Local TV Blackouts Will Not Restore NASCAR Attendance
Earlier today on Twitter someone raised the idea of initiating local TV blackouts if a NASCAR race doesn't sell out. The NFL has done this for decades and the idea is simple. If fans can't see the event on TV then they will be more likely to attend the event in person. That concept worked for the NFL for a number of reasons but it isn't something that NASCAR can emulate. Moreover, even the NFL sees the flaws in such a policy and in 2012 revised the blackout threshold from 100% to 85% of seats sold. NASCAR would be wise to emulate the NFL in some ways but implementing a blackout policy isn't one of them.
The NFL is an American sports juggernaut. Because of its immense popularity it can virtually dictate terms both to its fans and to network television partners. In the last set of TV rights negotiations, networks lined up for the opportunity to throw money their way. When they go into effect next year, the league will be pulling in nearly $7 billion annually for those rights. In contract, NASCAR's recent deal with NBC will pay them a little over 60% of that figure for a ten year period overall. Adding in the recent Fox extension and NASCAR will be receiving $1.04 billion per year. In other words, networks value 38 weeks of NASCAR (including 2 weeks at Daytona and the All-Star Race) as being worth 15% of 20 weeks of NFL football.
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That analysis is no slight on NASCAR. The $1.04 billion per year is real money and represents an increase on current rights' fees despite declining ratings and attendance for the on-track product. But it also puts into perspective the leverage NASCAR has relative to the NFL.
Despite that leverage, the NFL has come under fire for the blackout policy. Politicians have derided the idea, complaining that the burden weighs heaviest on those who can least afford it. Given the price of tickets, parking and concessions at major sporting events, lower-income families simply cannot afford the cost of attending NFL games. So critics ask why penalize a team's fans because they can't afford to attend a game. Sound familiar, NASCAR fans?
Geography plays a major role in why blackouts worked for football. NFL teams draw the bulk of their ticket buying fans from within their own geographic area. While some fans make road trips with the team (and others have extended fan bases across the country), you won't find many Jacksonville Jaguar fans in Seattle, WA. If I'm a Jaguar fan, I probably live fairly close to Jacksonville. And if I'm a true diehard fan living near the team, I might just be inclined to buy a ticket if that's the only way I'm going to see the game.
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The same simply isn't true for NASCAR. A large percentage of their fans are people who have driven a significant distance to attend the event. Evidence the large infield figures and crowded RV lots outside any major race. It's more akin to a college football team in that the fan base is spread out across the country. A Mark Martin fan might come from California or Wisconsin or New York. So the fans attending a race at Richmond aren't all living within a thirty minute radius of the track.
Moreover, the draw of a NASCAR race often has more to do with the track itself. Fans make the trip because they're interested in seeing a specific kind of race. That's why Bristol has done so well for itself over the years; the racing there was known to be competitive and exciting. As a result, fans wanted to be there to experience it in person. The Brickyard 400 drew massive crowds for years because fans wanted to see the stock cars race on the historic track. The in-race action wasn't as good but fans came for the overall experience, similar to fans attending a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field. The team is awful but you're not there to see if the loveable Cubbies can pull out a victory. You're there because you want to experience the feeling of a game at Wrigley Field. That's another reason why attendance at Indy struggles so mightily; once you've had the experience, how many times do you need to experience it again? Particularly given how awful the on-track product has been in recent years.
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It's also worth noting that television blackouts are virtually impossible to enforce in today's digital culture. If a race or event is unavailable on a cable television that doesn't mean it's unavailable. Thanks to online streaming sites such as Justin.TV, almost any major sporting event world-wide can be found in live HD. A cursory Google search during any major event will reveal pages and pages of sites offering the event, complete with live chat rooms where viewers can not only enjoy the show but also trade thoughts about it in real-time. It's almost better than watching the game/race/event on regular TV.
Finally, the last thing NASCAR needs to be doing right now is limiting access to its product in any way. NASCAR has, for years, blamed the economic meltdown of five years ago for its current financial struggles. Yet if that were true, we'd see increased ratings to match the decreased attendance figures as fans decided to stay home and watch the show due to the costs involved. Instead, we've seen television ratings dip just as sharply as the track attendance. This represents a clear decline in fan interest overall. NASCAR should be going out of its way to put the product in front of new and lapsed fans, not trying to take it away. Maybe it's seeing a close finish on TV that persuades that lapsed fan to come check out the race in person next time around. Even if they don't, their TV counts towards the ratings just as much as someone who lives far away.
In short, trying to prevent the local fans from seeing a race on TV would be difficult to enforce and counter-productive in the end. Instead of finding ways to shut fans out, NASCAR should be looking to the tracks bucking the attendance trend and learning from what's taking place. A few examples of different tracks that have managed to increase their attendance of late (no 2013 attendance figures as NASCAR no longer is announcing that information).
Auto Club Cuts Supply, Brings Out Celebrities
Auto Club Speedway, Spring Race
2007 Attendance: 87,000
2010 Attendance: 72,000
2012 Attendance: 90,000
What's going on: Auto Club Speedway is your typical two mile intermediate track that exemplifies tracks many fans have come to hate. The racing is often single file and, when caution-free, devoid of the short track beating and banging. Yet they've managed to recover from both bad races and the economic downturn simply by cutting supply. Fontana's second race moved to Kansas and as a result the spring race became the only live event in the Los Angeles area every year. Promoters could focus all their efforts on the one race and have done what they could to bring out celebrities to liven up the fan experience. The result has allowed Auto Club to increase attendance beyond what they were drawing before the economic slowdown.
Homestead Miami Speedway
2007 Attendance: 80,000
2010 Attendance: 60,000
2012 Attendance: 76,000
What's going on: While still not quite up to pre-meltdown numbers, Homestead-Miami Speedway is drawing well above its stated capacity of 56,000. They've done so by capitalizing on the concept of being “Championship Weekend” and focused on the title crowning itself. Even if the series championship isn't in doubt (as it was not last year for Brad Keselowski), they sell the experience of being able to say you were there when a champion was crowned. They've also benefited from some close championship races over the years but that drama hasn't helped other tracks. Phoenix, which hosts the next to last race in the Chase, has seen attendance drop over 17% since 2007. Homestead has found the right balance to sell to its fans despite having NASCAR's premier racetrack only four hours down the road.
Beating and Banging Bring 'Em Out
Martinsville, Fall Race
2007 Attendance: 66,500
2010 Attendance: 56,000
2012 Attendance: 62,000
What's going on: The in-stadium experience at Martinsville has always been lackluster at best. The stands are small, the facilities are not up to date, and the race itself can often run long thanks to a series of late race cautions. But Martinsville is halfway back to its pre-meltdown figure and looks like a lock to reach it in the years to come. Why? Martinsville makes no bones about what they're offering. They are a throwback to NASCAR's earlier era where short tracks ruled the schedule and ruffled feelings (and fenders) were a fact of racing life. Their costs are low so they don't need 100,000 fans to be profitable. And instead of spending tens of millions into modernizing the track, they recognize that the atmosphere is exactly what many NASCAR fans want. In a time of cookie-cutter tracks and corporate sponsorships, Martinsville is a breath of old-school air.
Are these lessons something that every track can apply? Maybe not; only one track can host the championship chase and Michigan will never be Martinsville. But the overriding lesson that can be learned is to identify what you can offer your fans better than anyone else then focus on that one fact. That's a far superior plan to cutting the locals out of the picture entirely.