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Changing fan habits a challenge for NASCAR

- adunn@charlotteobserver.com dscott@charlotteobserver.com
Thursday, May. 23, 2013

As NASCAR fan Butch Berkebile drove through the Charlotte area last week, he decided to stop in Concord to watch the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

A few hours before the Saturday night race began, Berkebile, a truck driver from Orlando, Fla., went to the track’s ticket window, waited a few minutes in line to buy his ticket and – after spending some time at the track’s “fan zone” midway – walked in.

“I like going to the races,” said Berkebile. “The noise, all that stuff, the midway they’ve got here. You can’t get that on television.”

As NASCAR and the Concord track continue to deal with falling ticket revenue, they are happy for fans like Berkebile. But as they prepare for the longest race on the NASCAR schedule –Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 –they also are concerned about a trend he represents:

Fans are waiting to buy tickets until days or hours before the race, instead of planning trips in advance.

Race executives say lower attendance is largely due to the economy. But they also are pouring money into making the race-day experience at the track more distinctive to attract more fans – especially the younger audience, which has decreased.

While television ratings for NASCAR remain flat, admissions revenue collected by NASCAR’s top track operators in 2012 fell for a fifth straight year, federal securities filings show. Actual NASCAR attendance figures are difficult to come by, but combined ticket revenue is down more than 44 percent from its peak in 2007 at NASCAR’s three publicly traded companies, which host 35 of the 38 race weekends (36 points races and two special events). Figures for a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and two at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, both privately held tracks, are not available.

The filings show:

• Admission revenue at Charlotte-based Speedway Motorsports Inc. fell 11 percent over the past year, to $116 million. That’s the lowest it has been since 1998, not adjusted for inflation.

• International Speedway Corp., the country’s largest track operator and owner of Daytona’s famous speedway, lost 6 percent of its admission revenue, slipping to $136.1 million.

• Dover Motorsports, based in Delaware, lost nearly a quarter of its admissions revenue for its two NASCAR race weekends. At $10.4 million, it’s about one-third of what it was in 2005.

While ticket prices have held steady over the past few years, all three companies have blamed the economy for their misfortunes.

“Our core fan was hurt pretty hard by the economy,” said Charles Talbert, ISC’s senior director of investor and corporate communications. “We want to make it appealing when they come back, by engaging them and letting them know what to expect.”

At SMI’s Charlotte Motor Speedway, home to Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, a large portion of the stands along the track’s backstretch that used to be filled with fans is covered with a U.S. flag that serves as a tarp.

“There’s no doubt TV coverage is better and it’s helped get our sport a lot more exposure,” said CMS spokesman Scott Cooper. “But we hear from our fans that they’re going to fewer races for a variety of reasons. They’re concerned about their jobs, so the economy is a majority of that.”

The Concord track always has been an industry leader in innovations for fans, the most recent being the addition of the world’s largest HD television (200 feet wide by 80 feet tall) along the backstretch and a 10-acre “fan zone” outside the track that has the feel of the midway at a county fair.

“We want to make it so that coming to races should not be about finances,” said Cooper. “It should be about fun.”

CMS is one of eight SMI tracks on the NASCAR circuit. The company is looking into installing antenna systems at all of its tracks, allowing race-goers to access faster wireless Internet, as well as investing in social media and building web apps to go along with it, particularly for younger fans.

At Daytona International Speedway – where all 57,000 seats of the track’s backstretch will be closed for July’s Cup race because of the decreased demand – ISC is working on a $250 million upgrade that would include 11 “social neighborhoods” for fans to congregate while still watching the race, executives described last month – although the Florida Legislature recently voted down tax subsidies that would have partially offset the cost of the improvements. The company also plans to make seats wider and more comfortable, and add restrooms and concession stands.

“Sports stadiums are evolving with modern amenities, whether it’s social connectivity, Wi-Fi enhancement, things of that nature,” ISC President John Saunders told analysts last month. “And that’s just to remain relevant in the sporting landscape, the live sporting landscape.”

