Dropping attendance is not confined to IndyCar

Even NASCAR has seen a huge drop in race attendance. Tracks like Phoenix above had to remove huge grandstands to save face.

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.

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 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.

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.

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. Dave Moody Blog

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