The racing at Bristol Motor Speedway this past Sunday was some of the best of the season. Battles for position were happening all through the pack and some of the sport’s biggest names were having to fight their way forward after various bouts of adversity. Not only that but there was perfect weather and the debut of a huge screen hanging over the track allowing fans to see more than ever before. Even an NFL legend was milling about and very visible to all.
Sadly if you were watching on TV you only saw a small portion of what was going on. Even sadder there seemed to be even fewer fans seeing all that action in person. The grandstands at Bristol shined in all their metal glory. That’s because there seemed to be more empty seats than ever before. And that’s just a shame.
The truth is TV can only cover so much. Their focus is on the leaders or the racing close to them. They do an admirable job, but they can only do so much. They may briefly mention, and show, a big name who is fighting up through the pack, but the little nuances that add to all the on-track action are hard to display on a TV screen.
In order to understand, and enjoy, a NASCAR race you need to be there. Hear the noise, feel the power of 40 cars rocketing by, experience all the pageantry that happens that TV never shows. Sunday, it appeared that fewer fans than ever got to witness all that.
To be fair, the stands and Bristol are mammoth. They can hold up to 165,000 people so even if there were 100,000 Sunday they might still appear sparse; and even the fewer fans in attendance were most likely still the largest crowd for a live sporting event in North America for the entire weekend. How many there were though, we will never know. NASCAR, and the tracks it races on, have not released attendance figures for each race for quite some time. Sure they know, they just aren’t telling the rest of us. And for good reason.
NASCAR attendance has been declining for several years and for many reasons. It began in the Great Recession when people worried about paying their mortgages and keeping their jobs; buying a ticket to any sporting event was out of the question. Gone were the days when the Daytona 500 sold out in advance, or the night race in August at Bristol was a ticket that was kept in a family for generations. TV money became the big prize for the sanctioning body and the track operators. That’s because most of us couldn’t afford to even think about buying a ticket to a NASCAR race. There are other reasons too.
Attending a race in person for a fan is an all day affair, and the public’s attention span is shorter than ever before. In that respect NASCAR should be grateful that someone will still devote three or four hours to watch an entire race. As for watching the race, we can now see it at home in High Definition, and enhance the experience with a smart phone and a computer, which could be one reason TV ratings are down. Viewers can now get their programming in ways that don’t even involve a TV and the industry is still trying to figure out how to measure all that. Not only are races televised or streamed online but every time a NASCAR Sprint Cup car is on track it is on TV or a computer screen somewhere.
Many of us can remember the days when a track not selling out was a big deal; when practices could only be seen at the track. We can also remember the ridiculous hotel prices and ticket prices fans were forced to pay just to be there. It was a seller’s market and attending a NASCAR race, especially out of one’s hometown was a costly affair.
Today it’s a buyer’s market. Tracks have responded by lowering ticket prices and adding live entertainment and other draws that make that less costly ticket an even better value. It isn’t unheard of for fans to see a big name entertainer put on a pre-race concert now, and of course there is, and always has been, free parking and shuttles. Yet there are still empty seats and Bristol was an example of that Sunday.
Part of the reason could be the nearby hotels that charge outrageous prices and require minimum stays. This was the norm in the old days, and in some places, it continues to this day. Some tracks have responded and worked with local hotels to keep prices affordable; after all a booked room, even at a normal everyday price or at least one that’s affordable , is still better than an empty one at an inflated, and often ridiculous price. Other tracks need to jump on board this train. They need to do more to work with local hoteliers and put an end to outrageous prices and rules like minimum stays; in the end everyone could make more money than they are now.
There is also location and this might have hurt Bristol on Sunday. Only two weeks ago, the series was at Martinsville Speedway, a short track, like Bristol, that isn’t too far away. While the racing at each venue is markedly different, they are both still short tracks. Could it be that fans who can easily travel to both, can only afford to go to one? Perhaps the two tracks could come up with a combo ticket that would be priced not much more than a single ticket, but that would allow a fan to see two short track races within the span of two weeks, maybe it could be called a “Superfan” package. It might be good business for each track to have fans on their grounds both weeks, then to not have those fans at all.
