Once again, Darlington is the biggest loser
- Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway moved from Mother's Day
The Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway will be run in April next year after nearly a decade of racing on Mother's Day weekend.
As the 2013 NASCAR season draws to a close, individual tracks have released their dates for 2014 and a picture of next year's schedule has begun to emerge. There appears to be no major change in terms of tracks and number of dates per track. The biggest move confirmed so far is a swap of dates between Darlington and Kansas in the spring. And while this may seem like a minor adjustment, there could be major long term impacts on the speedway. Given the way the track was jerked around a decade ago, there's reason to read even more into the move than just another date adjustment.
Darlington gear from Amazon.com!
The track's management are putting the best possible face on the change. Track president Chip Wile, in an interview with the Associated Press, listed what he saw as the benefits in changing. An earlier race date would result an improved fan experience as average temperatures are lower in April. This despite the fact that the majority of the race is held after the sun goes down- making the average high temperature less relevant than the average low temperature. Wile also noted that the earlier date would enable area college students to join in the fun since the May date conflicted with exams and graduation.
Sure. Every event would be a sellout if only the students could attend. No disrespect intended to those schools, but if you're depending on the students of Francis Marion University, Coker College, or Florence-Darlington Technical College to make your event work... it probably isn't going to work. Moreover, the vast majority of the students who attend these school already live in the area and none of them are attending exams on a Saturday night. Moving the date isn't going to open the floodgates of 18-22 year olds into the grandstand.
Frankly, there was nothing in need of fixing at Darlington. While the track had attendance and ticket issues in the early 2000s, those problems were largely solved by former track president Chris Browning. Instead of complaining about a pre-Mother's Day date, Browning and company made that date work in their favor. They built entire marketing campaigns around making drivers' mothers a part of the race day experience. They re-focused their own local marketing to get the word out on the ground level. The track itself underwent upgrades that included a re-paved surface that actually improved racing (unlike results elsewhere).
Fireworks flew at the 2012 Southern 500 at Darlington- watch the race here!
And the attendance figures prove it. No, Darlington isn't drawing the same number of fans that it drew six years ago. Yet to be fair, few tracks are. That doesn't mean that the speedway isn't selling what they have. With a permanent track seating capacity of 60,000, Darlington has exceeded that number every year. In fact, from 2011 to 2012 (the last year for which statistics are available), they actually increased ticket sales from 61,000 to 63,000. Between 2007 and 2012, the track's average attendance declined 16%; not good until you consider the fact that the average track saw a decrease of over 21%. Dover and Michigan, tracks with a pair of dates that face little danger of losing even one, have dropped over 40% apiece. Talladega, one of the crown jewels of NASCAR, is close to that number.
The problem here is that capacity number. Darlington has only 60,000 permanent seats and that's a number that fits the demand for the area. There just isn't the kind of population base that's necessary to support 100,000 seats like Texas, Michigan, or Las Vegas. Moreover, the demographics of the area dictate that ISC cannot charge the same amount per ticket that can be charged elsewhere. Fewer tickets at a lower cost per ticket equals lower revenue.
It's also worth noting that 500 miles from Darlington can result in an exceptionally long race broadcast for a television partner. Look at the 2012 spring events for both tracks. The Kansas race lasted a total of 224 minutes (race and commercial time combined) while the Southern 500 at Darlington ran 250 minutes. 2013 results showed a similar gap of 30 minutes. While the difference may seem minor, it's an enormous one from a network perspective. A race that runs over 3 hours is a bit long; one that regularly runs over four hours- and into the timeslot reserved for late local news- is another thing entirely. With two networks departing at the end of 2014 and a new network paying an enormous rights fee, you can bet that they all will want some input on how and when the races lay out.
So none of this bodes well for Darlington. It took the track years to recover from losing its traditional Labor Day weekend date and find a way to re-connect with their fan base on the Mother's Day strategy. Now all of that work is going to waste so that the ice skating rink, errr, racetrack in Kansas can move back a few weeks. The track will need to start over and re-educate their fan base once again on a new date. Moreover, with Easter a holiday that varies widely on an annual basis, there's no reason to believe this will be a stable date either. Having a stable date enables the track to set up long-term promotional efforts with both fans and sponsors. Both are gone with this change and will not be easily replaced.
Apparently this change has been in the works for some time. Current president Wile admitted as much, despite his praise for the Mother's Day date when he took the job back in August. It's a safe bet that this change had at least a little bit to do with former president Chris Browning resigning the job at that time. Browning spent a decade rebuilding the damage done in the early 2000s. It was his idea to make an event out of a traditional off weekend and it was under his leadership that the facilities finally joined the 21st century. If anyone understands the damage of changing dates once again, it's Browning. Either he didn't have the heart to go through another rebuilding effort- or he didn't think it was possible.
So while it's not the end of the world for Darlington, it's certainly not a good sign. It's a relatively small track in a less-populated (and less wealthy) area of the country. It's an important link to NASCAR's past and the race itself is still prestigious to the drivers and teams. But if there's no one in the grandstands, NASCAR will not hesitate to cut that link and move the date elsewhere. That move would come at a profit while Darlington would once again simply be the biggest loser.
Major League III, anyone?