A funny thing happened in Philadelphia near my home base this week. Of course, the usually litany of not so funny things happened as well, including a huge church fire, the usual list of shootings of innocents that is totally unacceptable, the annual flocking of the shoe-bees to the shore for the Labor Day weekend and the also annual meltdown of the Philadelphia Phillies post-season hopes despite a new player whose salary rivals the GDP of some third world nations.
Oh, and there was a soccer game. To be more specific there was what amounts to an exhibition game or what they termed “a friendly.” And almost 50,000 tickets were sold to watch this soccer game that in the grand scheme of things mattered not an iota towards any future championship, playoff or eliminations. Some media reports actually had the crowd size listed as 56,000 despite the game having been played on a weeknight. It was apparently not a very good soccer game either as the final score was 4-0. Such is the nature of soccer that cumulative scores tend to remain low.
Out of fairness, the game did feature the United States Woman’s Soccer Team, the reigning and four-time champions of distaff soccer worldwide. In claiming the World Cup this summer the US Woman’s soccer team did in fact cause a bit of a hullaballoo. To each their own poison. You will not be able to convince me that watching woman play soccer is a worthwhile use of three hours of my time than I will attempt to convince you watching fast loud cars race 400 miles at a time, four corners a lap, is how you ought to spend your Sunday afternoons if you are not among the initiated.
The USWNT took on the national squad from Portugal. That, may in fact, be the first time I have typed the word “Portugal” in several decades. Admittedly I’ve never been there nor have I ever felt the slightest compulsion to do so. Of course I’ve never been to Spain, though, I’ve been to California. If you are of Portuguese heritage, doubtless you are as proud of that as I am of my Hibernian roots and you could doubtless stun me with a litany of important contributions Portuguese people and culture have contributed to society. Could we have this conversation during a commercial break? I’m busy watching fast loud cars drive in circles.
By now a large number of you are baffled concerning where in hell I’m heading here. Long term readers will recall I am often a little less than lucid after an off weekend. Have I decided that at this late stage in my life it’s time to cover a new sport to help me grow as a writer? Not at all, and if I ever did, soccer wouldn’t be high on the list. Like anyone of the baby-boomer generation, I hear the term “Football” and I think the NFL, the Packers, and Patriots. (And Lions and Tigers and Bears….except the Tiger one.) Even when someone misspells it “futbul” (you know those French they have a different word for everything.) I still default to quarterbacks, touchdowns, and copious amounts of crappy domestic beer.
I am old but I am not a Neanderthal. As a tail-boomer I was introduced to soccer during the latter years of taking gym classes. If I don’t know any of the rules I do understand the basics. Kids my generation came to accept there was such a thing as soccer thanks to a fellow named Pele. He had just one name. Like soccer, a bit weird there. My classmates and I just thought of soccer as sort of like football for dweebs and asthmatics whose moms didn’t want them playing football in gym putting thousands of dollars of orthodontia at risk. I can say that because I fit in with a few of those categories back in school.
I played soccer (poorly) perhaps a dozen times running to and fro and occasionally throwing myself, all 140 pounds of me, at someone in a different colored jersey that annoyed me all the while carefully feeling inside my pocket to ensure my puffer was in place if needed. I did, in fact, have a friend who played for the school soccer team one year. He was a wee little guy who was never going to make it on the football team though he thought he was pretty badass. He knocked out both his front teeth playing soccer. Go figure.
All right then. Like an old coonhound if you let me run hither and yon a bit eventually I’ll get back on track. The same week the USWNT was most likely shattering the record for all-time attendance at a game that didn’t count for much of anything in Philadelphia. I also read that the marketing types at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were hitting the big red button trying to find a way to sell some tickets to this weekend’s events.
Allegedly, only 13,000 tickets to the Brickyard 400 had been sold. That’s at a track that seats about 235,000 fans. In fact, the first couple Brickyard 400s were almost completely sold out back in the mid-1990s. NASCAR’s official records claim that 350,000 well-satisfied and gainfully employed folks with an insatiable thirst for souvenirs attended the inaugural brickyard. It was very crowded. You had your Jeff Gordon fans and your Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans and most of the rest of the other ten folks who already identified as stock car racing fans back in 1994. To be fair NASCAR’s attendance figures always tended to be a bit optimistic to the point of irrelevancy. Indy more recently drew close to 300,000 paying fans to this year’s Indy 500. In 2016 the 100th running of the Indy 500 was said to be a complete sell-out, including the infield which amounts to almost 400,000 fans on hand.