There may not be one single answer. And at the end of the day there may be fewer butts in the seats and there will little NASCAR or the tracks can do about it. Right now we can’t know the correct answers. We can speculate, even give out free tickets and hotel rooms, but even that may not be enough. I have said it before and I will put if forth again: in order to NASCAR to move forward it needs to understand where it’s at and where it is going to.
As I said last year, “NASCAR has talked to its drivers, its stakeholders (sponsors) and others around the sport trying to find a magic formula that will lift the sport back towards where it once was. They have been talking to everyone except those who matter the most, the customers, the fans. Those whose money fills the seats and whose eyes are not looking at the TV screen.
NASCAR has a fan council, 12,000 members strong. Created in 2008, the fan council’s mission is to give a voice to the fans. Yet now as TV ratings continue to fluctuate, and seats remain empty, not even the engagement of the fan council seems to be helping.
There may be a good reason for that.
The fan council is a good idea. However, it is currently only open to pre-qualified members, and currently all new registrants go onto a wait list from which NASCAR will select new members for participation. NASCAR reviews new candidates and adds people to the Official NASCAR Fan Council periodically. There are up to two surveys a month, but since it started only the input for the double file restart rule has been cited as a change that the fan council had a say in.
These twice a month surveys are a good idea, however, surveys can be filled with bias; both bias on the part of the administering organization and those taking that survey. This negates a survey and makes it in effect meaningless. By using its current selection process NASCAR is, in essence, choosing only those it wants to hear from. In this way, the organization will in turn only hear want it wants to hear. The argument could be made at this point that by carefully choosing those who participate on the fan council, NASCAR is currently hearing only what it wants to hear. In addition, an “avid” fan, someone who has been “chosen” to be on the fan council, may be saying only what he or she thinks NASCAR wants to hear.
Additionally for a survey to be effective, the proper sample, both in size and with a lack of bias, needs to happen. There are complicated formulas used to determine a proper sample size and to minimize bias. So, is 12,000 people a proper sample size? At this point, we have no way of knowing.
Last year Formula 1 through the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA) conducted a fan survey that may be one of the better surveys conducted in recent years. There were over 200,000 respondents – with participants from 194 countries – that took part in the survey, which featured over 50 questions and had an average completion time of 25 minutes. According to Repucom, one of the world’s leading advisors in sports and entertainment intelligence, the GPDA survey was the largest sports-fan research poll ever conducted.
There is little doubt that trained, unbiased professionals had a hand in the GPDA survey, ensuring the proper sample size, a largely unbiased survey (no survey is completely unbiased), and one that will deliver results that will show the good, the bad and the ugly. It will give the sport of Formula 1 a wealth of insights that will help it better serves its customers, that is to say, its fans.
For a survey to be effective an organization needs to take leap of faith, open up the opinions to everyone, not just a group it selects. We have already established that bias comes from those who are considered “avid”.
What about those who aren’t considered “avid” yet consider themselves fans? What about the casual fan who might be interested in watching NASCAR? What is keeping them from doing so? Why aren’t fans filling seats? Watching the broadcasts? Who might be interested in paying attention to NASCAR, and what might lure them to do so? What will keep current fans while attracting new ones? Will NASCAR still try and find those answers by, in effect, talking among themselves? Will tracks continue to tear down seats or can they find ways to fill those already in place? We all have our separate opinions on these issues, yet the answers are out there, we just need to listen to those who pull out the wallets and hold the TV remotes. “
All of what I said last year still applies. NASCAR needs to survey its fans. It needs to know exactly what is going on. Until than all anyone is doing is throwing sand into the wind.
The empty seats we saw Sunday at Bristol may become the norm. And that’s just a shame. Because for any person to truly call themselves a fan, they have to experience NASCAR in person. There are many however who won’t let this decline happen without a fight. I’m referring to people who make their living in the sport, around the sport and those fans who have always loved the sport.
Right now though we are all unarmed for battle. We need to know what’s going on and we need to do so soon. NASCAR needs to open its checkbook and fund a proper survey. Because until we can learn just what it will take to fill the seats, NASCAR may just see those butts walking out the door.