Who Gets The Blame At Pocono?
Last Thursday, on the eve of the Pocono IndyCar 500, Pocono track president Brandon Igdalsky made headlines when he said that ticket sales were “scary” when compared to last year’s race. He went on to say that he wasn’t sure if his facility would fulfill the final race in the contract for next year. In 2013, open-wheel racing returned to the Poconos after a twenty-three year absence. The first year back produced a surprisingly good crowd of 30,000 to 35,000 that brought a smile to Igdalsky’s face. It was thought that the decent crowd size was a good number to start from as the event grew over the next few years.
Unfortunately, the crowd for this year’s race was significantly smaller. By the time the race aired on Sunday, I was expecting to see an empty grandstand and no one milling about the paddock. That was not the case. Maybe the walk-up crowd was better than expected or fans responded to the threat of actually losing the race after only two years. It was better than I expected, but still visibly down from last year’s race. The estimates I’ve seen guess that there was anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 in attendance on Sunday. I can see where Igdalsky would be concerned. That drop is unacceptable.
Many fingers were pointing as to who to blame for this phenomenon. Igdalsky called out the IndyCar oval fans in the Northeast who had been moaning for years to see a return to the scenic track. Many on Twitter accused oval fans everywhere for not putting their money where their mouth was. There’s ammunition for that argument. One doesn’t need to look past the recent struggles at Milwaukee or New Hampshire to vindicate that accusation.
Others say it’s not just oval fans, that road racing fans keep crying for a return to Road America but the fear is that few will come. Mid-Ohio returned to the schedule in 2007. They seem to have a nice crowd there, but it doesn’t appear to come close to what CART used to bring in the nineties. Watkins Glen disappeared from the schedule as quickly as it showed up, mostly for…poor attendance.
Some say IndyCar fans are all blow and no go. Others say the hard-cores are showing up. It’s the casual fans on the fringe that aren’t buying tickets.
What do I say? I say it is all of the above, and more. Who do I think is to blame? I think there is enough blame to go around for everyone to share in – the series, the fans, the tracks and promoters – all have a hand in this; but not necessarily in that order.
During Sunday’s broadcast, Bob Varsha shared a Twitter question that essentially asked – If you were commissioner, what would be the one thing that you would change in order to improve the series? I think it was Varsha (but I’m not sure) who hit the nail on the head when he said to improve marketing and promotion. Whoever said it went on to say that the on-track product is better than it has ever been, but no one knows about it. IndyCar and their partners need to really step up their game, when it comes to promoting this series. By partners, I mean ESPN/ABC, NBCSN, Verizon and the myriad of associate sponsors all need to up the ante – not only in cash, but in the effort it takes to get this thing off the ground. Some strides have been made, but they need to do so much more.
My degree is in marketing, but I earned that over thirty years ago and I no longer use it. It is a different business world from the one I entered in the early eighties. I throw that out there as a way of saying – I don’t have any great ideas. However, I do have faith in one of the new faces brought in last fall; Chief Marketing Officer CJ O’Donnell. I’ve heard O’Donnell interviewed on Trackside and I was very impressed. There are several people that I trust immensely that say that O’Donnell is the right man for the job. Marketing concepts are not introduced and implemented overnight. These things take time – and continuity. Continuity is a word I’ll use a lot here, because the lack of it has been a huge part of the problem. 2014 has already been designated as a transition year for IndyCar and the new management team brought in after Randy Bernard’s departure. Hopefully, we’ll begin to see the results of their efforts by 2015.
But the tracks and track promoters share a large portion of the blame. In general, we hear of most tracks that host NASCAR events treating their IndyCar date as an unwanted stepchild. Worse than that, they market the race as they would a well-established NASCAR event – remind people of the date and they will come. You can’t treat both audiences the same. One is in the adult stage, while the other is in the incubation stage.
In the case of Pocono, one wonders if Mr. Igdalsky assumed that all that were there last year would return in droves. You would think that the novelty of a new venue would wear off for a few, but not half of them. Perhaps the traffic situation that was reported after last year’s race was too much for last year’s attendees to bear. I think those issues were addressed, but maybe those in attendance last year didn’t get the message.
Marginal fans are a fickle bunch. That’s why they are marginal fans to begin with. They need to constantly be reminded that there is a race coming up. In addition to that, they have to be given new and different reasons to attend the same race each year. Just that the race is coming around again is no longer an enticement for the marginal fan to show up. Some of the comments here on Monday indicate that there was little or no promotion in the Northeast. I live in Nashville, almost 850 miles away from Pocono, so I cannot attest to how much or little promotion went on. But I’ve seen where several said that there was none and I’ve not seen anyone contradicting that so I’m assuming it is true. If that is the case, then Mr. Igdalsky should turn one of his fingers of blame back to himself.
