The Wrong Side of the Line

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Let’s get this out of the way on the front-end. I am probably not the best expert around to judge how someone in their early-thirties looks to spend their entertainment dollars. Being almost twice their age would normally disqualify me, but even when I was in that age group – I was not a good representation of that demographic. This will probably come off as an old man yelling at a cloud, but so be it.

To those that know me, it will come as no surprise that I am not the least bit interested in attending a concert at a race track. I’m not that fired up about attending one in an arena where I get to sit in air-conditioned comfort. This isn’t due to my age, I never really liked concerts when I was a teenager or in my twenties.

My wife, Susan, enjoys them much more that I do. We got married in May 2012. From 2012 to 2016, I think I attended more concerts in that four-year stretch than I did in the twenty-five years before. The last indoor concert we saw were The Eagles in 2017, my second time to see them and Susan’s third. Susan convinced me to go to see Blake Shelton for Legends Day at IMS in 2016. If I never go to another concert, indoor or out, it will suit me just fine. I’ve enjoyed most of the ones I’ve gone to, I just never had a burning desire to seek them out.

My one and only concert regret is that I never saw Paul McCartney before he lost his pipes, which wasn’t that long ago. He kept his voice much longer than most rockers of my demographic. Even he can no longer hit those high notes at 80. Most singers younger than him have been reduced to shouting lyrics, as the young band members behind them play the music so we can recognize what the song is supposed to be.

I can’t remember the year, but it was probably about twenty years ago when they started playing music over the speakers at IMS during down time of practice for the Indianapolis 500. If it was a rain delay that would’ve been one thing. but I always preferred the sound of an engine warming up in the pits to some bad rap music blaring out over the loud speakers.

Don’t get me wrong, I like music and pretty much all types of music (except rap); but I’ve never understood why concerts and motor racing were considered a compliment to each other like peanut butter & jelly. Except for revenue generation, I’ve never understood why there has to be a Carb Day concert. When the Freedom 100 ran, I always thought that race, the IndyCar practice and the Pit Stop Competition would’ve been enough to draw race fans out to the race track on a Friday afternoon. Instead, those of us that are there to see cars on track have to deal with the drunken public coming to invade our happy place.

Although I’ve seen zero evidence to indicate that people that come to a race track to see a concert, suddenly become new race fans; I’ve learned to accept that race weekends are likely to involve some type of outdoor concert.

But now the tail is wagging the dog. In case you haven’t heard – pure racing fans are being priced out of attending next year’s NTT IndyCar Series double-header weekend at Iowa Speedway. The reason is the cost of the concerts associated with the event.

Like last year, there will be two concerts on Saturday and two on Sunday. The four acts are Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Zac Brown Band and Ed Sheeran. Yes they are A-listers, and if I wanted to go to a concert – I might pay money to see at least Underwood and Chesney. But I’m one of those strange race fans. When I am at a race track, I like to watch race cars on-track and wander the garage area.

In 2022, Hy-Vee and Penske Entertainment introduced what we thought may be a new way of getting more people to ovals. The race tickets were affordable, and you got two full races and four concerts for your investment. But what was affordable last year, is out of reach for the average middle-class fan in 2023.

Marshall Pruett of Racer.com wrote an article last Wednesday, describing a couple who paid a total of $250 for their weekend tickets at Iowa this past summer. For what they got, they felt like it was a good value and they were anxious about returning for the race weekend in 2023. That was before they got their ticket renewal. The same seats that cost a total of $250 in 2022, would cost them almost $800 in 2023. The fun-filled weekend they were looking forward to having again next summer was suddenly out of reach.

Susan and I used to go to four or five Tennessee Titans games a year, when upper-deck tickets were going for about $45 each. But when nosebleed seats rose to the $80 level, we cut back to one or two games a year. Now that they are well over $100, we no longer go. Outrageous parking, $14 beers and $6 hot dogs have helped price us out of going to something we enjoyed. We now just sit at home and watch.

To ask those who supported your event last year to more than triple their investment for the same tickets next year, is an insult. Not many people that I know are going to pay $800 for weekend seats at Iowa Speedway for daytime races in July. For way less than that, I can get two of the best seats in the house at IMS for the Indianapolis 500 (EE Penthouse), a primo parking spot, two programs and have plenty left over for Classic Jumbo Tenderloins and a few beers.

Much like NFL games, the only folks that can afford to attend at these prices are those receiving corporate perks. I’m not sure that will work for motor racing. I would think you need to make races affordable for the average Joe. It’s one thing to entertain corporate clients for an afternoon in a suite at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis or Nissan Stadium in Nashville. Both of those locations are in relatively large cities that people want to visit. It’s much more difficult to get a client to travel to Newton, Iowa for an entire weekend of a sport that is not near as mainstream as the NFL.

The argument justifying the skyrocketing 2023 ticket prices for Iowa is that the acts that have been booked already, cost so much. I have to think there are other race fans like me that buy race tickets to only watch races. They don’t care about who is playing on the main stage before and after each race. They only care about garage access and seeing their favorite driver perform well on the track. Unfortunately, they are paying just as much for the concert tickets as the cute couple dressed in country-western swag, that couldn’t tell you the difference between an aero screen and a sidepod.

This is one reason why the business model of Cable TV has failed. Consumers got tired of having to subsidize channels that they cared nothing about. One big advantage to cord-cutting is that you only pay for the content you are interested in. I’m obviously a big sports guy; but if I only cared about news or movies, I would be furious to see how much of my cable bill goes to the whole family of ESPN networks. Since I am a sports guy, I thank those that are paying for it for me each month. However, it comes back around when I realize I’m helping to pay for the Cartoon Network and HGTV. And when did TLC stop being The Learning Channel? There is nothing close to being educational on there, unless you count 1000-pound Sisters as educational.

Penske Entertainment was formed when Roger Penske bought IMS, IMS Productions and IndyCar. My original thought was that they could bring some extra entertainment value to races. I didn’t realize that the races were going to be added as an extra bonus for attending a concert.

Race promoters have been walking a fine line for years, trying to please as many potential ticket-buyers as possible. On-track activity, concerts and sideshows along with Fan Zones are all part of the equation. It’s a balance to keep everyone happy. That’s why I’m partial to Barber and Road America. There are no concerts on their IndyCar weekends. Both have fan zones, but they fill the track with activity from morning to evening. Then again – they are not ovals. It’s tougher to fill an oval with activity for a full day; although Gateway has been pretty successful at it. That’s one reason why Pocono failed. There was no track activity between IndyCar practices and qualifying. Give race fans a reason to come and hang out all weekend.

It was just a few months ago that we were all praising IndyCar, Penske Entertainment and Hy-Vee for their efforts at Iowa in 2022. We thought they had stumbled upon the blueprint to be used at other ovals for years to come. What looked like a new business model then, now looks like nothing more than an opportunity to gouge those that helped launch the concept a year earlier.

We’ve been wondering where that line is and how much is too much, when it comes to race tickets. Penske Corporation President Bud Denker seems to think the “price adjustment” is still a good value, with all of the big-name acts involved. It may be to corporations with deep pockets, who see this as a relatively cheap tool to entertain clients for the weekend.

But to Joe Racefan and his family, that line has been crossed and Iowa Speedway, Hy-Vee and Penske Entertainment find themselves on the wrong side of the line. The race experience they enjoyed so much just five months ago, has now been priced out of reach for 2023. I think we now know where that line is. Now the question is, can the powers-that-be do anything to get back on the right side of the line or is it too late for next year’s Iowa race?

