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With attendance down, three tracks use banners to cover empty seats
NASCAR fans first saw banners covering seats this year at Auto Club Speedway in late March, they saw them again at Talladega Superspeedway in April, and they’ll see them for a third time this weekend at Dover.

The banners are the manifestation of a sport wrestling with attendance woes following the recent recession. Soft attendance for those Sprint Cup races compelled the three tracks to cover several thousand of their seats. Dover first covered seats four years ago. Auto Club and Talladega followed suit this year. The coverings amount to less than 10 percent of the track’s total capacity. As of now, no other tracks have plans to follow suit.

The tracks’ motivation was designed to reduce operational costs, tighten ticket supply and, in some cases, create inventory for new or existing sponsors. By eliminating a section of seating, they were able to cut the costs of ushers, security and cleaning services. They also could sell or give sponsors logo exposure on the banners that cover the seats as both Dover and Auto Club Speedway have done, respectively.

“It’s been a challenge to figure out ways to reduce expenses and keep the facilities as comfortable as possible without raising ticket prices,” said Gillian Zucker, Auto Club Speedway’s president. “If you’re not filling seats, you don’t have to staff that section. You can quickly recognize operational savings.”

The tracks preferred to cover the seats so that fans couldn’t move into the sections and didn’t have to look at an area of empty seats.

“The good thing about banners is you can put them up and when demand comes back you can take them down,” said Grant Lynch, Talladega’s chairman. “If you remove seats, you have to spend capital to put them back up.”

Only Dover has made a concerted effort to convert its coverings into revenue. It turned approximately 10,000 covered seats into the track’s largest billboards and began selling them to sponsors. The 12-by-20-foot coverings are visible on TV and were sold to Best Buy and Sunoco for a race weekend and were included in sales packages for title partners like Heluva Good.

Mark Rossi, Dover’s vice president of sales and marketing, compared the move to turning “lemons into lemonade,” adding, “I don’t want the grandstands to turn into signage. Any of us would rather have butts in seats.”

Rossi declined to say what advertisers paid to be featured on the banner, but implied it was less than the low- to mid-six figures the track would make by selling the tickets to several thousand paying customers who also likely would buy drinks, food and merchandise.

Auto Club Speedway’s approach to its banners for its March race underscored the speedway’s collective preference for selling tickets. The track initially planned to cover 9,000 seats at its March race and give its naming-rights partner, Auto Club, signage on the coverings. But Zucker said they decided not to tell Auto Club executives of those plans in case demand for the race rose and the track had to release more seats. Weeks before the race, ticket demand increased, and the track released additional tickets each time the number of tickets available in a section dropped to 100 tickets. As a result, it wound up covering approximately 4,000 seats, half of what it initially planned, and put Auto Club’s logo only on banners in the track’s first turn.

Talladega made a very different decision with its covered seats. Because it covered 12,000 seats in its upper towers out of TV camera view, the track decided to use the coverings to market the track’s legacy. It featured images of famous moments at the track for drivers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.

International Speedway Corp., which owns 12 tracks that host Sprint Cup races, developed the idea for covering seats and asked tracks if they were interested in participating. Daryl Wolfe, ISC’s chief marketer, said only Auto Club and Talladega have opted to put up banners. Talladega will have them up for its fall race, he said, but no other ISC tracks are expected to put them up this season.

“We hope it doesn’t last long,” Wolfe said. “Those seats are there for a reason. We want to sell them and we want to see demand back up to historical levels.”

Fans sometimes argue that rather than cover seats, tracks should just lower ticket prices, Rossi said, but tracks have already reduced ticket prices considerably and doing so doesn’t guarantee increased attendance. He’s optimistic that as the economy improves, Dover will be able to reduce the number of seats it covers.

“Our ultimate goal is to sell tickets,” Rossi said. “I don’t want people to lose sight of that.”

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