Friday, July 04, 2014

COMMENTARY: Pocono's IndyCar Woes Felt Throughout Professional Sports

Pocono's Brandon Igdalski
The Verizon IndyCar Series returned to Pocono Raceway last season for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, with Scott Dixon winning the Pocono INDYCAR 400 in front of a disappointing crowd of 30-35,000 fans.

This week, Pocono CEO Brandon Igdalski told Associated Press sportswriter Dan Gelston that ticket sales for Sunday’s return engagement are down substantially from 2013, adding that he will speak to IndyCar CEO Mark Miles this weekend about pulling out of the final year of their three-year contract. Igdalsky said ticket sales for this year’s race were “kind of scary" when compared to last year, and would not guarantee a return of the IndyCar series to Pocono in 2015. Igdalsky said that if IndyCar does not return, “it's because the fans did not come out and support the event."

In some corners, IndyCar’s Pocono struggles are seen as an indictment of the series and its popularity. In truth, however, the Open Wheel Series is suffering the same attendance maladies as virtually every other professional sport, including NASCAR.

Packed houses at Bristol, a thing of the past?
NASCAR stopped providing attendance figures for its Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks Series’ prior to the 2013 season. But even without those official tallies, it is clear that in-person attendance has dropped substantially in the last decade. A number of tracks, including Talladega, Michigan, Martinsville, have either removed or stopped selling large sections of seats in recent seasons.

The days of 160,000 fans at Bristol, 150,000 at Texas or 140,000 at Talladega are long gone and unlikely to return, at least in the foreseeable future. Blame a faltering economy, unsettling employment news, gas prices that hover near $3.70 per gallon and health insurance premiums that have doubled (or even tripled) for many consumers in the last 120-18 months. Blame an instant-gratification society that has 1,000 entertainment options at its fingertips at all times and is unwilling to spend four hours or more in the grandstands at a professional sporting event. Blame breakthroughs in television, radio and internet technology that have made it easier (and cheaper) to watch the game from the comfort of home, rather than travel to the stadium or race track.

It’s a situation that has professional sports franchises crying the blues. And it’s not just NASCAR and IndyCar.

In-person attendance figures for Formula One racing are not readily available, but that circuit’s television viewership is down dramatically this season. F1’s global audience fell from 515 million in 2011 to 500 million in 2012 and 450 million last season, with staggering losses in many of the sport’s most critical markets. Viewership is down 50% in In Latin America over last season, 13% in Germany and 20% in Italy, and while France’s recent move to Pay-Per-View F1 broadcasts makes a direct comparison difficult, the loss of viewership is seen as nothing less than catastrophic by the sport’s organizers.

Major League Baseball is down...
Tickets sales for Major League Baseball are also down substantially this season. The San Francisco Giants are currently the top-drawing club in Major League Baseball, filling 85.7 percent of their available seats, home and away. The New York Yankees – baseball’s top draw for decades – are close behind at 85.3%, followed by the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox. The lowly Cleveland Indians have filled only 53.3% of their available seats through 83 games this season, worst in the majors.

In the National Basketball Association, attendance was been flat or slightly down in recent years. Many teams are now battling sagging attendance by running promotions that deeply discount tickets and offer other incentives for attendance. In mid-December, the Phoenix Suns offered a money-back guarantee for their game against the Dallas Mavericks, promising full refunds if fans were unhappy with the team’s performance. On secondary ticket markets like StubHub, many franchises now have tickets available for as little as a buck. That was not the case even a few short years ago.

Last season, only the Miami Heat were able to fill 100% of their seats. The Detroit Pistons brought up the rear at just 78.3% of capacity; selling approximately 13,000 seats per game in the 21,000-seat Palace. Piston games regularly featured yawning voids in the stands that television viewers could not help but notice. is the NBA. 
Once the weak sister of major league American sports, the National Hockey League actually averaged more sellouts last season than the NBA, despite modest declines in overall attendance from the previous season. A strict, apples-to-apples comparison is difficult, due to a lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign that reduced the overall number of games played. But comparing the first half of each campaign shows only four teams increasing ticket sales in 2013-14. Six clubs were unchanged and 20 franchises suffered a drop in attendance. Overall, NHL ticket sales were down 3.2% last season.
In terms of attendance, the National Football League remains the 600-pound gorilla of professional sports. Last season, six different franchises – the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears – boasted tickets sales of greater than 100%. The Packers top the list at 104.2% of capacity, meaning that every seat is sold (both home and away) along with a number of standing-room-only tickets. Even with television blackouts imposed in local markets where the home team fails to sell out, most teams now sell between 85 and 90% of their available tickets.
It’s complex problem, and concrete solutions will be difficult to come by. Ticket prices have already begun to fall; a direct result of the inexorable link between supply and demand. Arenas and speedways now provide more “value added” per dollar spent, discounting parking, food and drinks and providing behind-the-scenes VIP Tours and other amenities that were traditionally not available to the average fan.

