NASCAR hall crowds don't meet estimates

First-year goal of 800,000 is 200,000 too high, based on the initial operating budget and early attendance figures.

Friday, Jun. 11, 2010

For several years, NASCAR Hall of Fame supporters have said they were hopeful that 800,000 people would visit the racing shrine in its inaugural year.

But the hall's first operating budget, released this week, and attendance numbers from its opening weeks indicate thinner crowds can be expected.

Based on estimates for ticket revenues in its first year, the hall would see more like 600,000 visitors. And based on the traffic in its opening month of May - 30,000 people between May 11 and May 31 - even 600,000 would be pushing it.

This week, the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which manages the hall, released its coming-year budget and details on the first month for the $200million hall.

"'Concerned' is not the word I would use," hall of fame executive director Winston Kelley said of the May figures. "But we are very aware, cognizant and diligent in learning about those numbers and who we market to and how we market to them to draw guests in."

Still, officials say, the center city hall is on sound financial footing. A special hotel room tax is raising enough money to cover the construction of it. And its operations are expected to run a surplus of $793,000, after expenses of $15.3 million, according to the budget.

The hall accounts for the largest portion of the visitor authority's budget, followed by the Charlotte Convention Center, which has an operating budget of $13.4 million.

The hall's first month, arguably, should be one of its best. Those weeks included opening ceremonies, local NASCAR races and the Food Lion Speed Street festival uptown.

The events drew more than 400,000 race fans to the region, according to the tourism authority. The hall attendance average was 10,000 visitors a week. For a full year, that would equate to 520,000.

As recently as last month, Kelley and CRVA chief executive Tim Newman said they remained optimistic that the hall could attract 800,000 fans, despite the weakened economy and flagging interest in stock car racing. They have said they expect attendance to fall to about 400,000 annually after the first year.

Kelley said Thursday that it's too early tell whether the hall would attract 800,000 patrons in its first 131/2 months (that includes the opening months and the 2011 fiscal year).

UNC Charlotte sports economist Craig Depken said the May numbers suggest the hall could have a "tough time" hitting its attendance estimates. But, he said, the numbers could rise as people who put off a visit during the recession decide to make the trip as the economy improves.

According to the proposed 2010-11 budget, Newman and Kelley are counting on the hall pulling in more than $11.5 million in revenues from admissions.

To do that would require more than 576,400 visitors paying the full, adult fare of $19.95.

Kelley said his group used a more conservative estimate when setting the budget, which starts in July.

If discounted rates for patrons including children and the military were factored, even more visitors would be needed to reach the revenue projections.

The hall is expected to pay for its operations mostly through admissions, but also through sales from special events, the gift store and concession stands. Taxpayers would not be at risk if the hall didn't generate the expected surplus.

Kelley said his team has been focused on ensuring the quality of the hall of fame and its interactive exhibits, not on the quantity of visitors.

"It's a very, very solid start," he said. "We're not going to get overly excited in one direction or another after just three weeks. But what we're hearing from our partners or the public is that people are very interested in this complex."

Other income expected

The hall is also projected to raise $1.4 million next year through naming rights and sponsorship sales, which have so far proved elusive.

Kelley said the budgeted figure includes some of the $4 million in sponsorships already announced. "We would hope to exceed that amount," he said.

The regional visitors authority had hoped the hall would have sold about $10 million in corporate sponsorships by last summer to help pay off debt to build and launch the shrine.

Zak Brown, president and chief executive of Just Marketing International, the firm hired by the hall to sell the sponsorships, has told the Observer he expected to sell $6million more by next summer, adding: "That's the trajectory we need to know we're going to be in good shape, long term."

Kelley said that it is too soon to say whether he thinks Brown's goal is realistic or not, but that "we hired them to sell sponsorships. We want them to have aggressive goals."

The hall has helped lure conventions to Charlotte, organizers said - notably the National Rifle Association convention, which brought more than 72,000 people to the city last month.

Last month was "perhaps one of the busiest ever for the convention center, according to a report the visitors authority presented to its board this week. Charlotte-area hotel occupancy was 60.7 percent in April, up 11.6 percent from April 2009.

The hall of fame also reported that its facilities are scheduled to be rented 23 times this year and that gift shop sales "exceeded" its expectations, though specifics were not provided. Kelley also said one of the hall's vendors, a company that takes and sells photographs of attendees, has had higher sales per person than expected. The hall receives a portion of the sales.