Monday, January 02, 2017

Commentary: College Football's Bowl Woes Show It's Not Just A NASCAR Problem

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,, 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, 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.


  1. My opinion, from personal experience, and from discussion with friends from all over the country is that it isn't so much the cost of tickets as it is the overall price of attending a venue for a weekend or even a week. The biggest complaint I've heard is that hotels and campgrounds, even restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores, really jack up their prices in anticipation of the crowds. That puts NASCAR races in particular out of the financial reach of many people who would otherwise be able to attend.

    1. That's because demand outruns supply, and by a very large extent. The frequent demand I hear that hotels should be prevented from raising their prices for racing weekends completely ignores the real world.

  2. Anonymous2:08 PM

    I have driven to the Pocono June race the last 2 years. By staying 30 plus miles away, the cost of a Hotel room drops. Where there is a will, there is a way to keep the cost of attending reasonable.

  3. Anonymous7:22 PM

    Oversupply, lack of interest, excessive support costs, pick one. In general we've become sedentary in our viewing habits over the past decade. The world lives by it's phones, why go to a live event, spend a fortune, and take transportation home when you can watch it on your phone?

    NASCAR, Bowl Games, baseball, golf all suffer from the same issues. It's not that the product is worse than it used to be, it's just that people love their couch more than a day in the sun.

    In my humble opinion.


  4. Dwayne in Memphis9:34 PM

    Part of the problem, not to say it's a good or bad thing, is that the television coverage has gotten SO good. Even with the NFL, in-person viewership is more about fun in the stands than the game. When sitting in the stands, it's 4 seconds of dust followed by a 40 second play clock. At the stadium, you can see the replay on the big screen, but on television there are replays from 400 different angles with commentary and zooms and rewinds...oh yeah, and $18 cokes and $30 hot dogs (exaggerating to make the point). The television product is COMPLETELY different from the stadium product.

    Bristol is a perfect Nascar example. When you sit at the track, you feel that thunder in your chest, you can't hear your own self think (much less the radio broadcast cranked up to 10 in the headphones), and you have to see the scoring pylon to know the leader...then you spend 45 seconds scanning your eyes around the track to find the #XX car because once they get going, it's a continuous string of cars circling the track. I love every second of that experience. But the television offers so much more. For home.

    I've also been guilty of blaming the "3 minutes for a Hot Pocket, are you KIDDING me?!" society we're in for people who'd rather stay home.

    But I've realized lately that I'm not totally right in that. It's that the television product has gotten SO good (people's constant whining about DW aside), that it's in actual competition for viewership of the same event that promoters sell tickets for. The product has gotten, in my opinion, across sports so good on television that it is winning the battle against the ticket buyers. Whether that's healthy or sustainable remains to be seen.

    1. Dwayne in Memphis10:35 AM

      and granted my own reply doesn't address declining television ratings, but ratings are, well, overrated. But we're becoming an event-driven society. The Superbowl will still get great ratings, although they may be down since last year's game was widely regarded as Peyton's last game.

      We like big events, and tune in for them.

    2. Anonymous12:47 PM

      I take the opposite stance. I think the product on TV is so bad it causes people not to want to watch in person. This is all sports and not just Nascar. Endless commercials, promos, talking heads discussing pretty much everything but the event we are trying to watch, and people get turned off. I don't consider myself part of the ADD generation, but sitting through a 4 hour football game on my couch is bad enough, I don't have any interest in going through this in person, no matter how good the action is on the field.

    3. Wouldn't going to the race in person save you from the commercials, promos and talking heads?

    4. Dwayne in Memphis1:59 PM

      The bottom line is that people are walking away from both. They hate the television (and viewership is down), but they're not going to the live events (attendance is down).

