Attendance Is Not Just An IndyCar Issue

Fans of the IndyCar Series have been wringing their hands over poor attendance over the past several years. While it is a legitimate concern and attendance needs to increase, there is some consolation that this is not simply an IndyCar problem. Not only has attendance sagged at NASCAR events as well, the problem has transcended all of sports.

The Tennessee Titans put their single-game tickets up for sale about a week and a half ago. Ten years ago, the three thousand or so tickets per game that were made available to the public would have been gobbled up within a matter of minutes. That’s no longer the case. A week after they went on sale, there are still plenty of tickets left for all Titans home games.

Granted, the Titans are coming off of a 6-10 season. But this decline in ticket sales isn’t limited to small market teams like the Titans that are coming off of losing seasons. Attendance is down league-wide throughout the NFL.

Did you happen to catch the New York Yankees game that saw the much-anticipated return of Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium? The new billion dollar playground for the Yankees was half-full, at best.

To quote Slim Pickens, what in the wide, wide world of sports is going on here? Why is attendance a problem at almost every venue? The more pertinent question is…will it ever come back?

This can’t be written off as a product of today’s soft economy. I think there are many factors involved here. Unfortunately, if all of these factors that I suspect are to blame – I’m not sure sports will be playing before packed houses again in the near future. Here are just a few of the factors that I think are in play here:

Cost: Although the Indianapolis Motor Speedway just had their first price increase in ten years, the cost of a ticket for such a world-class event is still a relative bargain. My four seats in Stand A cost me $407 to renew for 2014, which included the mythical $7.00 handling fee. That’s not cheap, but when you consider that you are allowed to bring your own food and drinks if you so choose – it’s still cheap compared to the NFL which has almost priced itself out of reach of the everyday fan.

We bought tickets to one game for the upcoming Titans season. We’ll be attending the Titans hosting the San Diego Chargers for the Titans home opener on Sep 22. Our seats are on the ten yard line, eleven rows up in the uppermost deck – not exactly the most coveted area. The cost? $135 for the pair. We still have to take a shuttle to the stadium ($20 for two). It’ll still be hot, so let’s assume we’ll have two beers each ($8.00 apiece, based on last year’s prices). If we eat cheap, we’ll each have a $5.00 hot dog. That puts us up to $197 for the day – for just two of us, not four. That’s a fairly hefty price tag for an afternoon’s entertainment. For those that have a pair of season-tickets in the nose-bleed section, multiply that by ten, which includes the honor of paying for two meaningless pre-season games.

Susan and I had season tickets last year. We had the option of trying it for a year before deciding if we wanted them permanently. We decided to decline even before she lost her job in January. It had gotten to the point where we said, “Oh crap! It’s another Titans game this weekend.” It was no longer something special to us to go. It became more of an obligation.

Inconvenience: For more than twenty years after I graduated from the University of Tennessee, I made it a point to attend at least one Vol home game each season. They really cram you into Neyland Stadium, in order to reach well over one hundred thousand for each game. The seats have been narrowed to about fourteen inches. You sit on benches with no backs. Your knees are in someone’s back while someone else’s knees are in your back. Even when the team was winning, it was not a great experience once I passed the age of thirty-five.

After a few years of going to Titans games, I got spoiled. there, I had a theater-style seat with arms, a back and a cup holder. There was plenty of leg room and the seats were nice and wide to accommodate age related expanding girth. After a miserable UT game in Knoxville in 2004, I decided I’d had enough. Consequently, I’ve not been back to a game in Knoxville since.

The Idiot Factor: As fun and exciting as it is to attend races, football games and concerts in person – it can be very frustrating as well. As I grow older, I become less tolerant of the inconsiderate dolts that always seem to sit right in my vicinity. There is always the one couple that insists on standing throughout an entire event. They seem to be oblivious to the fact that everyone around them is sitting. There are appropriate times to stand. I mean, who sits at the start of the Indianapolis 500? A key defensive stand on third-and-long requires the crowd to stand and cheer louder. That’s just part of the home-field advantage.

But to simply stand when everyone else in your area is sitting is downright rude. Susan and I attended a concert in March. As luck would have it, there was a young couple two rows in front of us that insisted on standing, dancing and making out while everyone else was seated. Shouting matches ensued involving me and others between them. The guy said he paid good money for his seats and he planned on “enjoying” the concert, apparently at our expense. The woman directly behind them finally went to get an usher. They brought the police and they were quickly escorted out and never heard from again.

