Is NASCAR dying?
One of the big talking points this week when it comes to NASCAR has been the “terrible” attendance that Bristol Motor Speedway saw last week for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
Bristol, a track that has a listed seating capacity of 162,000, had at best 40,000 fans at best in attendance. Track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc. decided to not open the turns up for fans, saving money by not having to staff those areas.
So, here’s the reality of the situation. Back “in the day”, promoters lived and died by their live gate. Maybe they could recoup some of their expenses by also printing up programs or selling concessions, and later on in the 80’s and 90’s network television would be a boon to larger tracks, but the gate was the backbone of the sport.
Now, everything has changed. Let’s say 40,000 people paid $200 to get into the race on Sunday. That’s about $8,000,000 from the live gate. And the actual number from Sunday is actually less than that, because there’s no way the average ticket price was $200. Also, let’s remember that these fans are also spending over $300 for a decent hotel and are facing a track that has had inconsistent quality on a race weekend where the weather has sucked for years.
NASCAR’s TV contract calls for an average of $820 million every year, 65% of which ($533 million) goes to the tracks. If we divide that by 36, we can guesstimate that SMI walked away with $14,805,555 before the ticket booths even opened on Sunday morning. That’s almost double what the gate would be. That’s insane. That’s why NASCAR and the track owners are not in full-scale panic mode right now. And that’s in the neighborhood of what each track is getting each week. Sure, concessions are down, but those are still just icing on the cake.
You also need to take into account that these tracks are publicly owned, and Wall Street gets excited at the idea of guaranteed money. WWE’s share price skyrocketed last year once it announced a huge new TV contract with FOX, in spite of falling live attendance compared to what it was ten years ago.
So, overall, this controversy of NASCAR dying because they couldn’t fill half of a 162,000 seat stadium is a bit overblown. And it’s hard to get 80,000 people to come to one location, especially when it’s just another event on the calendar. Compare that to my Baltimore Orioles, who have had all sorts of attendance woes the past couple of years in one of the best ballparks in the country. I’ll say NASCAR is dying if the sports TV rights bubble were to burst, which it isn’t showing any signs of doing.
But what about ratings?
Speaking of television, the other facet of this whole “NASCAR is dying” mentality has been TV ratings. And let’s not sugarcoat things here: TV ratings for NASCAR have fallen dramatically in the past ten years. Las Vegas in 2009 drew a 5.5 share, and with 11 million people watching. In 2019, the spring race at Las Vegas drew a 3.05 share and with 5.1 million people watching.
That’s not a good sign at all. However, ratings have remained flat from last year for most of the Cup races this year, so it seems most of the bleeding has stopped. Let’s also not pretend that other programs have fallen in TV ratings. Before the start of March Madness, NASCAR this year was still routinely the top rated sports program just about every weekend.
And forget about sports, TV as a whole has dramatically fallen, especially for cable. Think, when was the last time you turned on TNT to watch something besides the NBA? How about the USA Network? Two of the biggest cable channels still around, and yet there’s nothing there besides the NBA and WWE.
Speaking of WWE, let’s take another look there. Pro wrestling has long had a reputation for bringing big ratings, especially in the 80’s and late 90’s. But, unlike NASCAR, wrestling has terrible ad rates due to advertisers historically looking down on those dumb “fake wrestling fans” and thinking they’re too broke to be worthwhile to advertise to.
That didn’t stop WWE from getting a huge new TV contract last year in spite of terrible rating drops over the past few years. Why were they able to do so? Because it’s a live program being sold as a sport and one of the last few things on television that can draw two million people a week on cable. And NASCAR just did 2.8 million on Sunday on a worse station with no ad buy worries!
I understand why the narrative of NASCAR dying is there. Yes, live attendance and TV ratings have fallen. But looking at the outlook of sports and the television business, it’s simply following the trends of what it has been given.
What will come out of the final short track race for four months?
This weekend will be the last of the three spring short track races for the Cup Series, and it’s unclear as far as what kind of race we’re going to end up seeing this weekend. Martinsville was a bit of a snoozer while Bristol was the best race of the year so far.
One thing should be clear, however. Team Penske dominated both short tracks, leading 795 of 1,000 short track laps in Cup this season. Joe Gibbs Racing has long had a stranglehold on Richmond, having won five of the last seven Cup races at the Virginia oval, but Penske is definitely fit to challenge the coach’s crow… er, headset.
Another weird stat entering this weekend is that a Kyle has won the past three races at Richmond- Larson in 2017 and Busch in both races in 2018. With how big of an advantage being a “wheelman” is at Richmond (Christopher Bell swept the NASCAR XFINITY Series races there last year), it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Kyle streak continues.
Outside of Penske and Gibbs, one driver to keep an eye on will be Kevin Harvick. Harvick finished second at Richmond last year and had the fastest car at Bristol last week. Harvick is also going to be looking at getting vengeance on his comparatively slow start to the season, and Richmond could be a good starting place.
What will happen this week, on Days of Our Qualifying?
This week, NASCAR announced that each of the three qualifying rounds for Cup will be reduced to just five minutes at Richmond.
This change is in response to Bristol last weekend, where nobody went in the first five minutes of a ten-minute round. Now, to be fair, NASCAR has said that this is only for Richmond, and that it is not indicative of what NASCAR will do long-term to fix the drafting problem.
That being said, NASCAR once again made an unnecessary announcement. There’s no reason to really police it this week, outside of saving television from five minutes of waiting with no action. It’s doubtful that drafting at Richmond will allow drivers to get more tangible speed than they would without it.
And in spite of NASCAR constantly explaining that these changes aren’t going to necessarily stick, a lot of fans have read past this and just see it as yet another band-aid to a bullet wound. And now, we’re going to give 37 teams five minutes to complete a lap around a three-quarters of a mile short track. What could possibly go wrong?
About the author
Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.
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