Attendance – Not Just An IndyCar Problem
One of the hot topics that has been tossed about regarding the IZOD IndyCar Series lately, has been race attendance – or lack thereof. Opinions have swirled as to the cause of the sagging attendance as well as what to do about it. But after watching a full slate of college and pro football this weekend, I think it is now safe to say that this problem is not isolated to open-wheel racing.
It’s easy to blame the current economy for the declining attendance at sporting events. While it certainly has something to do with it, I think it runs deeper than that. All major sports – and yes, I include the IZOD IndyCar Series as a major sport – may have fallen victim to some of the technological advancements meant to simply enhance the overall enjoyment of the sport – not to replace being there.
As recently as the middle of last week, eleven of the sixteen NFL teams scheduled to play home games this weekend were not sold out. I didn’t hear what the final tally was, but seeing glimpses around the league yesterday showed many empty seats. Here locally, even though the Titans game against the Raiders was officially a sellout – there were many empty seats. This occurred on opening day, with a crystal-blue, cloudless sky and a kickoff temperature of seventy-six degrees. Five years ago, this would have been unheard of, around the league.
College football seems to be suffering through the same malaise. Yes, there were packed houses at Alabama, Oklahoma and Notre Dame – but flipping around the dial on Saturday, showed empty seats at several venues where sellouts are traditionally the norm – including a few scattered vacant seats that were visible at my beloved Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.
What I think has happened at all events, including auto-racing, is that the economy may have convinced a lot of people that are usually attendees, to stay home for some of these events a year or two ago. Once they did, they realized how much more pleasurable the home viewing experience was when compared to just a few years ago.
About twenty years ago, Magnavox used to run a very clever ad for their large-screen rear-projection television (remember those?). It showed their, what was then considered, sharp and life-like picture which was great for watching movies (on VHS, of course). The ad closed with a great scene and tag-line. It showed someone sitting in a movie theater, surrounded by kids, loud-talkers and being pelted with popcorn; with the voice-over saying that “Magnavox gives you the movie theater experience, without giving you that movie theater experience.”
Although there is nothing quite like being there, let’s face it – going to a live sporting event can be a huge pain and expense. I consider myself to be a loyal follower of my alma mater, the Tennessee Vols. However I haven’t been to a game there since 2004, even though I live only three hours away. My last experience there was when I took my son to watch them play (and lose to) Notre Dame. It was cold and drizzly. I paid over $100 a ticket for seats in the upper deck of the end-zone. The seats there are on backless benches that have been narrowed in order to shoehorn 107,000 people in. It was so cramped, you couldn’t clap side-to-side. My knees were in someone’s back, while someone else’s knees were in my back. I was longing for the roomy theater-style seats with cup-holders at the Titan’s stadium. I never consciously said I’m never going back, because I know I will. But so far, it hasn’t happened.
But I rarely go to Titan’s games anymore. Unlike the IZOD IndyCar Series that has done a good job at holding their ticket prices pretty much in check, NFL tickets have skyrocketed and I can no longer afford to go. I enjoy going, but it eats up an entire day as well as your wallet. Sixty-five dollar upper-deck seating, five dollar hot dogs and seven dollar beers can put a dent in your budget pretty quickly.
In the meantime; I can stay at home in the comfort of my living room, drink colder and cheaper beer, eat better food and catch the Titans and other games in high-definition clarity in surround sound for a much more affordable price – without the pleasure of getting vomited on, catching an errant blow from someone else’s fight or dealing with traffic before and after the game. Plus, with HD and a DVR that I can pause and rewind – I have a much better understanding of what I just saw.
At the Kentucky race on Labor Day weekend, I’ve read and heard from several people that were there that had no idea that Helio Castroneves was on a fuel strategy and was even going to be a factor in the outcome of the race. There is nothing like being at a race, but with enhanced internet coverage where you can follow a particular driver exclusively, if you so choose – it makes it more tempting to stay home so that you can really know what’s going on.
Then there is the factor of today’s young kids. When I was growing up in the dark ages, there was no ESPN, no cable and no internet. There were just three network channels. Our only exposure to most racing events was to catch highlights in a three-minute segment of the ten o’clock news, watch ABC’s Wide World of Sports, listen to the radio or read about it in the paper. Actually attending a sporting event in person was something a kid like me would dream about. Today’s kids seem rather ho-hum about attending major sporting events, with so many other entertainment options available to them.
So if the NFL is facing this problem, what on earth can the IZOD IndyCar Series do to battle the problem of declining attendance? How can IndyCar make the in-person experience more enjoyable? Should they incorporate multiple series on a weekend to provide more action on the track? That’s great for racing fans, but what about the more casual fan? Unlike the majority of NFL stadiums, most racing facilities are located far from the metropolitan areas they are associated with.
Nashville Superspeedway is in the middle of the next county, it’s at least forty-five miles from downtown Nashville with nothing – and I mean, nothing – around it. No bars, no restaurants, no hotels or businesses. It is out in the middle of nowhere. I don’t know if other tracks share this dilemma, but I know that Joliet, IL, the home of Chicagoland Speedway is no closer to downtown Chicago than Nashville’s track. California Speedway at Fontana is at least fifty miles from Los Angeles. Track promoters as well as the league have to come up with better ways to draw fans, than to give a free concert after a race.
I don’t know what the answer is, but something needs to be done to give fans a reason to come out to the track rather than watch the races on television. It’s a chicken or the egg thing – will better TV ratings drive attendance or will full stands make for a more appealing TV product? I’m not smart enough to know the answer.
This is another issue to pile onto the already full plate of CEO Randy Bernard. His presence continually becomes more vital as the IZOD IndyCar Series tries to grow in these murky times. He is well-versed in issues like these. I’m glad we’ve got him.