Although I make it a rule to always refrain from profanity on this site, I generally have somewhat of a potty mouth. However, I tend to watch my mouth when at sporting events – especially when there are young kids around. Unfortunately, not everyone follows this creed. When my son was under ten, we would go to NFL games and he heard more than an earful. Does that really add to the game experience? Hardly.

I also enjoy a beer at the game, even though a single beer at a game is more than an entire six-pack in the grocery store. But I enjoy a beer or two – not ten or twelve. Some of these people are so liquored up by halftime, you wonder if they’ll even remember the game on Monday morning. If I’m paying that much money to go to an event, I want to be able to remember it. Unfortunately, the drunken slobs that won’t remember the game the next day will make it very memorable to those around them – for the wrong reasons.

Then there’s always the inevitable fight that seems to break out over the dumbest of reasons. If two idiots want to bash each other’s brains out, that’s fine by me. But don’t take out an innocent bystander by slinging your binoculars as a weapon.

The HD At-Home Experience: Perhaps one of the biggest reasons that attendance is down is due to the proliferation of high-definition television. With crystal-clear, sixty inch screens that show every blade of grass and each metallic flake in the helmets, coupled with 5.1 surround sound systems that give you the absolute sensation of being there; it’s hard to argue with those that would rather experience race day or game day in their living room instead of the actual event experience referenced above.

Having cheap and cold beer within a few steps of your couch, along with a clean bathroom you can use in private, while sitting in a climate-controlled environment with highlights of other games interspersed throughout the telecast is hard to beat. Contrast that with either burning up or freezing, depending on the time of year; crawling over fifteen sets of knees to go get an expensive luke-warm beer or standing in line with inebriated morons to use a filthy, disgusting rest room. All this for $200 a pop, if you do it cheaply. If you were smart, you’ll get home from that experience only to watch the replay on your DVR to see what really happened.

It’s not what kids like to do: Here’s where I’ll come off as the antiquated, outdated rube I was accused of being recently. When I was a kid, there were three channels on television – CBS, NBC and ABC. OK, four if you counted the PBS station. We caught mere glimpses of sporting events. There was no ESPN or any other station dedicated to sports. If you wanted to see an entire sporting event live, chances are – you had to be there. There was no bigger thrill than getting to go see a major sporting event in person.

When I was growing up, there was nothing more sought-after than a ticket to a Tennessee Vols football game. My only exposure to a live NFL game was the occasional pre-season exhibition game that would be played at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. My father never cared for baseball, so I never attended a Major League Baseball game until 1985, when I was an adult. Fortunately, my father was an IndyCar fan and he started taking me to the Indianapolis 500 in 1965.

Based on my children (and now my step-children) and their friends, it seems that this generation that is now in their early twenties simply don’t put the same value on attending sporting events that we did growing up. I’d like to hear from some readers currently in their twenties as to why that is. It now seems boring and routine. Where I would count down the days to a meaningless pre-season NFL game, my son and his friends turn their nose up at a chance to attend the most critical game of the regular season for the Titans. There just seem to be too many other entertainment options that they would prefer doing.

To read this, one might wonder why anyone would ever think about going to a live sporting event.

But to me, there is nothing like being there. That’s true for college and pro-football, but it’s even more the case when it comes to auto-racing.

As great as the home HD experience is, there is no way that any television and surround-sound system can even come close to replicating what you hear, smell, see and feel at track. It is practically sensory overload. No matter how close the production crew places a camera to the track, television cannot translate the sense of speed to viewers at home. After my twenty-year hiatus of not attending the Indianapolis 500 ended in 1992, I was shocked at the speeds I saw from the stands – even though I had always been watching the event on television.

The sounds you hear and feel in the stands cannot be duplicated on television either. While the production can effectively make the engine sounds move to different speakers in your sound system; nothing replaces the sound that echoes throughout a racing venue, or the feeling in your gut as a car goes rumbling by. And as odd as it sounds – there is nothing, and I mean nothing, that can equal the aroma of ethanol exhaust – unless it was the smell of methanol fumes up until a few years ago. The smell of tires is pretty high up there also. Then there is the enticing scent of the concession stands – most notably, the breaded tenderloins that add to the experience.

When I go to Barber Motorsports Park each year, I thoroughly enjoy the entire experience of being there, but in all honesty – I seldom know what’s going on in the actual race. It’s not until I get home and watch the DVR that I really understand what all went on in the race. Still, it is much better being there.

But this is one person’s opinion. Unfortunately, the growing trend is that it’s much more enjoyable to stay home. And it really seems more difficult to lure kids to even watch sporting events on television, much less to force them to commit the time to attend one in person.

What will stands look like in the next twenty to thirty years? Will they be mostly empty, except for those left from my generation? Will sporting events take place in venues with no seats and be geared strictly toward a television viewing audience? That sounds absurd, but had you told me twenty years ago that pay phones would no longer exist – I would have questioned your sanity.

I seriously doubt that things will actually reach the point of what I just suggested, but what can venues do to lure back fans? IndyCar racing certainly has its challenges to become relevant on the sports landscape, but sagging attendance is something that almost all sports are being forced to address. It’s going to be up to each organization to be the most proactive in dealing with the current trends to determine their success in the future.

George Phillips


19 Responses to “Attendance Is Not Just An IndyCar Issue”

  1. Ron Ford Says:

    Good Morning George. I voted for “other” on your poll because I would have voted All of The Above. I think you have done a fine job of listing the many reasons why attendence is down at sporting events, not just IndyCar. It is a welcome change to see “da Split” and “not enough American drivers” not included in your analysis.

    I am a Green Bay Packer fan of long standing. I have quit going to the games with my children and grandchildren due mostly to drunks and bad language. I have not generally had that kind of experience at racing events. I always go to the Milwaukee Mile because it is easy to move back and forth between grandstand seats and the pit/paddock area where I can best enjoy the sound and fury of racing up close and the wonderful aroma of racing fuel.

  2. Did you see the crowd for the Nascar race at Chicagoland yesterday? Nobody was there. I would say 5000 or less. Now there was no Cup race to follow at the track but even then attendance has been much lower for both divisions.

    You hit several of the issues on the head. I was a Cincinnati Bengals season ticket holder for 20 years. When I first got tickets in 1984 my seat was $6.95 a game. Baseball tickets for the Reds were less than that. When free agency came, everyone said it would not affect ticket prices. Ha!

    Not only is the game expensive to get a ticket for, but now the food is almost cost prohibitive. We gave up our tickets in 2003 after our ticket price doubled in six years (they have doubled again since) and because we refused to pay the outrageous prices for food and drink. And our last two years, we had a bunch of 20 something drunks behind us that accosted us constantly for “not being enthusiastic enough”.

    This is why I was so disappointed that Indy started charging to park in the infield. More of what I don’t like. I always treasured Indy because they would not gouge you for parking or for consessions. Of course, the fair price on consessions ended a few years ago when they brought in the company to run consessions instead of the volunteers.

    I really don’t think TV coverage is having the affect that many think. As good as it can be, it can’t beat going to these events in person. But Indy is going to have to quit immitating the other sports (which is of course the experts said they should immitate). There is a crash coming in sports, when people can no longer use credit cards to finance this crazy spending. This could be a bigger risk to Indy car and other sports than anything else.

    • I should add this. I attended both the Milwaulkee Indycar race and the Nascar Cup Race at Kentucky Speedway with two of my kids. While both were fun races to watch, the drunkeness and profanity around us was so bad that in both venues we had to move out of our assigned seats. While I’ve seen this before, both of my kids were very unconfortable with it and I can’t blame them. I have not really seen that at Indy except on Carb day (which is becoming an out of control embarassment in my opinion.) Tony George did a lot to make the track fan friendly. I am afraid the current management is not as concerned about that any more, and it will hurt them.

      • Alan Stewart Says:

        I’ve been to Carb Day many times, and in the past two years I’ve taken my younger daughter (she’s now 8). You can avoid the drunkards if you want to. I would argue that the track has gone beyond the call of duty in making the experience MORE family friendly in recent years. From the kid zone to the Hot Wheels Experience to the Social Media Garage area with the simulators and the Indycar Fan Village … the track understands that kids of today are the fans of tomorrow.

  3. Alan Stewart Says:

    I think by and large television and money are the biggest reasons. Friend of mine has been a Lakers fan since the early 80s. He LOVES going to games, but, for the same price as two tickets to a Pacers-Lakers matchup at Banker’s Life, he can get an entire season’s worth of Lakers games on NBA’s League Pass. It’s a no-brainer. Going to live events has become incredibly cost-prohibitive. It’s not just the $85 ticket to A Stand for the BY400 … you have $20 to park, your food/beverages if you don’t want to bring your own, your souvenir program, the $3.79/gallon gas (currently in Corydon, Ind.). Or, you can sit at home and watch it for pennies on the dollar …

  4. TV.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Cussing, fighting drunks? Sounds exciting. I don’t get those even with all the rednecks, white socks , and $1 beer out at the local 3/8 mile track. I think I’m missing out…

    I think you hit all of the major reasons, George. As to insight about 20-somethings from a (late) 20-something, I actually think the past 20 years of escalating costs to attend are perhaps the largest factor.

    Growing up, I was fortunate to be able to attend quite a few sporting events. My dad took me to the Astrodome to see Jeff Ward and Ricky Johnson race Supercross, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio play baseball, and Steve McNair before he got a Nashville address. I saw Hakeem Olajuwon battle Patrick Ewing at the Summit, Steve Kinser go wheel-to-wheel with Sammy Swindell at Battleground Speedway, and Eddie Hill and Kenny Bernstein on the Houston Raceway Park drag strip. As costs rose, my dad and I attended fewer such events, but I still love going when I can because I loved going then.

    People now in their early 20’s grew up in an environment where attending a major sporting event had just recently become very difficult for a middle class family to afford. Thus, so many of them did not experience live sports growing up, or if they did, such trips were infrequent jaunts to bad seats with sticker-shocked parents. They entertained themselves with less expensive and less effort-intensive alternatives (television, video games, beanie babies or something) and continue to do so today.

  6. Giu Canbera Says:

    Excellent article mate! We’ll have wait for those nowadays kids to get older&bored to start going watch live sports again… but we need to get them into motorsports RIGHT NOW before they move NFL haha.
    I suggest the GLobal RallyCross as the first step! kids seems to love that Xgame’s thing! Look at those new stand alone events.. stands filled with teenagers and fathers with little kids! Awesome

  7. Great article George! As I was reading it, I felt as though I could have written it myself. I am 44 and have had Colts season tickets since 1997 and I am starting to feel like it is sometimes an obligation to attend. I absolutely love my Colts and have always loved attending the games, but recently I feel different and I am pretty sure it is because of all the reasons you wrote about. High prices, long lines to dirty bath rooms, idiots around me, etc…. I still love going to races though, regardless of those things. There is no reason good enough to keep me from attending the INDY 500 and usually one or two other races each season. Unfortunately, I feel there is no fix for the dwindling crowds at sports events in general and motorsports events in particular and it is just the way it’s going to be. I am not much of a NASCAR fan anymore, but because I live a few hundred yards from IMS and love any reason to be there, I will more than likely attend the Brickyard 400 this weekend and am actually anticipating being upset at how small the crowd will be. I hate that even for a “big time” event like that, that not even IMS can draw them in anymore.

  8. S. Bloom Says:

    I think you are spot on with respect to many of your opinions. I just spent a day at Disneyland, which is $92. For that amount, I was entertained for about 12 hours. Contrast that with one ticket to see the San Francisco 49ers (hometown team). One seat is $75, parking is not less than $30, plus beer etc. That’s for a few hours of sitting in an average seat with ok views. The SF Giants, World Series champs, charge up to $60 per game for the bleachers. By contrast, a $55 ticket to an IndyCar race is a bargain.

  9. Timnothhelfer Says:

    (I miss going to the IndyCar races at Homestead…)
    My son is a basketball fan, and for Christmas I bought a pair of lower bowl seats 17 rows from the floor for the Heat vs Raptors. I paid $135, took the next day off and paid $25 to park a block out side the stadium. I had a great time, everyone was friendly and look forward to going again next year to another game.

  10. Ron Ford Says:

    This is something that has baffled me for a long time about racing attendence. I will use Milwaukee here as an example. Night after night, week after week, year after year for as long as I can remember an average of 30,000 baseball fans will go to Miller Park to watch a totally mediocre team-the Milwaukee Brewers. Recently one of their pitchers pitched a complete game. The last time that happened? 407 games ago! Their goal once again is to reach .500 for the season. Now one of their so-called superstars, an arrogant liar like the bicycle guy, has been suspended for the rest of the season.

    Compare the dreary happenings at Miller Park with the excitement (drug free) of a race at the Milwaukee MIle. The Andretti group has done an excellent job to achieve attendence of 30,000, but why should it be so damn hard considering the quality of the product?!

  11. I’m from Brazil and I’m 24-years-old so I can give you an insight of a young man that you wanted.

    Despite the fame of “motorsport loves” that we Brazilians have, reality is utterly different. I personally don’t have a single friend or acquaintance that follow races like I do, I mean, a person that follow events other than the “prime ones”. In our case, we still have the “national problem”: people used to only follow sports in case of a countryfellow winning. By the time Gustavo Kuerten was the best tennis player in the world, everybody here was watching those everlasting games. As long as Kuerten was ousted from the top, tennis became as irrelevant as it used to be. Motorsport lost popularity here after Ayrton Senna’s demise. As of now, we’re just a bunch of crazy fans that stick around watching races and ignore what other people say about us.

