How Can NASCAR Fix Its Attendance Problems?
It's no secret that NASCAR has suffered substantial attendance losses over the last several years.
Where the sport was once flying high and was the envy of most other sports leagues with one race sellout after the next, recent attendance woes have cost NASCAR and its fans deeply.
But at the same time, even with conspicuous empty seats at many NASCAR tracks, the fact remains that the sport is still pulling in more fans on a Sunday afternoon or Saturday night than most other sports events—even more than the typical NFL game.
While we may have gotten spoiled for years, if not decades, of regularly having 160,000 fans at Bristol Motor Speedway or 150,000 fans at Texas Motor Speedway, having maybe 110,000 at Bristol or 100,000 at Texas today is still a heck of a lot better than most other sports venues.
Admittedly, money is the biggest reason for the loss of many fans. While race tickets remain fairly affordable when compared to other prime seating in other sports, it's all the other ancillary costs that factor in to whether fans can still afford to make it to places like Talladega, Richmond, Watkins Glen or even Daytona.
While it may cost you $50 or $75 for a race ticket, things like airfare, gas, rental cars—and especially hotels—often drives the price tag out of reach of fans today.
Example: When I was a regular at Bristol Motor Speedway from 2001 through 2008, I'd attend each spring and summer race. Without exception, I'd wind up spending anywhere from $1,500 to as much as $2,200 for airfare, rental car, food, gas and of course, hotels for a typical three- or four-day weekend.
Hotels in the Bristol (both Va. and Tenn.), Johnson City, Kingsport and surrounding locales within an hour's drive of the track regularly charged $200 to $400 PER NIGHT for a room that normally would go for maybe one-fourth of that amount on non-race weekends.
It's no wonder so many fans have stopped coming to races. While they would love to see the action in person—there's really no other experience like it—they can just as easily as watch races on TV and in the comfort of their own homes and save themselves a heck of a chunk of change.
It's a no-brainer for most.
But NASCAR continues to try different things to bring back fans that have scaled back on attending races in-person. There have been countless promotions, ticket price incentives and more, but attracting fans—and also creating new ones—remains a slow and difficult process at times.
Here's five suggestions we'd like to see implemented to hopefully lift up attendance next season and beyond. While we'll likely never see the kind of capacity crowds we saw in NASCAR's heydays from about 1996 through 2006, there's still hope that current numbers will start going back up rather than continue to stay stagnant or even drop as they have been in the last few years.
Let's also hear your suggestions, as well.
1. Decrease Seating Capacity at Some Tracks, Ala Daytona
When Daytona International Speedway announced several months ago it would be decreasing capacity from 147,000 to about 106,000, it temporarily stunned many fans, media and observers.
How could the home of the Great American Race, the Daytona 500, lop off more than 40,000 seats? Was NASCAR racing really in that much trouble?
On the contrary, NASCAR did the smart thing. Rather than having rows and even whole sections of empty seats, NASCAR and sister company International Speedway Corp., decided to take away seats and essentially bunch up fans to make the place look filled to capacity.
Very smart idea, indeed.
That's what other tracks which are struggling with filling seats should also consider. It was almost heartbreaking to see how many thousands upon thousands of empty seats that were at Texas Motor Speedway in the fall race there a few weeks back.
And this is after TMS already lopped off some of its seating capacity.
The way the sport is today, chopping off 30 to 40 percent of existing seating capacity may be the only way to make tracks look fuller and more robust.
2. Shorten the Length of Some Races
I've long advocated shortening some races from, say, 500 miles (or laps) to 400, maybe even 350.
In turn, I've received many comments from readers that they want races to go as long as possible so they get their so-called "money's worth." They definitely do not want to see the amount of racing scaled back.
Sorry, but I disagree.
Would you like to see 500 miles (or laps) of semi-boring follow-the-leader racing, with the only excitement coming in the last 15-20 laps?
Or would you rather see 400 or even 350 miles/laps of non-stop action, tighter pit strategy (and windows), continual battles for the lead, constant passing for position and more?