For comparison’s sake the last time NASCAR released/lied about attendance at the Daytona 500 was in 2012. The records show that there were 140,000 folks there, a good many of them dressed as empty seats if I’m recalling correctly. The best figure I could find about Daytona International Speedway today is that it seats 101, 500 folks after the dust settled from that whole “Daytona Rising” revamp. I believe that NASCAR hinted that this year’s 500 sold out. Like they say never let facts get in the way of a good story. More reasoned crowd size estimates fell between 60,000 and 70,000 fans on hand. Which is still a lot more than 13,000 of course.
Whatever the future size of Daytona 500 crowds ends up to be let’s accept at least this much as inarguable fact. Gone forever are the days when stock car racing fans ordered their race tickets months, if not a year in advance. As such they couldn’t check the weather to see if the weather would be warm, wet or stormy. Those fans handing over fistfuls of their hard-earned cash, or reciting their credit card numbers to the nice operator from New Delhi don’t know if there’s going to be heated season long points battle (back when there were heated season long points battles that is) when the race was finally run.
Heck, sometimes real-life intruded in the whole messy process. When you ordered your NASCAR tickets as Christmas gifts to a race that upcoming summer you might have been married, making the big bucks and living in Maryland. By August you might have found yourself divorced, unemployed and living in Portugal. (Well, probably not Portugal but perhaps Seattle.)
Nowadays it’s a virtual certainty that if you decide to attend a race in the days leading up to the event because the forecast looks good, you had a good month at work and you and your wife haven’t been squabbling. You can head to the track or your local ticket outlet and find plenty of good seats still available right up to the drop of the green flag. Whether you will find the prices for tickets that meet your standards palatable is a whole other issue. That’s part of the underlying problem here.
Attendance at NASCAR tracks has been nose-diving for over a decade now. The problem is more evident at some tracks than others at least visually. Daytona, Bristol, and Pocono come to mind. All of them have so many seats that even with a fair-sized crowd on hand they look somewhat deserted. Some tracks have gone as far as to remove huge swathes of seats for appearance’s sake.
Ironically, in some cases they were tearing down seats they’d added back in 1992 when Richard Petty was running his last season as a driver and Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison were engaged in an ultra-tight points battle right up until the season finale run that year at Atlanta. (As it ought to be. Not at Homestead which has some ticket issues of its own despite the season finale crowning a new champion of sorts or at least the guy who won the Chase.) Other tracks have taken to putting huge advertising banners over many of seats to disguise the fact they are empty. I’m sure the track owners get paid some money for displaying those advertising banners. I am equally sure it does not equate to $105 for each two foot by two foot section with a single cup holder and splattered vomit on the stairway nearby.
NASCAR has occasionally tacitly admitted the attendance numbers are a bit off. But they have claimed that declining attendance figures are not unique to NASCARֽ ®. In the new virtual world we live in, fans “consume” sports on their phones and laptops, not in person and on TV. (One remarkable footnote: Even with one third the crowd size at a live event, it still takes the same amount of time to get from your seat to saddle up to a urinal when you really have to go. And it still takes the same amount of time to get out of the parking lot and to free-flowing traffic after the race.) But if fans are no longer attending sporting events, how come there were between 49,000 and 56,000 fans live and in person to watch a soccer game? On a Thursday evening. In Philadelphia. Staring right down the barrels of the Labor Day weekend. In a game that determined not a damned thing. Against Portugal!
And why have only 13,000 “fans” decided they’d like to attend the Brickyard 400 this year to date? Back when it was conceived of in the early ’90s, the Brickyard 400 was intended to be one of the crown jewels of the Cup schedule. It was supposed to be the Daytona 500, the Southern 500, the World 600 and the Brickyard. (Once the Southern 500 got the boot from Labor Day, Talladega was thrown back into the Big Four.) Allegedly the first Brickyard 400 drew the largest live crowd ever to attend a NASCAR race. The race win at the Brickyard paid more money to the drivers and teams than Daytona 500. (Bill and Brian France weren’t too happy about that. They wanted the purse for the 500 at the track they owned in Daytona to have the biggest payout for the winner — but they didn’t want to add any more money to the Daytona 500 purse, so they made the folks at Indy decrease theirs instead).
