Dwindling attendance has long been a cause for concern in NASCAR.
With tickets sales on the downturn, race tracks downsizing and television ratings suffering, some wonder whether the very future of the sport is in jeopardy. A look at other sports, however, reveals the problem to be widespread, and not unique to NASCAR.
Take, for instance, college football.
This season, a total of 40 College Football Bowl games have been played over the last two weeks. With only the National Championship game – No. 1 Alabama versus No. 2 Clemson – still to be contested, less than half of those 40 Bowl contests have sold out – despite being played in stadiums that often seat far fewer fans than the average NASCAR speedway. Most of this year’s CFB Bowl games have been played in half-full (or less) venues, with literally thousands of tickets going unsold, despite being available on the secondary market (StubHub, SeatGeek, VividSeats.com., etc.) for less than $25.
Late last week, a ticket to the Playstation Fiesta Bowl semifinal between No. 2 Ohio State and third-ranked Clemson could be purchased on the secondary market for as little as $25. By comparison, the average price to see any Ohio State home game this season was $289.
|33,868 at the Nova Loans Arizona Bowl|
For the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl -- pitting No. 9 Washington against Alabama – tickets were available for as little as $6. One week prior to kickoff, tickets to that same contest sold for had a minimum of $191. Late last week, the average price for a Peach Bowl ticket topped out at $288, with the average Fiesta Bowl ticket going for $224.
USA Today reported that prices for both games dropped significantly in the days leading up to the contest, plunging nearly 20% since Dec. 21.
And those are the marquee games on the College Football Bowl calendar. According to statistics compiled by Newsday.com, at least 12 of the Bowl games played to date failed to sell even 50% of their available seats. They include:
· Cure Bowl: 27,213 (41.9% full)
· New Orleans Bowl: 35,061 (45.9%)
· Miami Beach Bowl: 15,262 (44.9%)
· Poinsettia Bowl: 28,114 (39.8%)
· Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: 24,975 (68.6%)
· Hawaii Bowl: 23,175 (46.4%)
· St. Petersburg Bowl: 15,717 (50%)
· Quick Lane Bowl: 19,117 (29.4%)
· Heart of Dallas Bowl: 39,117 (42.5%)
· Foster Farms Bowl: 27,608 (40.3%)
· Birmingham Bowl: 31,229 (43.6%)
· Celebration Bowl 35,528 (47.9%)
Many games with a higher percentage of seats sold were played in smaller stadiums. Fans filled 96.7% of the available seats for the Dec. 17 Camellia Bowl between Appalachian State and Toledo; an impressive effort until you consider that the game was played at the tiny Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, with a seating capacity of just 21,000.
The Dec. 26 St. Petersburg Bowl between Mississippi State and Miami of Ohio — two teams with a combined losing record— was played in front of an announced crowd of just 15,717. That’s a number that the Camping World Truck Series – NASCAR’s tertiary series – routinely doubles or triples.
|Half-full at the Citrus Bowl|
Despite a contest that featured a pair of Top-20 teams, the New Year’s Eve Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando was played before an announced crowd of 46,063; the lowest since 1979 in a stadium that seats 65,000 fans. Photos of the game show virtually no fans in the upper concourse, and the lower bowl only half filled.
Even the legendary Cotton Bowl Classic is struggling to sell out. Hours before kickoff, today’s matchup between Western Michigan and Wisconsin has approximately $10,000 tickets still available for purchase, with some selling for as little as $18.
Clearly, empty seats at major events are not a problem exclusive to NASCAR.
In fairness, not all of College Football’s Bowl games are struggling. The Rose Bowl remains the priciest of all Bowl tickets, with an average secondary-market price of $655. That is far above face value, affording your friendly neighborhood scalper a rare opportunity to turn a profit. The USC vs. Penn State matchup was far-and-away the priciest Bowl ticket of the season, with average ticket prices 30% above either the Peach or Fiesta Bowls.
How can College Bowl games survive with all those empty seats?
The answer provides an interesting peek into the possible future of professional sports. Fourteen of this year’s 41 College Football Bowl games are owned by ESPN Events; a subsidiary of ESPN. The cable sports giant uses those games to fill holiday season lineups on their expansive family of networks; ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN News, ESPNU, ESPN Deportes, the SEC Network and ESPN Radio.
That makes sense for the network, since it pays virtually nothing for the broadcast rights. That allows parent company Disney Corporation to sell enough advertising to turn a reasonable profit, even if ratings for the games are less-than-spectacular.
Bottom line: poorly attended games between mediocre teams still draw enough television viewership to turn a profit. That’s why only two of this season’s 41 Bowl Games will be broadcast on networks other than ESPN or ABC.
|The NFL's LA Rams, ready for kickoff|
That’s the new business model for the College Football postseason, and arguably for sports in general. As in-person attendance continues to dwindle -- the victim of a microwave society unwilling to invest more than 10 minute of its collective attention to even the most compelling contest – television and radio rights are becoming more and more critical to an event’s survival.
If this trend continues, it won’t be long before all professional sports – NASCAR included – begin to de-emphasize in-person ticket sales, customizing their products for an audience that is no longer willing to leave the comfort of its own home.
A number of Major League baseball teams played before virtually empty stadiums last season. The National Hockey League continues to struggle with franchises on life support. The NBA is no different, and even the mighty National Football League -- the thousand-pound gorilla of professional sports -- fights to sell tickets in many markets.
Here’s some good news for NASCAR. Today’s oversaturated, “More Is Better” slate of College Bowl games has diminished the importance of all but the final three -- semifinal and final -- events. NASCAR has only 10 playoff games, and each one includes every fan’s favorite team, whether they’re playing for the championship or not.