up the prices on their hotels. Although TV people can sometimes get lucky, I can definitively tell you I’ve stayed somewhere that was a $350-a-night rate for the August race. I remember looking at the invoice and thinking two things:

1) I have the best job ever that someone’s willing to spend that much for me to cover my favorite sport.
2) Thank God that’s not coming out of my checking account.

But I know the fans aren’t so lucky. There’s nightmarish stories about three-night minimums and travel expenses, totals that run you well over $1,000 for a three-day weekend that shouldn’t cost half that much.

Considering Bristol’s within shouting distance of five other tracks on the circuit (Atlanta, Talladega, Martinsville, Charlotte and “$40” Richmond) I can understand why fans would choose to save money and head elsewhere. And with 158,000 seats (only Daytona and Indy have more) it’s not exactly like you’re selling out a track like Chicagoland or Phoenix, which have less than half that capacity.

When you put it like that, it just sounds so easy to just jump on that economic bandwagon and bite, doesn’t it? NASCAR has you hook, line and sinker, as do several of our track promoters ‘round the country who refuse to believe the racing itself is the problem.

Well, I’m sorry guys: I just don’t buy it.

We’ll build our argument from the ground up. By and large, most fans have expressed displeasure at Bristol’s repaving (in a Frontstretch poll last week, 62% to 38% favored the “old” Bristol). When that happens, you’re going to have numerous people choose to turn their backs on the product if the ticket price still places it within the top-five best races in the sport each year. After all, the Super Bowl doesn’t have a love-hate relationship with three-fifths of the NFL fanbase, does it?

Let me list just a few comments from Matt McLaughlin’s race recap column on Monday to get my point across. Keep in mind Matt’s column is well-read; we’re not just talking five grumpy people jumping online to whine about a race they didn’t see:

Secesh: “I’m just glad I went to Bristol back in the ’80s.”
Babydufus: “Bristol was the first race I’ve watched live in about a year. It’s also my last.”

But let’s move on to the third and most important theory listed for Bristol, that attendance is being directly affected by the economy. I just decided to pick five NASCAR tracks at random (one short track, two intermediates, one superspeedway, one triangular road/oval) and looked at their spring attendance dates for the last five years. Keep in mind the economic crash didn’t happen until 2008, so it’s hard to skew the numbers before then:

Spring Attendance Chart

Year Texas Dover Martinsville Pocono Talladega
2005 211,000 150,000 67,000 100,000 155,000
2006 189,000 145,000 65,000 100,000 155,000
2007 191,000 145,000 66,500 105,000 160,000
2008 190,000 133,000 63,000 105,000 156,000
2009 176,300 100,000 63,000 105,000 142,000

As you can see, there’s a big skew downward in numbers between 2008 to 2009. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an overall decline as a whole before the crash. And regardless of the economic difficulties, these five tracks are producing shocking numbers: Attendance has declined a staggering 14.1% for them over this time period. This downward spiral for NASCAR overall continues in 2010, with only one of the first five races we’ve been to (Las Vegas) posting an increase in overall attendance.

Now that I’ve thrown all these numbers at you, let’s keep something else in mind: NASCAR is exaggerating the totals as of late. Remember the Fontana incident, where attendance was listed at 72,000 while reporters threatened to rebel, they were so certain the numbers were inflated? Most pegged the attendance in the 50-60,000 range, a 10,000-plus difference that many sources off the record will tell you seems to be a pattern this season.

So keep that in mind when looking at the numbers for the past three years. After all, when your product’s starting to go downhill the last thing you need is reporters writing about severe attendance declines – so it’s a simple, basic marketing tactic. Fudge the numbers by as much as you can (to the edges of justification) in order to minimize the bleeding.Here’s one other question to ask yourself: are other sports experiencing the same types of attendance problems?

Not exactly. We’ll start with college football, where you’d expect numbers would be down in these economically depressed areas, right? After all, Alabama (Talladega) and Michigan have severe drops in NASCAR attendance, which means fans must not be going to any other sporting events, either.

So here’s a quick look at college attendance figures from 2009:

U. of Michigan: 108,933 (+362 people per game from 2008) (0.3% increase)
U. of Alabama: 92,012 (-120 per game from 2008) (0.1% decline)

Hmm. That’s interesting… so fans still have the money to spend on college football but not NASCAR. I understand your rebuttal; it’s a one-day show, so hotels and all sorts of auxiliary expenses aren’t involved. But the ticket prices are comparable – Alabama vs. Florida is an $85 ticket in 2010, for example – so these people are still shelling out money to attend these games. It’s not like these races are being held in desolate areas, either; for Bristol there’s 350,000 people in the Tri-Cities area alone who wouldn’t need the extra expenses of gas or a hotel to attend the race.

And let’s not forget the power of passion above all. If you’re a sports fan, wouldn’t you want to spend your cash rooting for your favorite team (or in this case, driver)? Why cut out a race and still go see college football if you like NASCAR that much more? Sounds to me like the racing wasn’t as interesting, so that’s the sporting event families decided to cut.

Let’s move on to another easy comparison: TV ratings. It would make sense that if fans are staying home, they’re still turning on the boob tube to watch every Sunday, right? After all, 98.2% of Americans have one, and none of these races require cable or satellite to watch.

But here’s where the economic theory really runs into the ground: ratings for NASCAR races through the first four races of 2010 are 24% lower than they were five years ago – when the economy was stable.But let’s dig deeper. Remember how bad this year’s 500 ratings were? Let’s compare that to some big event ratings of other major sports, and we see a positive trend over the last five years:

Baseball: World Series Ratings – 2005 vs 2009: 7.2% increase (11.1 vs 11.9)
Football: Super Bowl Ratings – 2005 vs 2010: 8.6% increase (41.1 vs 45.0)
Basketball: NBA Finals Ratings – 2005 vs 2009: 2.4% increase (8.2 vs 8.4)
Hockey: Stanley Cup Finals Ratings – 2004 (BEFORE a one-year lockout decimated attendance) vs 2009: 19.2% increase (2.6 vs 3.1)

Oops! Almost forgot us.

NASCAR: Daytona 500 Ratings – 2005 vs 2010: 29.3% decrease (10.9 vs 7.7)

I know I just threw out a heck of a lot of numbers at you. If you wanted, I could go really in-depth and talk about how the regular season numbers for all these major sports are up while NASCAR is down. But I think I’ve made my point. So the next time someone tells you the economy is the problem, that all these fans are staying away ‘cause of money and the second things pick up, they’ll be back – show ‘em some numbers.

People might say I’m being pessimistic. Look, I think NASCAR’s done a phenomenal job with changes designed to improve the product on the racetrack this season. But it pisses me off when people say, “It’s the economy. It’s the economy.” I’m sorry, but are you blind? Are you in the trenches, talking to fans, talking to people in bars and getting a barometer on the state of the sport? I can’t tell you how many emails I get each week saying, “I’m no longer a NASCAR fan because of A, B and C.” It’s alarming.

And trust me: it’s not because they’re broke.

Did You Notice? That with the way Tony the Tiger’s been sniping at the media lately, you’d think his whole season’s been one soggy bowl of rotting Frosted Flakes. But ever so quietly, the sport’s slowest starter has climbed up to fifth in points, fresh off a runner-up Bristol finish that also served as his first top five of the season. Just 89 points off Kevin Harvick’s pace, the sophomore slump everyone’s talking about at Stewart-Haas may simply be limited to Ryan Newman’s No. 39 when you look at the numbers. Just sneak a peek at Tony Stewart’s Cup career through the first five races since his rookie year:

1999: 0 wins, 1 top 5, 1 top 10, 14th in points
2000: 0 wins, 3 top 5s, 3 top 10s, 6th in points
2001: 0 wins, 1 top 5, 1 top 10, 15th in points
2002: 1 win, 3 top 5s, 3 top 10s, 12th in points
2003: 0 wins, 2 top 5s, 4 top 10s, 2nd in points
2004: 0 wins, 2 top 5s, 3 top 10s, 3rd in points
2005: 0 wins, 1 top 5, 3 top 10s, 3rd in points
2006: 0 wins, 2 top 5s, 2 top 10s, 9th in points
2007: 0 wins, 1 top 5, 3 top 10s, 12th in points
2008: 0 wins, 1 top 5, 3 top 10s, 7th in points
2009: 0 wins, 0 top 5s, 3 top 10s, 7th in points
2010: 0 wins, 1 top 5, 3 top 10s, 5th in points

As you can see, Smoke’s current start is in line with past years and better than 2009, when he wound up dominating the summer and coasting in as the regular season points champ. People say Stewart hasn’t won a race yet. So what? Only one of his 37 career victories have ever come within the first five races. And considering the upcoming spoiler switch, he’ll have access to data from Hendrick simulations likely to keep them at or near the front of the pack.

So why has Stewart been grouchy with the media if things are going so peachy? That’s anybody’s guess. But it’s not because he’s slumping on the racetrack. I’m sure of it.

Did You Notice? No need to get too long this week, so some quick hits before I go:

  • The number one buzzword coming out of this spoiler test so far? Stability. Drivers feel more comfortable with the handling of the car, and the drag down the straightaways will keep both RPMs and speeds lower. That’s a good thing, because if the drivers don’t feel like the car will snap around smack in the middle of the turn, chances are there’ll be more side-by-side racing… at least until people start thinking about the risks involved with losing points for the Chase. Oh man, we were almost getting somewhere.
  • Lance McGrew and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fighting on the radio might be the best thing to ever happen to the No. 88. I’ve been saying for years someone needs to do just that, lighting a fire under Earnhardt while he’s in the driver’s seat. And guess what… it worked! The second NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver got hot under the collar, he drove like a bat out of you-know-what! (Hint: The opposite of heaven). If I were McGrew, I’d keep this lesson in my back pocket and have a barrage of insults to throw at the man whenever needed. It’s called tough love and it’s just about the only thing they haven’t tried to get this guy running back up front.
  • If NASCAR’s going to throw out more speeding penalties than your local cops, the least they can do is show us the data that makes it legit. Because the more people that get caught, the more it becomes an issue – and fans will begin to criticize that all-important “grey area” that can lead one to believe this sport keeps on playing favorites.

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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