I mean, really, do we need every race at Texas Motor Speedway to be a 500-miler? Or do we really need a 500-miler in both yearly stops at Talladega? Would Darlington be even more exciting at 400 miles in length, rather than 500? How about the same for Atlanta? Couldn't October's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte be just as exciting—if not even more competitive—if it became the Bank of America 400?
Granted, there are some races I'd keep at their current length for, if nothing else, tradition and history like the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600.
But if there's a way to get more racing in a shorter window of time and action, I'm all for it.
Sorry, the excuse that "I paid my money, I want 500 miles to get my money's worth" just doesn't make for good racing.
Shorter, more compact races does.
3. Cut Three-Day Weekends to Two Days
With most near-track hotels doubling, tripling and even quadrupling their rates on race weekends, they've unfortunately priced a lot of fans out of the market.
I mean, to drop $1,000 (including tax in most cases) for three nights at an average motel is ludicrous. It's price gouging, if not downright theft.
After years of paying exorbitant prices, fans have rebelled by either coming for one or two days—or not coming at all.
That's why NASCAR would be well-served to cut three-day weekends to just two: Saturday and Sunday or Friday and Saturday (if the latter is a night race).
IndyCar (and forerunner CART) did just that several years ago, scaling back from three-day to two-day weekends, and the racing didn't miss a beat. If anything, it improved.
Do we really need Sprint Cup practice on Friday, especially if there isn't a support race later the same day?
And who says that on weekends where one venue hosts all three series—Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World—that each race has to have a separate date to itself?
Why can't we have, say, a Nationwide race in the afternoon and a Trucks race at night (provided the facility has lights)?
Or, why can't we have a Trucks race in the morning and a Nationwide race in mid-afternoon?
Another possibility—although NASCAR is not in the travel agent business—is to have racetracks sell combination packages that include tickets to races and perhaps discounted room rates at area hotels. This way, such deals would assure hotels that they will sell most, if not all, their rooms—rather than having to jack up rates and wonder if they'll be at full capacity or not.
This way, fans may be more amenable to digging a bit deeper into their wallets, don't you think?
4. More Value-Added Entertainment
Fans that want their money's worth—or more for their hard-earned cash—are typically also the most diehard fans in NASCAR.
That's why races that have value-added entertainment typically tend to draw more fans through the turnstiles than those that are strictly just racing and no sideshows, so to speak.
I've been at numerous venues—Richmond and Texas immediately come to mind as two of the best—where they've attracted more fans to purchase tickets with pre-race concerts and other forms of entertainment.
Another thing to consider is being creative with ticket packages. Sell fans higher-priced tickets to Sunday's Sprint Cup main event, and then offer them another ticket to Saturday's Camping World or Nationwide race at either 50 percent off—or maybe even for free.
If fans think they're getting a lot more for their money, they'll be more apt to spend said money.
5. Rotate Chase Venues Each Year
While the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which just completed its 10th edition, has injected a great deal of excitement into the sport, one obvious thing that should be changed has yet to be.
If NASCAR would simply add two different tracks for each Chase, perhaps in some form of round-robin format, I'm willing to bet tens of thousands of fans would flock to see a Chase event at places like Bristol, Kentucky, Indianapolis, Sonoma and even Daytona.
I'm not advocating getting rid of all 10 tracks currently in the Chase. Rather, I'd like to see those that currently do not have a Chase date be given one every, say, two or three years. Example: Have Martinsville hold a Chase one year, and then Bristol the next. Or, have Kansas have a Chase race one year and Las Vegas the next.
This way, it adds an element of freshness to the Chase and will hopefully lessen the amount of criticism by non-fans of Jimmie Johnson, who complain that he and crew chief Chad Knaus have become too dominant in the current 10-track setup.
What do you think? Let's hear your comments. If you had a chance to offer advice to NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France or president Mike Helton, what would you suggest as a way to increase attendance?
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski