Has TV Killed Racing?

Story by Tom Fielitz

Auto racing is facing a serious challenge in decreasing fan attendance and ticket revenue.   Track owners are blaming the down turn in the economy but I suspect that there might be another reason, the advances in camera technology used to broadcast auto racing on TV.

 

TV coverage of auto racing has come a long way as documented by Wikipedia.   Beginning in the 1960’s TV racing coverage was very sparse.   The occasional sports broadcast such as the TV series “Road & Track” would have taped coverage of the occasional stock car or sports car race.  Shell sponsored short movies of European races such as the Monaco Grand Prix or Le Mans.  In 1965 ABC would show taped highlights of the Indy 500 and the first taped Grand Prix was the German GP of 1967.  The first live broadcast of a stock car race was not until 1971 from the Greenville-Pickens Speedway.   The acknowledged big break for TV race coverage was the live broadcast of the 1979 Daytona 500 ending with a post race fist fight in turn four between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison.   After that point auto racing began to become big business on TV, growing to 7.85 million viewers in 2007 and NBC paid the staggering sum of $2.8 billion dollars for six years of exclusive coverage.   Now it is essential for a race series to have TV coverage to justify the huge sponsor investments.   In cases such as Formula 1, Indycar and Grand American, the race sanctioning body became the TV coverage promoter.

 

But if you look closely at the TV images of the major races you will see that the grandstand seats are virtually empty.   Combined ticket revenue at the major race tracks has dropped 44 percent over the past three years.  Tracks and events such as the Daytona 500 and even the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 have seen major drops in attendance.   At Daytona they have even resorted to removing 57,000 seats and whole grand stands.   Major races have taken to closing certain grand stands so that the TV coverage will appear to have a large crowd in attendance.   Tracks have also changed to add non-racing attractions such as fan zones called “social neighborhoods” with family friendly activities such as amusement rides and free live band entertainment.   Also prominent at major tracks are mammoth TV screens strategically placed so grand stand attendees can follow the race around the portions of the track not in front of them.

 

Our generation has often been described as the instant gratification generation, seeking instant response from everything in our lives.   We want our sports packaged the same way.  Races that last three and four hours can’t hold the interest of the casual enthusiast.   Attending a race live is a much larger commitment of a full day to a long weekend.  Travel, tickets, lodging and food can cost nearly a thousand dollars per seat for a major out of state event such as the Daytona 24 Hour and the Indy 500 that I attend every year.   Even the local Belle Isle Indycar race can be hundreds of dollars to view live.   I love the drama of watching a live race but I have to admit that I tape the TV coverage to watch when I get home so that I can find out what really happened in the race.

 

But the biggest advance in TV coverage are all the in-car cameras that now give us the driver’s eye view of the race in spectacular fashion.   Cameras have become so small and of such high resolution that it is almost unmatched in any other sport.   The thrill of racing is right in our face and in some cases the view can even be selected by the viewer through special computer applications.   In many cases the TV cameras are motorized to scan the track situation and even watch the drivers in action.  Live attending of a race can’t compete against in-car camera action.

 

So where is auto racing headed in this era of a wide choice of TV racing coverage in high definition and drivers eye views of the action?   Race track promoters need to leverage the advantages of live attendance such as pit access, special viewing areas, and lower priced souvenirs such as an event t-shirt.   They need to create ticket packages with travel and lodging.   They should reduce seat and food prices and assure easy parking access and efficient traffic control before and after the race.   They need to provide better communication about the race with scoring lights on cars to mark the leading cars as well as multiple scoring pylons and large screen displays.  They should also supplement the cost of headsets to listen to race coverage as well as driver to pit communications.  Recognizing the new capabilities of phones they could provide Internet access to the closed circuit TV coverage including choice of in-car cameras.   The competition for the entertainment dollar is wide open and creative thinking can preserve live race attendance.

Has TV Killed Racing?

Story by Tom Fielitz

Auto racing is facing a serious challenge in decreasing fan attendance and ticket revenue.   Track owners are blaming the down turn in the economy but I suspect that there might be another reason, the advances in camera technology used to broadcast auto racing on TV.

 

TV coverage of auto racing has come a long way as documented by Wikipedia.   Beginning in the 1960’s TV racing coverage was very sparse.   The occasional sports broadcast such as the TV series “Road & Track” would have taped coverage of the occasional stock car or sports car race.  Shell sponsored short movies of European races such as the Monaco Grand Prix or Le Mans.  In 1965 ABC would show taped highlights of the Indy 500 and the first taped Grand Prix was the German GP of 1967.  The first live broadcast of a stock car race was not until 1971 from the Greenville-Pickens Speedway.   The acknowledged big break for TV race coverage was the live broadcast of the 1979 Daytona 500 ending with a post race fist fight in turn four between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison.   After that point auto racing began to become big business on TV, growing to 7.85 million viewers in 2007 and NBC paid the staggering sum of $2.8 billion dollars for six years of exclusive coverage.   Now it is essential for a race series to have TV coverage to justify the huge sponsor investments.   In cases such as Formula 1, Indycar and Grand American, the race sanctioning body became the TV coverage promoter. 

 

But if you look closely at the TV images of the major races you will see that the grandstand seats are virtually empty.   Combined ticket revenue at the major race tracks has dropped 44 percent over the past three years.  Tracks and events such as the Daytona 500 and even the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 have seen major drops in attendance.   At Daytona they have even resorted to removing 57,000 seats and whole grand stands.   Major races have taken to closing certain grand stands so that the TV coverage will appear to have a large crowd in attendance.   Tracks have also changed to add non-racing attractions such as fan zones called “social neighborhoods” with family friendly activities such as amusement rides and free live band entertainment.   Also prominent at major tracks are mammoth TV screens strategically placed so grand stand attendees can follow the race around the portions of the track not in front of them.  

 

Our generation has often been described as the instant gratification generation, seeking instant response from everything in our lives.   We want our sports packaged the same way.  Races that last three and four hours can’t hold the interest of the casual enthusiast.   Attending a race live is a much larger commitment of a full day to a long weekend.  Travel, tickets, lodging and food can cost nearly a thousand dollars per seat for a major out of state event such as the Daytona 24 Hour and the Indy 500 that I attend every year.   Even the local Belle Isle Indycar race can be hundreds of dollars to view live.   I love the drama of watching a live race but I have to admit that I tape the TV coverage to watch when I get home so that I can find out what really happened in the race.   

 

But the biggest advance in TV coverage are all the in-car cameras that now give us the driver’s eye view of the race in spectacular fashion.   Cameras have become so small and of such high resolution that it is almost unmatched in any other sport.   The thrill of racing is right in our face and in some cases the view can even be selected by the viewer through special computer applications.   In many cases the TV cameras are motorized to scan the track situation and even watch the drivers in action.  Live attending of a race can’t compete against in-car camera action.

 

So where is auto racing headed in this era of a wide choice of TV racing coverage in high definition and drivers eye views of the action?   Race track promoters need to leverage the advantages of live attendance such as pit access, special viewing areas, and lower priced souvenirs such as an event t-shirt.   They need to create ticket packages with travel and lodging.   They should reduce seat and food prices and assure easy parking access and efficient traffic control before and after the race.   They need to provide better communication about the race with scoring lights on cars to mark the leading cars as well as multiple scoring pylons and large screen displays.  They should also supplement the cost of headsets to listen to race coverage as well as driver to pit communications.  Recognizing the new capabilities of phones they could provide Internet access to the closed circuit TV coverage including choice of in-car cameras.   The competition for the entertainment dollar is wide open and creative thinking can preserve live race attendance. 


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