      And nothing is more ADD friendly than professional wrestling, but I read an article the other day about the same problem. Back in the 90's when the two major pro wrestling brands were at their peak, they were regularly selling out shows. Now it's down to mainly the WWE, and they do 2 or 3 times the live shows they did then to crowds a third of the sizes in those days. They compensate with more shows at higher ticket prices.

      It's not a problem unique to NASCAR nor football. Not sure how to rectify the situation that all live entertainment seems to be finding itself in.

  5. Citing the Rams undermines the argument that declining attendances is a general sports issue because LA is a proven failure as a sports market and the NFL - which Athlon Sports and Lindy's NFL preview magazines both reported wasn't itself sure LA even wanted a team, this despite all of its years of effort to shove the idea down everyone's throat - is clearly finding this out (and which may wind up deterring the Chargers from leaving San Diego after all with reports the Spanos' may stay at Qualcomm Stadium one more season at least).

    The issue of ticket sales will never go away; though TV and media rights already constitute a very substantial chuck of a sport's revenues live attendance can never be replaced, either as a revenue source or for the completeness of the experience of direct eyewitness participation - no amount of media can replace that, because being there will always be better.

    NASCAR's empty seats issue is matched by TV ratings that have not been all that encouraging; it shows there IS something fundamentally wrong with NASCAR's present competition package and method of determining a champion.

  6. Anonymous10:12 AM

    The truck series routinely doubles or TRIPLES 15,000 in attendance? You lost me there. Some Cup races do not even get 45,000.

    You are also comparing the fact that the fans at Middle Tennessee University didn't travel all the way to Hawaii to watch their team play. Or Miami of Ohio, with a historically weak team and football fan base, didn't go to St. Petersburg. I bet if those schools were playing within 3 hours of campus there would be a much larger turnout. Compared with NASCAR where there are 23 places to see a race across the country, the travel distance is much more enticing. This is comparing two very different situations.

  7. Anonymous10:33 AM

    The over-emphasis upon playoffs is killing all sports. Regular season games lose much of their meaning, so the fans interest in their team drops during the regular season and it never comes back.

  8. Anonymous10:36 AM

    The college bowl situation is a bad analogy to pro sports - even NASCAR - for a couple of fundamental reasons. College sports are ALWAYS parochial. Very few college teams "travel well" or "play well nationally". The few that are (like Notre Dame or Alabama) are highly coveted for TV. But when you have a year like this where the most "national" college teams end up in a scant few bowls, the rest suffer. And simply - there are way too many of them. They now start before Christmas and run through New Years. Add in the NFL and by the time the day after the last New Years bowls happen, you really do NOT want to see football for a year. So eventually the lesser bowls drop out. And that is why the "sports made for TV" thing fails too. TV tends to grab something that works and then promptly overdo it until it doesn't (ask the NFL, which is showing signs that Sunday-day, Sunday-night, Monday and Thursday may be too much).

    I have no sympathy for the pros. If the team sucks, attendance will drop. And if you insist on ludicrous seasons (think the fact that in the Fall, you can have NASCAR, football (including that funny kind with the round white ball), basketball, baseball and hockey ALL AT THE SAME TIME - some of these seasons are just TOO much. Perhaps the public is just puking up the sports overload. Or Facebook is more fun!

  9. Anonymous3:26 PM

    Peach Bowl, pitting No 9 Washington....... Hmmmm, got me to thinking. What do race tracks and peaches have in common? Both have pits.

    I'm still wondering if the construction in the article was deliberate, or something that just happened?

    On another note. Bowl games. Forty of them? Yowza. I can remember, back in the 1950s, there were only a handful of games. Most if not all of them were played on New Years Day. The Rose Bowl, The Cotton Bowl, The Orange Bowl, The Sugar Bowl are the ones I remember. Might have missed a couple, but I think you get my point.

    Oversaturation is never a good business model.

