Can Open Wheel Racing ever become mainstream?

 by Jose Arrambide
April 19, 2006

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Sebastien Bourdais in his McDonald's Champ Car
Bob Heathcote

I live in Monterrey, Mexico.  Taking advantage of Easter I decided to take a mini vacation last week in San Antonio, Texas. Every time I visit the USA I get reminded that most of the country is NASCAR territory.  Not only sports stores had souvenirs and memorabilia of NASCAR, I found merchandise of the stock cars in Home Depot, Target and Office Depot. The sad part is that I couldnít find any Champ Car, IRL or Formula 1 merchandise anywhere in town.

I didnít discover anything new, any US resident will testify that this is true in the majority of towns and cities in the country. Fans of Open Wheel Racing in North America believe that the only way Open Wheel Racing can survive and recuperate some of its past glory is to compete with NASCAR for fans. The idea sounds very logical, but I just donít share it.

NASCAR has probably the most loyal fan base in North America, to some of them itís not just a sport, itís a way of life, a religion.  Trying to convince enough of them to change racing series would be next to impossible. In fact, targeting any single group of sports fans in North America will not help much.  Open Wheel Racing is actually competing with every other sport league in the USA.

The problem is that no other country in the world has so many sport leagues, so many alternatives to choose from. There are five major sport leagues, the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR. If that isnít enough, College Basketball and Football has a very big following too, and then you have all the regional minor leagues in baseball, hockey and basketball, and you also have Arena Football, not to mention all the golf and tennis tournaments.

While visiting San Antonio, I decided to attend a hockey game. The San Antonio Stampede is a minor league team that plays in the AHL (American Hockey League), and they were dead last in the standings. The official attendance number was 8,900 spectators. While watching the game, I couldnít stop thinking that a minor league team with the worst record in the league could fill 3/4 of the arena, average an attendance of 8,000 paying fans and get some of their games televised on cable TV.

Sure, it helps that San Antonio has no NFL and no MLB teams, but right there it hit me, the average US sports fan is saturated with options.  While doing research for this editorial, I found 22 different professional sport leagues in the US (not counting any NCAA tournaments), and believe me, I didnít find them all.

What I also found, is that outside the major five (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, NASCAR), the other leagues are battling with each other for survival, I found at least eight different leagues that folded in the last ten years (the number is probably higher), some were relatively new leagues, some other leagues had more had been around for fifty years or more.

Is surviving all that a league outside of the major five can aspire too? Is it impossible for any other league to become mainstream?  Is there no hope for Open Wheel Racing to return to mainstream America and stop being a niche sport?

There may be hope for Open Wheel - there is one relatively new league that is getting close to becoming mainstream, the MLS (Major League Soccer). The MLS is doing what seemed like an impossible mission, turn soccer from a niche sport to a mainstream one, and although it looks impossible to get the same status of the NFL and MLB, it looks to be on its way of getting close to NBA status and getting the same status as NHL.

It hasnít been easy for the MLS, especially if you take into account that two previous leagues (NASL and MISL) had failed already. Business Week reported that in the first 9 years of existence, the league has lost 215 million USD. They have had to buy TV time to transmit their games in all of their nine seasons. When they tried their first expansion from ten to twelve teams in 1998 they had to contract back to 10 teams in 2001. After their inaugural year, attendance decreased for 3 consecutive seasons.

Nevertheless, the league was patient, and has made progress year after year. The league expanded again to twelve teams and will expand to thirteen teams in 2007. The league will have its first ever rights fees for television (this means they will receive money for TV transmissions instead of paying for it). Thanks to the TV contract the league will be in the black in the year 2010. By 2009 nine teams will be playing in their own stadiums constructed solely for soccer.

But most importantly, the average attendance went from 13,756 in the year 2000 to 15,108 in the year 2005, getting very close to the NHL average of season 2003-2004 of 16,534 (there was no 2004-2005 NHL season because of the lockout between players and owners) and very close to the NBA average attendance of 17,314 in the 2004-2005 season. The Los Angeles Times reported that sales of season tickets for the MLS 2006 season rose by 25% percent.

What lesson can Open Wheel Racing in North America learn from the MLS experience? That it takes a lot of patience and a very big investment to become a mainstream league. It will take the MLS 13 years to start operating in the black, and they have already spent 215 million USD, and they will lose more before ending up in the black.

Will IndyCar Racing have the patience and the money? It appears that only three men know the answer. Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe and Tony George.

Hang in there.

The author can be contacted at feedback@autoracing1.com

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