NASCAR Experiencing Attendance Woes, Great Racing Key to Resurgence
Last Sunday’s Food Series 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS) drew just 38,000 fans (track seats 162,000) and Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway didn’t fare any better; no more than 40% of the venue’s 51,000 seats were occupied (granted, 10K people were in the modernized infield or on the Chaos Corner Party Deck). Gate attendance has been a problem for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series all season. The Daytona 500 was the only race among the first 9 to sell-out. While weather has been a factor the past 2 weekends, driver Clint Bowyer has attributed the fans’ decision to stay away from the track in droves to the cost of lodging for a weekend; hotels near NASCAR venues regularly mark-up rooms +/- 200% (to $300+) on race weekends. Speedway Motorsports Inc. (TRK, owns Bristol + 7 other NASCAR tracks) CEO Marcus Smith acknowledged that hotel pricing is a part of the reason fans aren't showing up, but said he ultimately believes that “the key for a NASCAR resurgence” is great racing.
Howie Long-Short: BMS used to be “the toughest ticket” on the NASCAR circuit - selling-out 55 consecutive races between ’82-’10 - so seeing large portions of the grandstands closed off (no fans in the turns) made for a shocking optical.
Hotel pricing is the result of supply and demand - there are typically few rooms available in the area because the tracks are located in rural destinations - and the revenue generated on race weekends helps keep many of these places afloat for the year. Track owners could lower the price of camping on-site, but the costs associated with renting an RV for the weekend are roughly the same as what a hotel room would charge, so there’s little the series can do to reduce the costs of lodging. NASCAR races have long been costly to attend if you don’t live driving distance from the venue (and most fans don’t because of said rural location) - so this isn’t a new problem - it’s just getting more attention now because of Bowyer’s comments, which completely missed the mark.
Race promoters had no problem selling seats during the sport’s mid ‘00s heyday, but when the economy collapsed in 2008 a large portion of the fan base could no longer afford to attend races. While the economy has since recovered, many of those fans have never returned.
Part of the reason why is that NASCAR's core fan base has aged out of the demographic that attends sporting events over the last 10 years. Just 21% of those over the age of 53 went to a sporting event within the last year. The NASCAR fan that grew up cheering for Dale Sr. throughout the 80s and 90s is now in their 50s and 60s.
NASCAR race attendance has declined, but any declarations that the sport is dying are premature. The races still draw +/- 3 million people on television each week (ratings are up slightly YoY) and Cup Series races are the top-rated sporting event on television most weekends over the first 8 months of the year. NASCAR’s current TV contract is worth $820 million/year (tracks keep 65%). As long as the value of live media rights continues to increase, the tracks will remain flush with cash.
Fan Marino: Critics of NASCAR will tell you that the series lacks excitement and that the outcomes are too predictable; a Joe Gibbs Racing (6) or Team Penske (3) car has won all 9 races this season. While the statistic is accurate, the criticism is off-base; the racing has been great, of late. The Bristol race had 21 lead changes among 9 drivers and Martin Truex Jr. held off a late charge from Joey Logano to win his first short-track race on Saturday night. That's good news for the sport because Smith is right, the surest way to win back the fan is to consistently put a great product on the track.
Existing 5-year sanctioning agreements prevent changes from being made to the race schedule before the end of the ’20 season, but NASCAR officials are already said to be exploring the possibility of a shorter season come ’21. That’s a smart call, no sport needs a 10-month schedule (see: oversaturation); cutting down on the number of races makes the remaining ones that much more important. There’s also no reason for the series to visit so many tracks twice. Demand for tickets (and thus attendance) would increase if there was just a single race weekend in a given locale.
NASCAR would also be wise to explore some changes that would make the sport more appealing to the the next generation of fans (see: millennial/Gen-Z fan). Cutting race times (i.e. laps) to under 2.5 hours (currently can run upwards of 4) and outfitting tracks with Wi-Fi would be good places to start.
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