NASCAR's decision last month to standardise start times for Sprint Cup Series races came as welcome news to track operators. They need all the help they can get to sell tickets to the races.

No race, not even the Daytona 500, is immune from the effects of the economy on the slumping ticket-buying trends in the sport. Robin Braig, president of Daytona International Speedway, said advance ticket sales are 20 per cent off the pace from the previous year for the sport's biggest race in February.

That's consistent with what other tracks in the International Speedway Corp. family have seen. ISC owns a dozen tracks that are home to Sprint Cup events, and its venues host 19 of the 36 Cup events.

During ISC's third-quarter earnings report earlier this month, company president John Saunders said advance sales are off 25 percent to 30 percent across all venues, both in ticket units sold and total revenue.

Admissions revenue for ISC in the first three quarters of 2009 was $143 million, compared with $172 million in 2008, when the Daytona 500 celebrated its 50th anniversary and ISC had one more Sprint Cup race (Auto Club Speedway) in the third quarter.

Still, ISC officials project ticket sales for the year will be down 15 percent, and Saunders is not optimistic about a quick turnaround.

"We think it will be 2011 before you'll see any noticeable improvement," he said.

Most track operators emphatically applauded NASCAR's decision to standardise start times, which at least gives tracks a selling point when they call back those fans who have not renewed their tickets. All Sprint Cup races in the Eastern and Central Times Zones will start at 1:15 p.m. ET, and races in the West will start at 3 p.m. ET. Night races will begin at 7:45 ET no matter the location.

Tracks are also pushing tickets at lower prices. In 2010, ISC will lower prices on a third of its tickets, or a cumulative 500,000 seats across its venues. Price reductions have produced positive results in 2009, Saunders said. ISC tracks have sold 90 percent of their tickets at the entry-level price, typically $30 to $40, and of those, more than half have been purchased by first-time buyers.

"For those of us battling the economy, we've got something to talk about now," Braig said.

Texas Motor Speedway, a track owned by rival Speedway Motorsports Inc., introduced "backstretch busters," a group of nearly 3,000 seats available for as low as $20 for its April race. Those $20 tickets for Texas' Nov. 8 race have sold out, and close to 80 percent of those fans are first-time ticket buyers.

"People are definitely shopping by price point," said TMS president Eddie Gossage, who added that advance ticket sales are down a little less than 20 percent.

Introducing new fans to the sport is "an exciting by-product," Saunders said of the price drops. Saunders added the price reductions are not damaging ISC's long-term value proposition because the tracks are not slashing prices late in the sales cycle just to unload tickets.

Average ticket prices have been decreased 4 percent for events in ISC's third quarter and they'll drop 3 percent to 5 percent in 2010. Some venues, such as Michigan International Speedway, will offer free tickets to children 12 and under.

The consensus among track promoters is that advance ticket sales are a tough business because fans don't know what kind of financial shape they'll be in several months before a race. Tracks typically begin selling for the next event within a month or two after the previous race ends, giving it a 10- to 11-month sales cycle. Most offer discounts and flexible payment plans to entice fans to buy early, while also offering more individual event tickets. In the past, tracks often bundled tickets to lower-level races with the Cup tickets as a season-ticket package.

The trend this year is that ticket sales are 20 percent or more behind the pace until the final three to four weeks before the event, then tracks see a sharp increase in sales. Fans are more comfortable making a buying decision closer to the event date because they have a better feel for their family finances.

They also know that plenty of tickets will be available. By this time, Daytona has normally sold out its highly coveted frontstretch seats, which go for $110 and up, but Braig said about 10,000 of those seats are still available for the February Daytona 500.

"People are waiting because they know they can," he said. "Seats are available."

The longer it takes a track to sell tickets to its Sprint Cup event, the more the lead-in events such as Nationwide and Camping World Truck series races suffer. Speedways do not break out ticket sales and admission revenue for different events, but the sluggish sales are only amplified when it comes to the junior events.

"There's definitely an impact," said Curtis Gray, president of Homestead-Miami Speedway, the site for the season-ending races in the Cup, Nationwide and truck series next month. "A few years ago, we were selling out the Cup race five months early. The only tickets left were the Nationwide and truck, and you really had a chance to move those. Now, we don't know if we're going to sell out the Cup race. We anticipate a full house, and things are starting to pick up, but we've been down significantly on the advance side."

by Michael Smith
Michael Smith is a reporter with SportsBusiness Journal

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