Bristol Motor Speedway officials announced an official attendance of 102,000 fans for yesterday’s Food City 500; far below the track’s 158,000-seat capacity. Those numbers have triggered considerable debate about the current health of both the track and the sport, an examination of possible factors contributing to the downturn, and even Bristol’s worthiness to continue hosting two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events each season.
There are many factors that could help explain Bristol’s sagging Sunday attendance. A discouraging race day weather forecast certainly did not help. In addition, the Tri-Cities area has been particularly hard-hit by the struggling economy, with jobless rates and housing foreclosures reportedly at record levels. BMS has some the most limited lodging options in all of NASCAR, with the few hotels within a 60-minute commute of the track now charging obscene rates that have almost certainly driven fans away from the track and back to the comfort of their own living rooms. While grandstand attendance plummeted Sunday, television ratings for FOX’s broadcast of the Food City 500 increased 3% over last year, despite direct competition from the NCCA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Food City 500 winner Brad Keselowski said yesterday that in his view, the accessibility of the sport in today’s digitally connected world, a struggling economy and skyrocketing gasoline prices have negatively impacted live attendance."The attitudes and trends of the fan base have changed,” he said. “There's so much access provided through social media, through the TV networks ... that I think the best racing action in the world might not matter. I think this is great racing, (but) at some point you have to accept the fact that the world has changed a lot over the last five to ten years. Live spectator events (are) tough to sell tickets to.
"Everybody looks up at the grandstands and says, 'I remember five years ago.' Well, I remember when gas prices were different five years ago, too."
Some fans have also complained about changes in the competitive landscape since Bristol underwent a major facelift in 2007. Prior to the rebuild, Bristol routinely hosted events that were equal parts stock car race and demolition derby. It was not unusual to see nearly as many laps run under the caution flag as the green, with demolished cars and frayed tempers the order of the day. BMS remains one of NASCAR’s most volatile venues, but yesterday’s race featured just five caution flags for a total of 49 laps; meaning that more than 90% of the day was spent under green flag conditions. Passing is easier at Bristol these days, and wrecks fewer.
Whether we like it or not, some fans miss the bad old days.
When analyzing Bristol’s attendance woes, however, a bit of perspective is helpful. The all-time Super Bowl attendance record is 103,985, set at Super Bowl XIV between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams on Jan. 20, 1980. Bristol’s disastrous Sunday crowd was less than 2,000 paying customers smaller than the greatest turnstyle success in the history of professional football.
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