That first Brickyard 400 was actually a bit controversial. A lot of open wheel racing fans felt it was almost blasphemous to have “taxicabs” running at their altar of speed. But Indy owner Tony George needed to fund his unseemly little war with the folks at CART, which pretty much destroyed open wheel racing for years, so the Brickyard was held. 85 of those taxicabs showed up in an attempt to win one of 43 starting spots for the big to-do in 1994. Jeff Gordon won that race, which made things a bit more palatable for the open wheel purists. Gordon was after all from Indiana. (Except that he wasn’t, of course. He was born and raised in California before he and his family moved to Indiana, where Gordon could drive more powerful cars at a young age.) The second Brickyard 400 is perhaps best remembered for Dale Earnhardt the Original claiming he was the “first man” to win the Brickyard, a swipe at his younger rival in that rainbow car. The race was also rain delayed, so you had that. The next bunch of Brickyard 400s are remembered best for barely anything at all.
It turns out there was a problem: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is shaped more like a playing card than a traditional oval. NASCAR’s stock cars simply had too little grip to put on much of a race at the track. They’d been so blinded by that chance to sell a huge amount of tickets that apparently nobody in a corner office worried about that sort of race the fans would see.
Still, the Brickyard 400 remained somewhat of a big deal for a while. NASCAR and the networks hyped the event shamelessly, offering up a whole lot of sizzle backed up by little steak indeed. Right up until 2008.
The 2008 Brickyard 400 was perhaps the biggest debacle in recent NASCAR history. That year the Cup series bought the new “Car of Tomorrow” to Indianapolis. Unfortunately, they also bought along “The Tires of Yesterday.” The combination was not a good one. The tires were lasting at best 10 laps before failing. In some instances they weren’t even lasting that long. The evening before the Brickyard 400 that year, NASCAR was aware they had a Major League Yahoo Frickin’ Problem on their hands. There were calls to reschedule the race at a later date. NASCAR, the networks and even poor Goodyear didn’t care any for that idea. The race was run with a caution flag thrown approximately every 10 laps for the entire event to allow drivers to pit for fresh rubber. The longest green flag run of the afternoon was 12 laps. The sprint to the finish was all of even laps. The crowd on hand booed the race lustily. They’d paid a lot of money and in many instances traveled long distances to see a race, not a parade.
Right then and there NASCAR faced a challenge and an opportunity. The right thing to do would have been to offer disgruntled fans a refund, apologize profusely and perhaps offer free tickets to an upcoming event. NASCAR instead chose to go all Marie Antoinette on the fans. You paid your money, you saw your race, shut up and go home. Oh, would you like to renew your seats for next year’s Brickyard while you’re here?
In NASCAR’s now decade-plus decline from the Glory Years, I feel the 2008 Brickyard was the beginning of the end. I can’t pin all the sport’s woes on that single race, but like the time Fonzie jumped the shark on Happy Days, the die was cast and the outcome inevitable.
That race took place over 11 years ago. If it drove many longtime NASCAR fans away, well then they’re gone now, ain’t they? Why do attendance problems still linger at the track? Why has the Brickyard 400 become an asterisk on the schedule rather than a Crown Jewel? And I mean this year tickets ought to be hotter than Kansas on the Fourth of July. The finishing order of this weekend’s Brickyard will solidify which 16 drivers will compete for this year’s title in the chase/playoffs/whatever the hell they’re called now by anyone still paying attention. That playoff-style gimmick was supposed to fire up the fan base come early fall each year. Apparently it has done nothing to take on the overwhelming competition of the NFL or even women’s soccer.
In sharp contrast, last week’s Southern 500 was said to be a sellout. (Though of course there were a lot less seats to sell.) The Southern 500 was another Crown Jewel event NASCAR decided needed to be modernized. The Labor Day weekend race was moved to California and then Atlanta. Darlington lost a date. And eventually faced with mountains of evidence, someone at NASCAR swallowed hard and admitted, “OK, we screwed up big time here. We’re going to move the Southern 500 back to Labor Day and back to Darlington.” They event adopted the “Throwback” style cars and outfits to drive home the point: “Yeah, OK, we admit. Those were in fact ‘the good old days.'”