The grandstands at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California this past Sunday were obviously not filled to capacity although there was a very solid crowd there to attend the Pala Casino 400. Earlier in the day, however, the track had reported that the NASCAR Cup Series race was a sellout, and it very well could have been. Perhaps some tickets were sold to companies who did not use them all or perhaps the cool and rainy weather(it snowed there on Saturday) caused some southern California natives to opt for the warmer and drier environment of their living rooms instead of the race track.
Whatever happened, the race was listed as a sellout for a track that has a stated grandstand seating capacity of 68,000. That being said, it was the second consecutive sellout for the NASCAR Cup Series in as many weeks here at the start of the 2023 season.
The Daytona 500 was also labeled a sellout. With that being the case, this would seem to be a good sign for NASCAR and its partners. An empty grandstand never looks good and gives off a negative impression. Perception is everything and when casual fans see or read of a sellout, they will likely think that the product is worth watching.
There is a reason why restaurants have only a few parking spaces nearest to the road in front of their store. Potential customers drive by and see what looks like a full parking lot which creates the perception that people are clamoring to get in. Turning on the television and seeing near capacity seating at the sport’s biggest race works the same way. The passers-by are likely to think people are clamoring to see the product. At the same time, though, passing a restaurant with an empty parking lot or seeing a race track grandstand that looks empty can send the opposite message.
Even though it was listed as a sellout, were the enough people watching the event in Fontana on Sunday?
There are some warning signs for NASCAR to take into consideration after the first two weeks of racing. As stated above, the grandstand at Auto Club was obviously not full whether all the tickets were sold or not. And more, television ratings for the Daytona 500 were not great as the 2023 version of the race was one of the least watched in that marquee event’s history.
Viewership was also down slightly from last year for the Auto Club race with the number tuned in dropping from 4.57 million in 2022 to 4.315 million this time around. At the same time, both the Daytona 500 and the Pala Casino 400 were the most watched sporting events on television during their respective weekends.
It appears as if there is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to the number of people watching NASCAR when this very small sample size of the 2023 season is taken into consideration. Many sports seem to be combating these types of issues as our culture appears to be moving away from television viewership in its traditional form toward streaming and brief highlight packages offered by social media and/or websites or SportsCenter type shows.
As a high school teacher by trade, I can attest to the fact that fewer and fewer young people are watching any kind of sports, NASCAR or otherwise. Even the mention of names thought to be known by everyone such as Tom Brady and Lebron James do not always get 100% acknowledgement from young people. And if that is the case of such high-profile stars from other sports, it is certainly true for the likes of Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott.
NASCAR is working to attract new fans by offering races in new locations and returning to old favorites. The L.A. Coliseum hosted the Busch Light Class for the second consecutive year to kick off the season. The St. Louis area will host a NASCAR Cup Series race for the second time later in the season and an event on the streets of Chicago will be in the offing this July. And, the NASCAR All-Star Race will play out at the historic North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Still, after introducing the Next Gen car in 2022 then having a season in which 19 different drivers won a race and having one of the most talked about moments of the sports year in terms of social media attention(Ross Chastain’s last lap at Martinsville), it would have seemed reasonable to expect at least a small amount of growth as far as viewership and attendance are concerned at the start of the 2023 campaign.
There were other reasons why Sunday’s race would have seemingly been more heavily viewed. It was the last event to be held on the 2-mile configuration of the track before it is converted to a short track in the future after International Speedway, Corp. sold much of the facility’s property.
And again, both the Daytona 500 and and the Auto Club race were declared sellouts so that is encouraging even if there were empty seats this past Sunday. Furthermore, TV ratings may have slipped from last year but NASCAR has still been the most watched sport on each weekend.
Negotiations will be coming in the not too distant future on the next television rights contract between NASCAR and it potential partners. And even with lowering ratings, the networks have shown that they greatly value live content so the amount of the next deal could very well be an impressive number. Still, one has to wonder if as many people are paying attention to the sport as should be the case.
Are enough people watching?
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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