    Nowadays, teenagers and young adults have several options for fun and amusement available. We can spend hours on internet, download movies straight away in Netflix, play ultrarealistic games or simply hang out with our peers. Thirty years ago, there was only television and nothing else. If you didn’t have a girlfriend to have sex or didn’t enjoy reading, turning on the device, sitting down in the sofa and watching whatever was being showed was the sole option for a sunless, boring Sunday. Events, in this matter, really used to be much more interesting to everybody due to sheer lack of options. “Oh, let me check out what can I do today, my friends are travelling, my girlfriend broke up with me, TV is really uninspiring, the grass out there don’t need to be cut, my car was washed last weekend and there’s nothing that I can do to cure my boreness. Geez, there is a race in Milwaukee. Hmm… As I don’t have any other choice, let’s go for it”.

    Another thing to be considered in our generation is the anxiety. For a person that used to be connected all the time, pressing F5 every minute to see if there’s an update in our Facebook account, to be focused on only one matter for more than some minutes is really a big challenge. And a two-hour-long race is quite painful for a person that is not fanatic about that altogether. So I see that a possible marketing solution that can be adopted would be shrinking the duration of the sportive events. Instead of 500-mile races, 100-mile ones. Instead of two-hour-long games, half an hour-long ones.

    Sad but true. My generation is helping to bury the great, long-lasting events because “it’s too boring to spend so much time on them”. And Indy and the other sports have to cope with that. May they managed to do that.


  12. George, I believe you covered this subject very well.
    For me it is as simple as this – the main reason to attend a live sporting event is to experience the event in the environment, with all the other people there.
    I have also learned to carefully choose the people around me. The latter is why I rarely attend live sports events any more.

  13. Ballyhoo Says:

    Hi all – I could not agree with you more. Gone are the days when it cost under $5 to attend a baseball game. I used to be able to afford a Lakers’ game once in a while at the Forum. I can’t touch a good seat at Staples to save my live. Who wants to sit in the rafters for $$$, when you can watch from home on the Lakers’ channel. Concerts are also horribly expensive at good venues. (I am too embarrassed to admit how much we paid for tickets to U2 at the Rose Bowl a few years ago).

    I am glad I finally went to my first race at Fontana last year. I figured it was about time. I loved the entire experience over the two days. When an Indy Lights car came careening over my head as I exited the tunnel going out to the paddock, I stopped dead and waited to see how long it took for the car to come back around. I was so hooked!! Long Beach this year was also a great 3 day fun fest (and I brought younger friends along for the ride). One friend signed up for the Verizon IndyCar app, so some progress was made on that front. Now, I am campaigning for others to join me at Fontana in October. The ticket prices are affordable, but I live here in LA so I don’t have to fly to these venues. Next year (or 2015) the Speedway, I hope.

  14. Very insightful article George. I think you have nailed it. I am a life-long fan of the Atlanta Falcons since the early ’70’s when I became old enough to understand the game. My Dad was not a football fan but when I saw my first game on TV I was hooked. I bought season tickets in the late ’90’s because the team was so bad they were being blacked out locally. My son was only 7 or 8 at the time but he really enjoyed going and still does. The last several years have been less enjoyable for me though, I have the same feeling you described of dreading some of the home games. The only reason I still have my season tickets is because it is the one thing my son and I have always done. He still enjoys it even now at 21 although probably more so because I do all of the driving and paying! It really is a big hassle to deal with driving into Atlanta and dealing with all of the traffic, etc. The price is still relatively cheap by NFL standards though – two first row upper deck end zone seats for $750 and another $110 for a season parking pass. A new stadium is on the way though so that will be it for me as I’m sure ticket prices will skyrocket. Those are my two biggest reasons to not attend an event – price and inconvenience. Racing is different for me though, I still thoroughly enjoy every event I go to. Maybe because there are fewer of them but I do go to Barber every year and every major race at Road Atlanta and went to Indy for the first time ever this year. I hope to make that an annual event. The sensory overload you described is definitely there and the extreme access you get to the teams and cars is a definite plus. One big plus for the road course races is you can easily move away from the “undesirables” and it just generally seems to be a more family friendly atmosphere.
    Keep up the great writing!

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