In the short term, however, men like Brandon Igdalski will continue to face difficult decisions concerning the future of their venues.


  1. Anonymous6:34 PM

    I agree with your article, people cant afford the money to go to these events! I go to both Pocono Races and they have done a great job at the track , taking out every other seat makes it more enjoyable and the racing has been pretty good overall for Nascar there, I also always went to DOver 2 times a year and cut out the spring race only because of the racing, There isn't the action that was always there and the same goes for Richmond. I can remember never sitting down during a race because of so much action, now I have to fight to stay awake.

  2. Anonymous7:00 PM

    I believe that for most sports you are correct, Dave. In my opinion, IndyCar would be the exception to the economic and technological challenges the others face. IndyCar damaged themselves long before any of that came into play and either they are not trying hard enough or the damage is too extensive.

  3. Anonymous10:01 AM

    I was impressed with the size of the crowd at the Kansas City race this year. If these sports venues would lower their prices a little, most of their fan base could afford to return. Until the economy starts acting like this is the USA instead of some backwater Socialist country, the average fan will continue to be priced out of the market. By the way, I got to go to Kansas City because I got a taxpayer supplied free ticket from the US Army. I never complain about getting a gift, and I support our Army 100%, but doesn't it strike people odd that the cheapest way into a sports stadium is a free pass from the taxpayers? Get rid of these clowns in Washington and maybe sanity can return to this country. But I digress, I'm sure.

  4. Anonymous10:19 AM

    Well, you just permanently lost me as a reader, Hot Shot.

  5. Anonymous11:05 AM

    All of the factors mentioned are true.Ticket prices, parking,hotel rates that are outrageous.These prices have not came down,so they are cutting their own throat.

  6. The problem is that TV coverage is now superior to the live experience. Just look at all of the chain link fencing at Daytona this weekend. Daytona Rising isn't going to solve that problem.

    Events still draw huge crowds. Look at the crowds for the Goodwood Festival. In this country we have the Monterey Historics and the Long Beach race. Both draw huge numbers. They're both total events that offer a variety of different experiences.

    Who wants to fight the traffic and then be in a grandstand seat for the whole day?

  7. Anonymous1:44 PM

    Agree, Dave. The economy is the largest problem. Races are much better in person but folks just can't afford tickets. It is a major sacrifice. Corporations are making money but people aren't working. Even if they have a job, there are no raises. It will take years to recover. I hope racing, as we know it, survives.

  8. Racing's issues go beyond attendances and to the fratricidal economics of the sport; the lack of spending controls for raceteams has meant a long-term decline in quality of fields and it has now begun eating into Cup with a short field at Kentucky. Racing has to stop hiding in the sand and start facing that it needs spending controls for raceteams - no more of these $10 million per year budgets that sponsors more and more are balking at.

    Technology breakthroughs that ostensibly make it easier to watch events instead of attending them live are at best just part of the problem because live experience fundamentally is superior to electronic monitoring. Issues of cost are nauturally changing given how the market works. If I get the chance I'm going to Pocono in August.

    Issues of the competitive quality of the racing are more serious, shown in negative reaction I've read on last night's Firecracker 250 - the race was good, and the finish great, but it needs to be better - the push-drafting seen at the end needs to be allowed more for more passing. Incentivizing winning and going for the lead, and making the draft more important than handling because that is what breeds passing, remain the sport's biggest competitive issues directly related to attendances.

  9. Anonymous1:10 PM

    I have to defend my beloved Pistons, most of the issue with attendance in recent seasons, has more to do with the product on the floor. I guarantee you, that if the Pistons were still contending for a championship, we would be talking about a consecutive sell-out streak, just like during the Ben Wallace-Rip Hamilton-Chauncey Billups era from 2003-2008.

  10. Anonymous11:10 AM

    A lot of Dodge fans don't attend the races anymore. And the high cost of healthcare. How can a person making $25000 a year afford healthcare at $250 a month, and that has a $6000 deductable. Pay there rent, car payment, child support, buy gas for there car to get to work, buy groceries, pay for utilities and don't forget your car insurance bill. And them you get laid off in the winter. Thanks Obama.