growth By Subtraction
It's no secret that NASCAR powers have made several blunders over the past 15 years that have hurt the sport. The Car of Tomorrow, restart zones and phantom debris cautions are just a few of the self-inflicted problems that quickly come to mind. In roughly the past five years however, they've gotten something right that they're not getting enough credit for. Actually, they've been ridiculed in some circles for what in the long run, will prove to be a brilliant move.
It was announced last week that Richmond International Raceway will remove 9,000 backstretch seats, further reducing their capacity from a onetime peak of 91,000 to 60,000. This continues the trend that's been observed in recent years as the vast majority of tracks hosting NASCAR races have removed grandstand seating. While critics will point to this 45% cut in available seats as another sign of NASCAR failing, in truth it shows track owners are not only getting wise, they're actually following in the path of another sport, baseball.
Yes, technically NASCAR itself doesn't own any tracks. The reality of course, is that the sanctioning body is the right hand of the France family dynasty while International Speedway Corporation (ISC), owner of 12 of the circuit's facilities, is the left hand. Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports, Inc. owns eight tracks, with Dover Motorsports owning Dover International Speedway. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is exempt from this discussion since obviously it's owned by the Hulman family and isn't primarily a NASCAR facility.
Baseball teams began downsizing their seating capacities in the 1990's as older stadiums were replaced. Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore was the leader of the trend when it opened in 1992 with a capacity of 48,876. It replaced Memorial Stadium which seated 53,371. Interestingly, when the old stadium opened in 1950, it only held 31,000. Equally interesting is that after modifications in 2011, Camden Yards now seats 2,905 fewer fans than when it first opened.
Throughout the 2000's, new baseball only stadiums were built in 14 cities and in every instance, the seating capacities were reduced. Notably, this includes the home of the game's most iconic franchise, the New York Yankees. Their new park was built to hold almost 6,000 fewer spectators than the old Yankee Stadium. Yet, there was no outcry that baseball was failing. Even for all the problems the game had, including the repercussions of the "Steroid Era," there was no concern that fans would stop showing up, the same laments heard from critics of NASCAR. As a matter of fact, many of the teams found their overall attendance rose significantly after they moved into their smaller homes. The Pittsburgh Pirates are playing in front of more fans each year in a 38,000 ballpark than they every played for in Three Rivers Stadium's 52,000 seats.
The biggest difference between baseball's downsizing and NASCAR's reduction seems to be the timing. Just as professional baseball grew in attendance, ratings and importance to fans through the 1960's and 70's, so NASCAR grew through the 90's. As a result of that boom in baseball, teams like the Cardinals, Reds, Pirates, Braves and Phillies found themselves playing in 55,000 seat concrete circles. Due to NASCAR's growth spurt in popularity, its tracks as well all know, began to add seating. There are three major components involved in NASCAR tracks scaling back their seating capacities.
The first is the recession and the issues it created. Attending a NASCAR race hundreds of miles away from home has never been cheap. At best, a lot of fans had their discretionary income reduced. At worst, a lot of them no longer had any income as jobs were lost. At the same time, gas prices were rising. Secondly, during this same period, there were great advancements in personal technology. Older fans remember a time when they were lucky to see part of a race on ABC's Wild Word of Sports. Not only is every race televised now but fans can listen to in-car audio from the comfort of home. With the newer television contracts came more auxiliary coverage on the networks throughout the week as well, in addition to what social media offers.
The third issue facing NASCAR is one that not only baseball but almost every other major sport battles, the changing demographic of its fans. In today's "now" world of instant gratification, younger fans find it difficult to dedicate 3 or more hours to watching an event. For many who came to know the sport through video games as opposed to spending Saturday night at a short track, there is no emotional connection. They feel no compelling reason to make the effort to devote a weekend to traveling to the track, watching a race (or races) then traveling home. To many, the men on the track are merely extensions of the characters they've come to know either through those games, on television or through social media. Every sport, including college football is struggling with ways to attract and keep those fans. This isn't unique to NASCAR. What is unique of course, is that today's drivers didn't spring from those small tracks and climb their way through the ranks. That only adds to the personal, emotional detachment that's common today.
So how do fewer seats at tracks benefit stock car racing? Look at Talladega. Once, it held over 180,000 seats but how many of those were good seats? How many of those made fans feel like they were right on top of the action? Yes, it was a majestic spectacle to climb that hill, enter the concourse and see both the enormity of the track as well as the endless seats but how much of the race could a fan on the backstretch really see? Why offer a seat if the fan experience is so underwhelming, the fan questions why they went? $400 million has been spent on the Daytona Rising project. While many point to the reduction in seating as the focus, the reality is, they are eliminating many seats that made fans feel detached from the action. Additionally, they are increasing and enhancing the amenities offered for fans.
It's been discussed countless times that empty seats don't project well on television. Not only is that issue being eliminated along with thousands of seats, the tracks will see other benefits as well. Limiting the amount of available tickets will hopefully lead to more demand and thus, more ticket revenue. That's basic economics. Also, smaller crowds mean the facilities will spend fewer dollars for security and custodial services. It won't take fans three hours or more to leave Bristol or Atlanta, nor will they have to stand in line as long at restrooms and concession stands. Richmond president Dennis Bickmeier stated they plan to use the area opened on the backstretch for hospitality. That's an indication that sponsors want or need that space. In a sponsor driven sport like NASCAR, that's a tremendous thing to hear.
Once the backstretch seats are removed at Richmond, its overall capacity will have shrunk from 110,000 to 71,000. If fans have a more pleasant experience, are they going to notice or care about the smaller crowd? Assuming the product improves (another topic entirely), the overall experience is going to make them want to return. Thus, the track has more ticket renewals which in turn, creates higher demand and may eventually allow the facility to once again raise prices.
Did the sport get greedy when tracks began expanding years ago? Not all, if anything they gave more fans more opportunities to see races. If Bristol's capacity had remained at its 1996 level of 71,000 seats, do you have any idea how much those tickets would have cost, based on demand? With its configuration, that track doesn't realistically have an easy way to reduce seating. Fortunately, they don't have too as ownership looks at other ways to use the facility. Virginia Tech and Tennessee will play football there in September in the "Battle at Bristol." It's assumed that game will have the highest attendance of any college football game that's been played. Not only will it bring increased attention to the track and the sport but one wonders how many of those fans might decide they want to return for a race.
Yes, NASCAR has its problems but reduced seating at its tracks isn't one of them. If anything, it's something they've gotten right recently. Now, if we can get those same minds to look into restart zones...