  10. Jonathan5:31 PM

    Nascar is just fine! It's attendance and ratings still beat most all other sports besides football..... Most Nascar races still get a good 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, even 100,000 (Daytona, Bristol Night race)... If Nascas was smart they would visit most race tracks once and go to some new tracks, hell even go overseas see what happens. College Football use to be the hottest thing on the planet, but looking at those numbers is somewhat laughable! Most major sport leagues would die for Nascar's tv numbers and loyal fan base. Proof is in the pudding. When Nascar was on FS1 early In 2016 it beat out both opening day baseball games on Espn and Espn 2 combined along with beating out an NBA playoff game that was on NBC! Nascar ratings saw a decline this year major on NBC and NBCSN... my opinion is the reason why is cause quit frankly NBC's broadcasting booth is the absolute worst booth ive seen in the history of Nascar. I'm a die hard don't miss any race from Arca to Nascar. But there were times this year when I was watching Cup races on NBC and NBCSN where I couldn't take it. Rick Allen is hideous couldn't call a race if is life depended on it... there no chemistry in the booth between Rick, Jeff, and Steve.... all they do is explain things to you like your at a Nascar school... theres no fun theres not nothing its just blah. I heard Green Flag back in the air ever damn restart from Allen... plus they didn't cover races very good no crank it up no letting us hear the cars at the start or restarts... just yap yap yap and no rhythm. Dave id give ANYTHING to be able to have the MRN booth call a race for TV. ratings would skyrocket that's how awesome you guys sound! I never thought id see the day id turn off a Cup race to go listen on the radio! I tried everything I could to sync it up but its impossible! Anyway ok just my 2 cents! Happy New Year everyone and lets get ready for DAYTONA!

  11. Could it be you are all correct?

  12. I was watching the 1997 Winston on Youtube and was amazed at how Charlotte was at capacity; from turn to turn the grandstands were full, pretty amazing. It was a different time in culture and society. Media, entertainment, the internet, social media, provides such outlets, that some entertainment can not compete. I just read that Conan on TBS is being moved to a one hour a week show. It's just the nature of entertainment these days.

    I will say this as a avid longtime Nascar fan, in general the sport is boring. I can watch even the most dreadful of races ( Pocono, Texas, etc )but these races provide very little in terms of action other then restarts. I don't know how Nascar fixes that to bring in new fans at the track and television. Honestly I think they really need to think about eliminating some races and replace them with road courses. Think the road course dynamic plays to a larger appeal on television and maybe a the track. I know the people at Texas Motor Speedway will never allow it, but if Nascar could race in Austin at the Circuit of the Americas, man that would be quite the race and boost for the sport.

  13. Here in So Cal, Saugus, home of Saugus Speedway, we still have so many racing fans. The Fontana racetrack should be courting us, courting Antelope Valley/Willow springs racing fans, Bakersfield racing fans
    Lowes should have signs in their stores to remind us when there is a race in Fontana. Albertsons, any sponsor who may care that they have connections to NASCAR drivers should proudly show this, most especially in March, race month. Fontana does a terrific job promoting the NASCAR race when it's in town-local Vons/Safeway near track especially does. But the town's I mentioned need reminding, what a great event for all attending a NASCAR race is, no matter if it's Friday, Saturday, or the Sunday raceway! I go alone, I travel 95 minutes, stop at Vons/ Safeway then park my car at Fontana pay maybe 25$ to enter the actual gates to watch qualifying and to shop. By myself, a woman , feeling safe to mingle, interact, shop and of course experience NASCAR and it's drivers, only 95 minutes from home. This Speedway could have many many many more like me who would make the trip alone, with families, friends, kids, ladies, but the Speedway needs to court, woo it's SoCal cities to remind all what is just over there in Fontana. Fontana, NASCAR, does nothing to reach out to Bakersfield, Willow Springs, Saugus, towns and cities with fans who can use just a little enticing, some reminding, how much a blast it would be for us to visit Fontana on race weekend, for the Race or that Fri or Sat. So I blame this particular NASCAR Raceway for not getting fans enthused.