The Michael Jordan effect? Dale Jr. may boost ticket sales in his final season

Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrives on pit road prior to the start of the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in 2013.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrives on pit road prior to the start of the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in 2013. AP

The retirement of NASCAR’s most popular driver could provide a much-needed short-term boost for ticket sales at several tracks around the U.S. at a time when admissions continue to fall.

That’s according to Marcus Smith, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports, the company that owns and operates nine racetracks nationwide, including the one in Concord. The day after Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement at the end of the 2017 season, Speedway Motorsports reported a first-quarter profit loss, in large part to another drop in ticket sales.

In a call with analysts Wednesday, Smith was asked if Earnhardt’s pending departure could prompt longtime fans to show up to races this year. He compared Earnhardt’s fan appeal to that of Michael Jordan, the owner of the Charlotte Hornets who is widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time.

“Its similar to when Michael Jordan decided to (retire), it was time for him to retire from basketball. And so the opportunity for fans to see Dale Jr. race one more time, it’s certainly special and something we expect will be inspiring to a lot of fans to come to races,” Smith said.

Experts, however, have said that the departure of megastars like Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon have a long-term negative effect on fan loyalty to NASCAR. SMI has even warned about the retirement of drivers has a contributing factor to its admissions declines.

Surrounded by family and friends, including Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt says he'll wrap it up at the end of the 2017 NASCAR season as a regular driver.

For the quarter that ended March 31, SMI posted a net loss of $1.9 million, according to a securities filing. The company said part of that was because of the costs associated with track renovations underway at Charlotte, Kentucky and New Hampshire Motor Speedways.

The other reason is something with which NASCAR has been struggling for years – declining ticket sales. Revenue from admissions fell by $689,000, a 4.5 percent drop from the same quarter a year ago.

The company said ticket sales continue to be hurt by “economic conditions, including underemployment and the absence of a stronger middle class economic recovery, and changing demographics and media entertainment consumption.”

SMI executives cited a number of ways the company is working to draw in fans, especially families. The October Bank of America 500 race at Charlotte will move from a Saturday night to a Sunday afternoon start, for example. The renovations at Charlotte Motor Speedway, announced last week, include a sun deck and entertainment area – and are meant to create an atmosphere for spectators to enjoy NASCAR beyond the traditional track experience, SMI has said.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta