Opinion: Fixing NASCAR

NASCAR is at a crossroads, slumping attendance/broadcast numbers, major sponsors pulling out, and a rumored sale of the storied brand by the founding family, it is obvious something has to change. But what can NASCAR do to move motorsports into the 21st century?

by Michael Satterfield

If you have been to a motorsports event lately it’s likely you noticed large swaths of empty seats. Turnout for NASCAR events has gotten so bad that NASCAR stopped officially reporting attendance number a few years ago. But it is not just bad for NASCAR. Indy Car, IMSA, and most other motorsports have seen sharp declines in attendance in recent years with the exception of a few key races each season.

Many have pontificated about what is causing the stagnation in attendance, some of blamed the lack of interest from millennials, other say a lack of diversity, some have even gone so far to say that because of politics. In an effort to make the track seem more crowded racetracks across the country have been quietly removing seats, but even with tens of thousands of seats being removed from race tracks like Richmond and Charlotte Motor Speedway, tracks are struggling to attract a capacity crowd.

NASCAR is simply having a harder time convincing fans to spend hundreds of dollars and a whole weekend at the track. Couped to the fact that NASCAR broadcasts are shown on Fox, Fox Sports 1, NBC, and NBC Sports Network, fans are required to have cable if they want to watch many of the races, making it hard for fans in the "cord-cutting" generation to watch racing live.

Light turnout at Phoenix International Raceway 
In parts of America, fans have the chance to attend races at several tracks, even on the West Coast, which is not often considered NASCAR country, there are races in Fontana, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Sonoma. The time and expense of attending races is a hard sell when we live in a world with almost unlimited entertainment options. Add in Pit or Garage Passes and the prices over general admission sore into the hundreds and even thousands for just one race, they are asking fans to pay Disneyland prices 36 times a year. Even if I were to just attend the races within driving distance I would spend over $1,200 just on tickets for two people to attend four races (based on my last three ticket purchases). That is before the hotel, transportation, and food that is required for three of the races, it quickly gets expensive and prices just seem to keep going up.

The International Speedway Corporation’s 2017, 3rd quarter financials, showed a year over year price increase on average of 8 percent on tickets at their speedways. In the same report, they also detailed without specific numbers that even with the price increase they had lower attendance-related revenue and that advance ticket sales at the majority of their tracks were down over 10 percent.

The phenomenon is not just in the stands, broadcast numbers are also tanking with this year’s Daytona 500 being the least watched in history. According to Fox, ratings for the season opener were down 22 percent from the overnight rating scored by the 2017 edition, down 16 percent from 2016 and down 30 percent from 2015. It seems these major sporting events need to do something different if they have any hopes of reversing the trend.

A sparse crowd at the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2017)
Motorsports in general, and NASCAR, in particular, need to change the relationship they have with their fans, advertisers, and broadcasters if they plan to survive. The concept of ticket sales as a revenue source needs to completely shift. The new model would look more like Facebook and less like traditional motorsports, but instead of only having online interactions for marketing, real-world activation and experiences coupled with new technology can drive new revenue if implemented correctly.

NASCAR and all motorsports are already driven by advertising with major brands like Monster Energy backing the series and teams. But recently major sponsors like Lowes and Target have pulled out of NASCAR entirely, it is a sign that the future is not bright if something doesn’t change soon. Advertisers go where there is an audience and if the audience is no longer at NASCAR events or tuned into NASCAR broadcasts they will spend those advertising dollars elsewhere.

If I was tasked with turning around the numbers at NASCAR this is where I would start:

  • Immediately lower prices by more than 50% on general admission tickets and convert all tickets into three day passes that allow fans to take in as little or as much of the race weekend as they wish. In addition, sell a general admission season pass that allows general admission access to any race on the calendar.
  • Build a better website and app that becomes the only tool needed to enjoy a race in person or online. Provide real-time stats and information while at the race or while on the go, making it easier to follow the action. Eliminate all third-party ticket sales. Allow digital ticketing and immediate ticket purchasing through the app, have a “commemorative ticket” as an upgrade that can only be printed at the track. All ticket purchases would be directed through this app/website user account, allowing NASCAR to have better demographic information on their audience. All in-app advertisements would be personalized based on the profile of the user, allowing for a wider pool of advertisers to buy-in for ads to smaller more focused demographics. 
  • Bring the speedway more into the local community, host more non-race events throughout the year (i.e. car shows, flea markets, farmers markets, etc.) and have a promotional team on-site at each event to create awareness for the race, sign people up for the app and give away ticket promotional codes that encourager audience growth.
  • Build out lounge-like areas at the tracks with shade, food and drink service, phone chargers, and social spaces.
  • Join the modern world of broadcasting and have inexpensive streaming services of all races direct through the NASCAR app/website allowing more fans to access the race live. 

Would these ideas save NASCAR? Maybe, maybe not. But allowing fans a simple one-stop interface to purchase tickets, watch races, check stats, and connecting with the teams, drivers, and community while creating a more casual social environment at the track couldn’t hurt.

Photos by Michael Satterfield all opinions expressed are my own.