But one of his fingers of blame should be pointed squarely at the fans. Some have criticized Igdalsky for calling the fans out, saying he is insulting his customers. I disagree. I’m told Pocono is only about a two hour drive from both Philadelphia and New York City. That is a gigantic market from which to draw. Are you going to tell me that there are only 15,000 to 20,000 IndyCar fans within those two huge nearby metropolitan areas?
Igdalsky mentioned that they had countless surveys from IndyCar fans in the area to indicate that there would be no problem filling the stands for an IndyCar race. Somewhere along the way, there was a major disconnect. Either it was bad information or the respondents lied. I have no problem with Igdalsky calling out fans in that area for not showing up. It’s become a common occurrence.
I’m preaching to the choir here, because many readers of this site do attend races – lots of races. Most attend more than I do, which has been averaging out to be only two or three per year. But many do not, nor do they intend to. Yet some of them are the loudest critics of the series.
Roger Curtis, the track president at Michigan International Speedway, has been a Trackside guest on numerous occasions. He has said repeatedly that if everyone who told them they would buy a ticket to see an IndyCar race at MIS, actually would – having an IndyCar event there would be a no-brainer. Maybe Mr. Curtis knows something that Mr. Igdalsky has just found out – fans don’t always follow through with their promises.
It costs time and money to attend IndyCar races. About a month ago, I paid $419 to renew my tickets for next year’s Indianapolis 500. That was just a couple of weeks after shelling out $850 for hotel bills over the three weekends I stayed there, along with the cost of six tanks of gas, plus meals and the souvenirs I bought – and several days of vacation time I burned in the process. That’s a pretty big commitment; both financially and in time.
But NFL fans in the Northeast do it many times a year without batting an eye. NASCAR fans travel much greater distances, in droves, than the two hours it takes to get to Pocono from Philadelphia or New York. Why? Because they are committed fans. How did they become committed fans? It developed over a period of years through continuity.
Fans of the New York Giants know they will see eight regular season games at home from September through December. They also know they will see the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys in their home stadium every single year. That’s continuity. Generations have grown up despising those teams and rivalries developed from that continuity over the years.
For all we complain about NASCAR, they do a lot of things right. They acknowledge the importance of date equity. If you are a NASCAR fan; you know every year, your season starts in Daytona. You also know your series is back in Daytona each and every Fourth of July weekend. You also know there is a 600-mile race in Charlotte over Memorial Day weekend. You can also bank on a daytime race in Bristol in late March as well as a mid-August night race there as well. Plus, there is the late July race at IMS.
You get the picture. The Verizon IndyCar Series would like to have date equity as well, but it’s been hard to achieve it. Outside of the Indianapolis 500 over Memorial Day weekend, most other dates are somewhat fluid. There is little or no continuity. Here’s a quiz – how long has St. Petersburg been the “traditional” IndyCar opener? Since all the way back to 2011. The year before that, they opened at Brazil. In 2008, they opened at Homestead before it became the traditional site of the season finale – that is before it dropped off the schedule after 2010.
Traditions don’t last long in this series because there is no continuity. For the past three seasons, watching the series race the streets of Baltimore was a nice way to spend Labor Day weekend. This year, it’s watching the season finale at Fontana. In 2010, we watched the oval race at Kentucky over Labor Day. Now, IndyCar is trying a new Fourth of July tradition at Pocono. It’s a good weekend for a Sunday race with Daytona always the night before (unless there is a rain delay, like this year). But now, we learn that Pocono is in jeopardy of going the way so many other tracks have gone.
Nothing is settled. There is no continuity. Fans like to know that they can travel to certain venues at the same time every year. They can plan and budget for them. That’s what I do for Indianapolis. I budget money and vacation time every year around the month of May. I couldn’t and wouldn’t do that if it moved around on the calendar or was in jeopardy of falling off the schedule.
I could go on and on in circles about this. It’s the old chicken and the egg theory. Some will say it doesn’t matter who is to blame, but I disagree. All parties are to blame for what happened this year at Pocono – the series, the track and the fans that live nearby and chose not to show up. It doesn’t matter if you’re an oval fan, or a fan of road and street courses. You’re an IndyCar fan. When those in charge of the Verizon IndyCar Series act in arrogance, we are all fond of saying that this series wouldn’t exist without the fans. That statement is a double-edged sword. It’s also up to the fans to do their part and support this series – by not only watching races, but by attending them when possible. If you don’t have a personal stake in this series, you really don’t have much room to complain.