Commentary

Standing room only? Not these days

Updated: January 23, 2010, 1:54 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Size no longer matters.

The days of "build it and they will buy tickets" are over.

Tracks that host NASCAR events are shrinking. Daytona International Speedway is 12,000 seats smaller than it was a year ago for the Great American Race. Charlotte Motor Speedway is down about 25,000 seats over the past year.

Texas Motor Speedway: down by 19,000 seats. Phoenix: 20,000. Michigan: 12,500. Richmond International Raceway: 12,000.

[+] EnlargeEddie Gossage
AP Photo/Matt Slocum Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage says his track still puts 1.2 million fans in the seats yearly for 12 events -- despite the reduction of 19,000 seats.

Yes, the economy has played a major role. But you don't hear track promoters and presidents going all Wicked Witch of the West on us with screams of "I'm shrinking! I'm shrinking!"

You also don't hear them blaming the contraction on sagging ticket sales and suggesting the sky is falling, to quote a phrase that Roush Fenway president Geoff Smith borrowed from Chicken Little during this week's preseason media tour.

Most will tell you that NASCAR simply is going through what other sports already have. The average size of a Major League Baseball stadium is 41,915, down almost 10,000 from the average capacity of the former stadiums.

NFL owners, Dallas' Jerry Jones aside, are building smaller stadiums. Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers admitted not long after he opened his 73,778-seat Bank of America Stadium in 1996 that he should have built it about 10,000 seats smaller.

It's no different in the NBA. The relatively new arena in Charlotte, N.C., seats around 19,000, more than 5,000 fewer than the old coliseum.

Heck, even the University of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium has shrunk by 4,000 with renovations.

"There was a period of time when you didn't build a Major League Baseball stadium unless they had 65,000 or 75,000 seats," Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said. "If you look today, it's about 45,000. It's reflecting the market place that is constantly changing."

The market 20 years ago was booming for NASCAR. SMI chairman Bruton Smith couldn't add seats to CMS fast enough, expanding the facility to about 160,000 seats. He then built tracks at Texas and Las Vegas that exceeded 140,000.

"I think we grew too fast," Earnhardt Ganassi minority owner Felix Sabates said. "Some of these racetracks with 140,000, that's crazy. We had no business increasing those seats. And Bruton probably started that with this track right here [in Charlotte]."

He's right, but you can't blame Smith. The demand was there, so why not supply it? If he had his way, people would work harder and more expansion would take place.

Sabates begs to differ. He doesn't even like the idea that Bristol Motor Speedway seats 160,000, even though it is one of the few tracks that sold out last season.

"If I were Bruton, I would cut the top two rows off there," said Sabates, who also suggested that Indianapolis should be removed from the schedule even though it traditionally is one of the top two most-attended tracks. "If you can only get 100,000 people in there, it would be, 'Man, if my daddy dies I am going to inherit the ticket.' Now, who cares? You go down and buy a ticket.

"Too many seats."

The market shows that supply has surpassed demand. But that's not the only reason tracks are shrinking. Texas reduced its capacity to put in a gated RV parking lot that gave campers visual access to the track. CMS did the same thing when it eliminated 21,000 seats in Turns 1 and 2 to put in a luxury lot.

Both facilities have actually added revenue by turning low-end seats that didn't sell well into a high-demand area.

For CMS, it also was a situation in which something had to be done to upgrade the seats. That was also the thinking for current renovations that will eliminate 2,900 seats along the frontstretch to replace old, rusted 18-inch-wide cast-metal seats with 15,000 22-inch stadium seats with arm rests.

[+] EnlargeNASCAR Auto Club 500
AP Photo/Blair Godbout NASCAR tracks have struggled to sell out races during these tough economic times, and Auto Club Speedway is no exception.

CMS president Marcus Smith said two of the first e-mails he read after the October race at his track concerned replacing those seats with something more comfortable. You can't blame the fans. They spend hundreds of dollars on tickets. They might as well be comfortable or stay at home and watch in the recliner.

"The reality is it's not about the sport being in trouble, it's about the economy," Smith said. "When you go to the grocery store today, you'll find fewer selections in the cereal aisle. It's economically driven. We are contracting what we are putting out for sale.

"We can always put that back out there. Since this has come at a time when the overall economy has contracted, I don't think you can connect that dot to 'NASCAR is sinking' because they are selling fewer seats."

Phoenix International Raceway president Bryan Sperber, the shrinkage of whose track's capacity was the result of replacing temporary bleacher seats with high-end RV spots, agreed.

"We think guests are going to appreciate the extra room," he said. "We've always felt the customer is important, but it's become more important in today's economic climate."

Ticket sales to the backstretch at Daytona slumped to the point that track officials didn't sell them for the July race. So they eliminated 12,000 seats in an attempt to make that a more attractive purchase, adding a party deck, a kids' play area with amusement rides, and many other features.

They're calling it the "Superstretch."

"It's no secret that due to the challenges in the economy, attendance has softened throughout the sporting industry," DIS president Robin Braig said. "We believe the sport remains healthy, but we are at a point in time where we must take a broad look at our events and facilities and see if there is some right-sizing required … a move already seen across all major sports in the country.

"This project will allow us to better align our capacity with demand in the market and adds a level of scarcity to the sport's biggest, most prestigious event."

This makes it sound as if the spin doctors are at work, and to a degree, they are. But it is sound business strategy. Stanford University took it to an extreme in 2006 when it reduced its football stadium from 85,000 to 50,000 to create more demand for tickets.

That is what track promoters are hoping to create by cutting seats.

Gossage reminded us that despite cuts at TMS, his track still puts 1.2 million fans in seats yearly for 12 events, compared to around 730,000 for eight Dallas Cowboys home games.

"Everybody wants to compare, it's easy enough to compare," he said. "We still do better in tickets to our eight biggest events compared to their eight biggest.

"When you sell 170,000 tickets [for a race], it's still 100,000 more than the Super Bowl. The sky is a long, long, long ways from falling. I'm not even looking at the sky."

He's not looking at size anymore, either.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

ALSO SEE