NASCAR is addressing the attendance problems in a recently announced five-year “Industry Action Plan For Growth.”

Among the document’s topics: “Event Experience,” which focuses on how tracks can “(enhance) the ‘Big Event’ feel afforded to NASCAR races.” That’s being done with infrastructure and fiber connectivity upgrades, faster track-drying technology to shorten rain delays, reinforcing the Chase for the Sprint Cup as the sport’s marketing centerpiece and improving at-the-track experiences with concerts, enhanced driver introductions and “highlight(ing) iconic participation of pop culture stars.”

Country music star Trace Adkins, for instance, will perform a concert Friday at Charlotte.

“We think we’re pulling the right levers,” said ISC’s Talbert.

NASCAR isn’t the only pro sport that has experienced attendance declines. But Major League Baseball, the NBA and NFL are seeing recoveries after single-digit drops during recent years. Baseball attendance increased by 2 percent in 2012 over 2011, and football and basketball numbers have been flat.

NASCAR’s television ratings also have remained flat over the past three years. The season-opening Daytona 500, the sport’s biggest race, had a 22 percent increase in viewership from the rain-delayed 2012 race (13.7 million to 17.8 million), much of which was attributed to the news of Danica Patrick starting the race from the pole.

Ratings for NASCAR’s most recent Sprint Cup points race, the Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C., also were encouraging. Although ratings were flat to last year, the race outdrew an NBA playoff game between the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers by 11 percent.

The previous week, NASCAR’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega, Ala., also was the most-watched event of the day, again outdrawing the NBA. But the rain-delayed Talladega race’s viewership of 8.3 million was down 10 percent from 2012 and the lowest for the event since 2001.

Ticket prices at most NASCAR tracks have held steady over the past two years. Prices for Sunday’s race at Charlotte begin at $49, with children younger than 13 being admitted for $10 in some sections of the track. The easy availability of tickets also allows fans to wait until the last moment to buy them, often the day of the race at the track’s ticket window.

“We used to buy them when they had a Thanksgiving sale,” said Aaron Hayes, a fan from Gastonia, as he left the CMS ticket office Saturday after buying tickets for himself and his wife and son for the all-star race. “But now we always wait until the last minute to buy. We just do it the day of the race, because we know we can.”

CMS’ Cooper said “walk-up” fans such as Birkebile present a challenge to race promoters. By knowing who already has bought tickets, Cooper said, the track can let fans know ahead of time about parking, special events and other race-related activities.

“When that customer buys in advance, it gives us an opportunity to communicate with them before they come to the track … and help enhance their experience,” Cooper said. “We love for them to come and buy anytime, but if they purchase early, there’s more of a chance that we can help them get the most out of things.”

Cooper also said the Concord track goes to great lengths to have fans renew their tickets. They can put as little as $10 down and pay the remainder interest free. Free pit passes and a complimentary “ride along” in the NASCAR Racing Experience also are available.

Hayes’ Gastonia home is within driving distance of several NASCAR tracks. He said he usually attends three races each year – the all-star race, Charlotte’s fall race and one in Bristol, Tenn. He said he will watch Sunday’s 600, NASCAR’s longest race that usually lasts at least four hours, at home.

“It’s too long a race to sit out there,” said Hayes. “I’d rather just watch it at home.”

Kevin Thomas, a fan from Proctorville, Ohio, bought his tickets to the all-star race in advance online. Then, when he arrived at the track, he purchased an upgrade of his three $59 seats to three in the $70 range.

Thomas and his family made the 315-mile drive just to see the all-star race. It’s just the second time he has attended a NASCAR race.

“You get better coverage of what’s happening on TV,” said Thomas. “But we’ve never been to Charlotte before and we’d heard so much about it.

“I’m sure we’ll be back.”

Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14 Dunn: 704-358-5235 Twitter: @andrew_dunn

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