- There’s no need to panic
It’s easy to look at the empty seats at racetracks and wonder if the sky is falling. Sure, the empty seats are a concern, particularly for racetracks whose revenue is based directly on attendance, unlike NASCAR’s, which comes from a variety of sources including television and sponsor deals.
NASCAR doesn’t release attendance figures, so it’s not an exact science, but let’s look at a few numbers. Martinsville Speedway looked about 70 percent full on Sunday, maybe 75 percent, but we’ll take the lower number. Yes, you can compare that to the NFL and fall short all day long, as most of those teams post over 90 percent on a regular basis. NBA figures range from averaging a sellout for some teams to 71 percent for others, a number that’s on target with what we saw at Martinsville
And what of America’s pastime, baseball? Last years American League numbers showed an average attendance across its 15 teams of 28, 892. Some stadiums hold 45,000 or more, with the smallest coming in at 31,042. The Toronto Blue Jays, which posted the largest overall attendance last year at 3,392,099, have a stadium that holds 48,297. That means, on average last year, it was at 86 percent capacity, but there were games where the team posted less than 50 percent. Averaging both attendance and capacity, the overall AL attendance percentage for 2016 was 69 percent.
This sport has a much longer history of a national audience, and while there may be concern, there isn’t panic.
- The hula hoop effect
Which brings us to the new normal. NASCAR was a fad in the late 90s and early 2000s. It was the cool thing to talk about around the water cooler, so people watched, many casually, just to be included. Yet those are the numbers we are trying to compare today’s figures to, and that’s just not accurate.
For reference, when the hula hoop was introduced nationally as a toy in 1954, toy companies sold 25,000,000 of them in four months, producing more than 50,000 every day to keep up with demand. More than 100,000,000 sold in two years.
Compare NASCAR to that. In the late 90s, in an effort to capitalize on its newfound popularity, tracks added seats anywhere and everywhere and raked in money hand over fist. Times were good, supply still wasn’t keeping up with demand, and foolishly, a lot of people seemed to think it would last forever.
If a company manufactured 25 million hula hoops today in hopes of selling them all in four months, it’d be mocked, because that fad has passed. As has the NASCAR fad. Comparing today’s attendance to those days is as effective as comparing 2017 hula hoop sales to 1958. They will never measure up and make things look worse than they really are. You can’t not see the empty seats, but you also should not ignore that there are simply too many of them as the fad bandwagoneers have moved on to the next popular thing in the office.
- It’s not the journey…
Another thing to consider is the location of NASCAR’s events. While other sports are, for the most part, located in big-city markets, many NASCAR tracks are in rural locations, especially the ones that have been on the schedule of what was for 40 years a regional sport. Martinsville and Bristol are beautiful small towns. But they’re small towns, and not destinations of themselves if not for racing. If fans want to combine a race trip and a vacation (and those may have been separate trips years ago when costs were more affordable), they’re probably going to opt for a bigger market, and those tracks aren’t generally the best ones (Richmond and Boston may beg to differ).
NASCAR doesn’t have a good track record for moving into new markets, either, in that the tracks they have added to the schedule near larger cities have been 1.5-mile tracks. Had Speedway Motorsports, Inc., or International Speedway Corp., the two biggest players, built a replica of Martinsville or Bristol in Texas or Kansas City, the conversation about those tracks, and maybe racing in general, would be different.
NASCAR is also unique in that there is no home team. With most teams located in the Charlotte area, it’s not like other sports. Fans will see all their favorites at every race, so they don’t need to travel to see them. Some want to travel for the tracks themselves, others want to see the cities, but people won’t plan a schedule around a team.
- But what about the racing?
The elephant in the room is, of course, the racing, and many fans aren’t satisfied with it. That’s absolutely valid. Tickets are expensive, and people aren’t going to pay for them if they don’t think they will see a quality product. Fair enough.
But there are tracks where the racing is always good, like Martinsville. It’s hard to come away from seeing a race in person at Martinsville, Richmond, Bristol and a couple of others, disappointed with the action. So the racing argument doesn’t really hold water all the time. At those tracks, it often goes back to the lack of other attractions, the cost of hotels and other factors. But to say people aren’t at Martinsville because the racing is terrible is a poor argument, and if people didn’t go Sunday for fear of mediocre competition, they missed a great weekend of racing.
- Money, and mouths, and all that
Another piece to the puzzle is the expense of attending a race. Beyond tickets, there’s food, gas to and from the race, and, if you live more than a couple hours from the track, hotels which don’t come cheap near a track on race weekend. For a three-day race weekend in Bristol, where hotel rates are ratcheted up anywhere near the track, a family of four can be looking at close to $1000 all told. The problem is that tracks can only control their own expenses, not the prices of hotels, gas and food outside, so when people say the cost of attending is prohibitive, that can’t just be blown off as an excuse.
You can’t really blame fans for not wanting to spend all that money if they don’t believe races that they can realistically attend will be worth the cost. Or if the tracks that put on a great show are too far away to travel to for a weekend and don’t offer much else to justify a longer vacation.
But what good does it do fans who don’t go to the races, for any reason they might have, to complain about the attendance numbers? It doesn’t. But it also does little good for fans to talk about how they wished there were more races like this track or that if they’re not going to this track or that.
Look at Rockingham. When NASCAR left the track in the early 2000s, fans railed for years, and when the track was purchased and it looked like there might be a race there once again, they rallied around it.
Except when NASCAR did return, the fans did not, and NASCAR stopped trying after a couple of years. And there is nobody else to blame. There’s nobody else to blame for the loss of the XFINITY Series at Martinsville, either; the track loses money on that series every time out, so they gave up. Will Martinsville, or its owner, ISC, give up on two Cup dates? Probably not anytime soon, but if people don’t go and show support, it could happen. At some point, if fans really want to see certain tracks stay on the schedule, the only way to make sure that happens is to show up when the gates open.
Is it a disaster if every seat is not full every race, like some seem to imply? Nope. Attendance for sporting events in general has dropped in recent years as people simply don’t have the money or the attention span to go to every event on their lists. Accepting the new normal is going to be an important part of maintaining the audience the sport does have. But fans have to play a role, too, by supporting the tracks that do have great racing either in person or on TV. Otherwise, if they lose them, the reason why is pretty clear.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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