Economy downshifts NASCAR attendance

Most sports would embrace average crowds of 120,000, and NASCAR does love seeing so many fans in speedways across the country.

But those numbers are a decline of about 7 percent from average race attendance last year, NASCAR officials say – a sign that even a sport whose popularity has soared in recent years isn't immune to the sour economy.

NASCAR isn't the only major sport confronting the downturn's effect on fans. Single-game tickets for the Carolina Panthers go on sale today, and team spokesman Charlie Dayton says “it's naïve to think the economy is not going to impact them on some level.”

While dips in pro football and basketball attendance in Charlotte are still to be determined – the Panthers start play in September, the Bobcats several weeks later – no one can refute that high gas prices and other economic issues have curbed race crowds this year.

Consider Scott LeBleau of Spartanburg. An equipment superintendent for Shaw Power Group, LeBleau usually would have gone to about eight races at this point in the NASCAR season, he said.

So far in 2008, he's been to three.

“It's harder for us normal people to attend,” LeBleau said, blaming not only higher gas prices but the cost of race tickets and refreshments.

“It's not just me. I notice that the seats are empty,” he said. “… I think NASCAR's about the most expensive thing going on right now.”

Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord tried to address that this week, announcing new ticket packages and discounts for the Bank of America 500 in October. That comes after May races brought mixed attendance: Crowds for the shorter, less expensive Sprint All-Star Race were up, while those for the longer, pricier Coca-Cola 600 were down.

The Panthers already raised ticket prices, although by less than 5 percent, Dayton said. So far, he said, the NFL team hasn't seen a drop in season-ticket sales or an increase in people giving up permanent seat licenses, which ensure the right to buy season tickets each year. The Panthers aren't planning any promotions or discounts in response to the economy, Dayton said.

The Bobcats have kept their average ticket price for NBA games about the same, and some seats will drop from $40 to $20, said Fred Whitfield, the team's president and chief operating officer.

The team also began selling season and half-season ticket packages earlier than usual and is allowing payments over more months, Whitfield said.

“We think we've been price conscious already,” he said, noting that the Bobcats have one of the lowest average NBA ticket prices.

In addition, the team is exploring changes to concession prices based on feedback from fans, Whitfield said.

“It's not based around the economy,” he said, but “we're open to doing anything that makes sense, that makes our fans feel like we're sensitive to their concerns.”

Drawing race fans

Several Sprint Cup races have been sellouts this season, and even smaller crowds are big by comparison to most sporting events, said Ramsey Poston, a NASCAR spokesman.

Still, he said, “we've certainly seen fluctuations” in attendance, and fans are waiting longer to buy tickets, doing so four or five months before a race instead of nine or 10.

Along with Lowe's Motor Speedway, other tracks have begun offering “creative packages” to fans, Poston said. NASCAR also has urged hotels near speedways to not inflate rates and require multi-night stays during races, he said.

“What we're seeing in a lot of locations are some really unfair conditions,” he said.

More than 30 Charlotte-area hotels have agreed to cut room rates and drop minimum-night stay requirements for the October race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, speedway and tourism officials said Tuesday.

Marcus Smith, the speedway's new president and general manager, has made lowering costs for fans a priority, said Scott Cooper, a speedway spokesman. So far, ticket sales for the Bank of America 500 have been “quite good” Cooper said, but could be stronger.

“Fans in an economy like this certainly have to make choices,” he said. “We just want to do everything we can to make sure they choose us.”

Knights riding success

Pinched pocketbooks have actually been a boon for some area teams.

Crowds at Charlotte Knights games are up 2 percent from last year, and were up 15 percent before storms delayed or postponed half of the games in a recent homestand, said John Agresti, a spokesman for the minor-league baseball club.

Overall this summer, the Knights have had good weather and more home games at this point in their schedule than last season, Agresti said. But the relatively low cost of tickets – starting at $5 – and frequent promotions also are appealing, he said.

“Out here,” Agresti said, “fans can come to multiple games, and they're not breaking the bank.”

The team has used the struggling economy to its advantage, he said, touting the cheaper cost of gas near Knights Stadium in Fort Mill, S.C., and marketing games as an alternative to vacations – which some families have canceled.

“People are just looking at their budgets and saying they need something to do,” he said.

The Charlotte Checkers haven't started their minor-league hockey season yet, but the team is offering discounts for buying season tickets early, and plans to offer free gas with some season-ticket purchases, spokesman Jason Shaya said.

Compare that with the Carolinas' major league hockey team, the Hurricanes in Raleigh, whose fans face ticket prices that are on average 10 percent higher than a year ago.

The Hurricanes raised prices after losing more than $5 million last season and missing out on part of their NHL revenue-sharing payment. But so far the team hasn't seen a dip in ticket demand, said Jim Rutherford, the team's president and general manager. Although prices are higher, the team is including free tickets in packages this season.

As for Charlotte's pro teams, the next few months could reveal how big an impact the economy will have on ticket buying and game attendance.

Panthers fan Chuck James of Cary – about 150 miles east of Charlotte – said he still plans to go to games this fall, although the retired systems analyst may consider taking a train if gas prices continue to rise.

“I basically live for football,” James said, “so it would really have to get up there for me to not even try and go.”

Lauren Downey of Statesville isn't so sure. After she and her fiance went to almost every home game in recent years, Downey said they're going to only four games this season.

“It is just too expensive,” she said, “to drive to downtown Charlotte 10 times this year.”

Staff writer Nancy Wang and Luke DeCock of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed