The economy isn’t all that’s hurting NASCAR attendance – but it’s a big part of it

Fans in turn 4 early in the 37th Annual Bank of America 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 9, 2016.
Fans in turn 4 early in the 37th Annual Bank of America 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 9, 2016.

Earlier this month, Paul and Lois McCarty packed up their truck and drove 10 hours down from Columbus, Ohio, for the Bank of America 500 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway – something they’ve been doing for the last 10 years. Both 66, the duo has been following NASCAR for most of their adult lives, though Paul points to the 1970s as the height of his fan experience.

One reason? There are fewer fans in the stands these days, says Paul, a retiree.

As the racing season enters its final weeks, NASCAR and the track owners are acknowledging the slump in attendance and citing factors like the economy and weather – and they’re working to find ways to draw fans back in.

Paul McCarty says the attendance drop could be because hotels near the speedway have gotten more expensive, which is why he and Lois opt to stay at campgrounds nearby for just over $300 a weekend. It could be because of the economy. It could be because the sport and its rules have changed – NASCAR’s gotten away, Paul says, from “good ol’ boy racing.”

It was more exciting, for example, when NASCAR wasn’t as tough on drivers for fighting, Paul says. He recalls the dramatic ending of the Daytona 500 in 1979, when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed in the final lap and then got out of their cars and sparred after the race.

“Now everything’s gotta be politically correct, and that ain’t no place for NASCAR,” he says. “NASCAR is give it hell, go wild and crazy. That’s the way it started, and that’s the way it ought to stay.”

Whatever the reason, revenue from admissions has undoubtedly fallen precipitously over the last half decade at racetracks nationwide.

The middle class

Speedway Motorsports, based in Concord, International Speedway Corporation and Dover Motorsports are three publicly traded companies that own and manage racing facilities that host NASCAR races.

At SMI, which owns nine tracks including the one in Charlotte, revenue from admissions fell 28 percent from 2010-2015. At ISC, which owns 13 facilities, admissions revenue fell 19 percent over that time. At Dover, which owns four tracks, admissions revenue fell 51 percent.

The companies cite a host of factors, including weather and competition from other sports, for the decline. But the struggling “middle class,” also a talking point in the current election cycle, has also started popping up in SMI’s and ISC’s securities filings as a reason.

SMI’s 2015 annual report, filed March 18, is the first time the company cited the “absence of a stronger middle class recovery” as one of its challenges. It has mentioned that phrase in each of its most recent quarterly reports, filed April 28 and July 28, and could do so again when it reports earnings next week.

ISC first said the “lack of a broad based middle class economic recovery” could affect attendance levels in its 2014 annual report. Like SMI, it has used the phrase in all of its subsequent quarterly reports.

NASCAR says the median income of its fans is $70,000 a household, (slightly more than the Census Bureau’s definition of middle class, about $56,000 a household.) Janet Kirkley, SMI’s director of investor relations, said the company decided to start mentioning the middle class because of what it was noticing among its core demographics of fans.

That may sound at odds with national data: At 5 percent, the U.S. jobless rate is back to pre-recession levels, and the economy has more than recovered jobs lost during the downturn. Average hourly earnings are finally starting to pick up.

But if a NASCAR fan lost his or her job, or if finances are stretched thin for whatever reason, he or she is less likely to buy race tickets and carve out a weekend or longer for a race, especially when TV coverage and digital engagement with racing have been improving, experts say.

That’s the case with one longtime fan from West Virginia who’d driven down for the Bank of America 500. The man said he used to aim for eight races a year, though “because of the economy,” he’s only able to swing one a year these days.

Marc Ganis is the co-founder of Chicago-based sports consulting firm Sportscorp, Ltd.. He says there’s credence to NASCAR’s concern with its “bread and butter fan base.”

“For the middle class, if it were not for the drop in prices of oil and gas, we might see even more of a pronounced decline in attendance at NASCAR,” Ganis says.

NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Jill Gregory says NASCAR released its 2017 schedule four months ahead of time – earlier than ever – in order allow time to plan for fans, who often take days off work to attend a race.

To help offset some of the attendance declines, companies like SMI are staring to host non-NASCAR events at their tracks, like the Battle at Bristol. The Tennessee track was transformed into the world’s largest football stadium for the Sept. 10 college game between Tennessee and Virginia Tech.

A fall in race attendance isn’t the only hit the sport has taken.

Attendance at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte has declined steadily for every year since it opened in 2010. In its first year, from May 2010 to April 2011, the uptown attraction drew in 278,046 visitors. For the year that ended in June 2015, it fell to 166,559, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which operates the NASCAR-licensed hall.

TV ratings of NASCAR races have also slumped. Excluding rainouts, the NASCAR Sprint Cup race from Dover in early October marked the ninth of the past 10 NASCAR races to hit multi-year lows in ratings and viewership, according to Sports Media Watch. The Oct. 2 Dover race had 2.6 million viewers on NBCSN, down from 3.2 million last year.

But NASCAR isn’t the only sport that’s taken a hit in terms of viewership. TV viewership of NFL games has also been down this year, something the league attributes to the presidential campaign and shifting habits away from traditional cable.

The celebrity effect

Experts say that the attachment to certain drivers affects fans’ interest in NASCAR. ISC reported a slight uptick in its attendance revenue last year, which Jeff Gordon said would be his last before retirement.

“Stars and celebrities drive interest and attendance,” Ganis said.

Ron Hill of Lancaster, Ohio, for example, was a longtime Dale Earnhardt Sr. fan until the driver died in 2001 after crashing at the Daytona 500. Hill could never bring himself to attend a race – he’d instead watch it on TV. “It was hard for me; I was a big fan of him.”

Hill says he’s become a fan of Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., and the most recent Bank of America 500 was his first in-person race.

But Earnhardt announced in September he’d miss the rest of the NASCAR season because of a concussion. Sports Media Watch said the driver’s absence may be contributing to the “especially steep downturn of late” in TV ratings and viewership.

NASCAR has realized that it needs to take a more active role in helping create the “stars of tomorrow,” something that used to happen organically, Gregory said. That means, through development programs like NASCAR Next and Drive for Diversity, identifying young drivers and helping prep them off the track through offerings like media training and photo shoots.

“If the fans and the media and the sponsors knew who these drivers were before they burst onto the scenes, then they would have more linkage and passion for those drivers,” Gregory said.

Sprint Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick described his victory in Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Attention spans

Matthew Brooks, an analyst at Macquarie Securities, doesn’t believe sluggish middle class growth is the primary reason for declining NASCAR attendance in recent years.

He points instead to the industry’s “structural challenges,” meaning much of the interest in the sport lies with baby boomers, who are aging and making trips to the speedway less frequently.

A local effort to garner interest among younger fans is the Bojangles’ Summer Shootout series, a night of racing for kids as young as 8, put on by SMI subsidiary U.S. Legend Cars International.

“Capturing the next generation of race fans ... is SMI’s and NASCAR’s primary marketing focus,” SMI’s executive chairman Bruton Smith, a recent NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, has said.

Ganis, the Chicago consultant, notes that Americans’ attachment to their smart phones has deteriorated attention spans. That’s problematic for any sporting event that lasts for hours – not just NASCAR.

That’s why, Ganis notes, other professional stadiums have invested heavily in experiences, like the WiFi upgrades at Bank of America Stadium.

To that end, NASCAR has built up its consumer analytics and insights group uptown to study and “talk to” fans in real time. The digital teams monitor social media conversations about NASCAR and communicate trends with the track owners, Gregory said.

NASCAR’s also started leaning on Facebook Live for announcements, and launching Snapchat stories that let fans capture their race experience.

SMI Chief Executive Officer Marcus Smith notes how capacity at other sports venues has similarly fallen over the last two decades. The emphasis has turned, Smith told the Observer in a recent interview, to building stadiums more for their experience, rather than just for the sport itself.

At Charlotte’s BB&T Ballpark, for example, instead of remaining in their ticketed seats, people are often standing and socializing, grazing through the various local food vendors and craft beer stands.

The same sentiment is true at NASCAR races, Smith said. People are there to enjoy themselves as well as to watch the race. That was one reason for adding the a carnival-like “fan zone” with food and beer stands and games outside the Charlotte track.

“With stadiums that aren’t as modern and that don’t have as much public funding as other professional sports, it’s taken more time to get that kind of infrastructure that’s more modern,” Smith said.

Jason Eidson, who goes by Spanky after the Little Rascals character who he describes as "the little short fat guy with fat cheeks," is a chef. Instead of wearing a white chef's coat and working in a kitchen at a restaurant, however, he sports a bl

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