27 May 2011
Track owners anxious as crowds dwindle
NASCAR track owners are worrying about the slump in race attendance figures, which means less money coming into the sport - making things tight for teams and drivers too.
With the action in the All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway relatively lacking (read: pretty dull), it was hard not to let one's eyes wonder around the facility and notice just how many empty seats there were, for what should be one of NASCAR's premier events.
The realisation comes just after Speedway Motorsports, the company owning Charlotte along with seven other racetracks, posted a $1.5m loss earlier this month due to falling attendance revenue, bringing the deteriorating economic situation in the sport into sharp relief.
Meanwhile the company owning Dover International Speedway, Dover Motorsports, is even more worried after the this month's FedEx 400 Sprint Race saw attendance slump to under two-thirds capacity, a 45% drop in crowd numbers over the last five years, with row upon row of empty seats in evidence in May.
That was despite Dover using a new 'trick' to try and cover-up the visible evidence of declining numbers: huge 12-by-20 foot advertising banners covering up whole grandstands' worth of seats around the oval circuit. As well as hiding the evidence of the lower numbers at the track, shutting off these seating areas reduced the stadium's overheads in terms of staffing numbers and allowed the venue to avoid having to flood the market with cut-price tickets just to make the TV pictures look better.
Other tracks (Talladega, Al. and Fontana, Ca.) are also using the tactic, but Dover was the first - and is also the only one to make a conscious effort to turn the temporary cover-up into an ongoing long-term revenue-raising stream, something that Mark Rossi, Dover's vice president of sales and marketing, said was akin to turning "lemons into lemonade."
"I don't want the grandstands to turn into signage," he added hastily. "Any of us would rather have butts in seats." However much they sell the banners to advertisers for, it's nowhere near the amount they would get from an equivalent packed stand of fans, especially once sales of food and drink are factored in.
Anyone tempted to look at the precipitous decline in NASCAR crowds and gloat should be wary of schadenfreude, however: what ails NASCAR is also hitting other motor sport events (and sporting events in general) and is a sign of the recent recession which, no matter what the statistics about economic recovery say, is still biting people hard in the US and around Europe.
"I [have to] save for this stuff every year," Kenny Hucks, a long-time NASCAR fan from South Carolina who has been coming to camp at the Charlotte races every year since 1991. "This is a fun place to come to." He's noticed the recent decline in numbers too: "Attendance is down, bad," he confirms.
"This is my vacation right here," said another NASCAR fan, Demetrius Arrington, pointing out that the combined costs of transport, accommodation and the race itself now means that it has to substitute for the family holiday.
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