The tracks that host the bulk of NASCAR races saw their admissions revenues drop 7.4 percent in 2016, marking the ninth consecutive year of declines and the largest drop in the past four.
International Speedway Corp. (12 tracks), Speedway Motorsports Inc. (eight) and Dover Motorsports (one) reported a combined admissions revenue of $221.1 million, down from $238.8 million in 2015. The drop ended a trend of admissions revenue that appeared to have stabilized. After dropping 6.5 percent in 2013, the tracks experienced a decline of 2.5 percent in 2014 and 0.2 percent in 2015.
Mitigating the admissions revenue drop is NASCAR’s television deal: Combined operating income generated for the publicly operated tracks by the TV deal was approximately $421 million, up 3.3 percent from 2015.
SMI, which said eight of its 13 Cup weekends were affected by rain, saw a 10 percent drop in its admissions revenue. That revenue was down 14 percent for the last three months of 2016, which included the postponed race at Charlotte and a rain-delayed event at Texas.
ISC, owned by the NASCAR-operating France family, saw a 5 percent drop in admissions revenue but a nearly 8 percent drop after its February events at Daytona, which got a boost from the new grandstands and increased ticket prices that correlated with the new seating and sightlines. Dover saw a 12.9 percent drop for its two race weekends. Pocono and Indianapolis Motor Speedway are privately held and do not release financials.
“The impact of Jeff Gordon’s retirement was underestimated, which was compounded with Tony Stewart and Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. missing races throughout the season,” ISC president John Saunders, in recapping 2016, told investors last month.
“The lack of activation from the outgoing series sponsor [Sprint] and the distraction of the presidential election season further exacerbated the situation.”
The tracks and NASCAR hope the new race format — races are divided into three lap-grouped segments — as well as incoming series sponsor Monster Energy will help energize and expand the fan base, which, according to market research firm Nielsen Scarborough, has an average age of 48. The tracks will focus on youth pricing — kids under 12 with a paying adult will be admitted free to non-Cup events this season (they were for several, but not all, in 2016) — and at least three tracks (Watkins Glen, Pocono and Martinsville) have announced race weekends during which the Cup drivers will qualify and race on the same day.
The Daytona 500, held at ISC’s Daytona International Speedway, was sold out Sunday for the second consecutive year in its new 101,500-seat configuration.
“We’re in this for the long haul, and I think the excitement of the racing we saw in Daytona, the optimism of the NASCAR industry … bode well for the season,” SMI president Marcus Smith said while announcing its 2016 earnings. “I’m pleased with that. I don’t think we’re going to have a huge rush of people as a result [of the new format] yet, but I think it will be something that will build.”
The admissions revenue does include the tracks’ non-NASCAR racing events. SMI did not include the college football game between Virginia Tech and Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway in September in its admissions figures. The game, SMI reported, turned a pre-tax profit of a little more than $5 million.
The $221.1 million in admissions revenue is down 52.7 percent from the companies’ all-time high of $467.4 million in 2007.
“After the financial crisis, there’s no question the spendable income that people had just wasn’t available to do things like this two or three times a year,” said NASCAR team owner Roger Penske, whose company operated and constructed speedways in the 1990s. “It’s not just in our sport. … There’s never been more competition on the racetrack.”