George Phillips

16 Responses to “The Wrong Side of the Line”

  1. Well said, George. Indycar needs to decide which business they are in.

  2. Your column reminds me of years ago when Mid-Ohio used to play the sound track of the movie Grand Prix on a loop over the PA system when there was no on track activity, it just seemed so right ,my how times have changed .
    I agree with a lot of what you say here. Formula One and Liberty Media are pricing out the general public from attending F1 events in the USA and I would hate to see that same businesses model be applied to IndyCar. There are alternative racing series such as IMSA on which to spend your entertainment dollars . Ovals need some kind of support races for on track activity not concerts

  3. I don’t know how sports survive but they just keep raising everything. I haven’t even so much as been to a baseball game since before COVID. I can’t afford it and would rather take a vacation! All these talking heads cheering on record breaking contracts and all it does is inflate prices more and more. Hey Baltimore, Lamar is going to cost YOU more money, stop cheering for him to “get paid”.
    This Iowa thing really worries me… I think they are gearing for the F1 type fan, but they are squeezing out the loyal fan.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Sports revenues across the spectrum have been moving away from dependence on gate revenue from average Joe fans for decades now. The total gate across the big 4 sports leagues now makes up less than 1/3 of their revenues, and much of that gate revenue is from decidedly non-average folks who are buying suites and premium seats. Average Joe fans buying tickets probably account for well under 10% of revenue in a lot of pro sports these days.

      I do expect that it is a much higher percentage in Indycar, which doesn’t command the media rights and merchandising money bigger professional sports do, but I’m betting it still isn’t a majority of revenue or even all that close to a majority. While I agree that the Iowa price increases are absurd, they may not matter as much as we might think. Unfortunately for the average fan, a successful Indycar is going to be one that looks increasingly like a big 4 sport in pricing.

  4. I really enjoy going to motor races and am very happy to fly over for INDYCAR races which is the point. Motor races not concerts. I enjoy concerts too. Saw Melody Gardot last week but I would never pay to see Ed Sheeran. INDYCAR I presume hope to get the Ed Sheeran fans to like INDYCAR as they need to up the number of people attending. I get it but it means that unless there is a race only ticket then I will not be attending.

  5. This is very timely. I am planning to retire this spring and have planned all along to get to the Iowa race(s) for the first time. Last week I went out to their website and was stunned at the prices for tickets. I did not know concerts were the reason for that and I didn’t notice anything on their site about concerts, although I wasn’t looking for it. But the prices put a halt to my plans. I have no interest in the concerts either and I believe to this day they ruined Carb Day at Indianapolis. The concert crowd was so rowdy I quit going. So, at least in my case, someone who wanted to go to Iowa for the Indy car race won’t be going due to the high price they are charging to cover the concerts.

    And they will blame a poor showing on the lack of interest in ovals.

  6. Davis Brewer Says:

    IMO: In this era all concerts going forward is the series buying time and treading water until the lifeboat arrives.

  7. It looks like an high risk experiment to me at Iowa (could this be because it’s Iowa)? Before last years successful event , the track, in the middle of nowhere was close to being dead in the water. Last years attempt at revival proved an obvious success. Is this price hike evidence supporting IndyCar’s troubles? This has turned IndyCar into an official side show. If you attended last years event, how could you not be offended by this?

  8. billytheskink Says:

    I would be curious as to how the present Iowa weekend situation came to be, though I expect we will never know for sure:
    – Was it Penske or Hy-Vee who insisted on the concert lineup? I have heard both reported from people “in the know”.
    – Are the price increases due solely to the concert lineups? Perhaps Penske or Hy-Vee subsidized the event costs last year more than they are willing to do this year… Perhaps the fee to rent the facility went up considerably… Of course, perhaps the powers that be are just greedy and seeing how hard they can squeeze the fans.

    On the bright side, tickets to Texas are still quite affordable. Hope to see you all in April!

  9. James T Suel Says:

    I felt the same way when I heard about Iowa from David Land. I could care less about a concert at a race weekend. But think we race fans ,that’s not what they want. I was real happy about penske buying IMS and Indycar . Iam starting to wonder now. I smell that corporate mind set of more profit every year . This will kill this race in the long run. What a shame. I fully understand making a profit, but this is shooting yourself in the foot

  10. Bruce in Mass Says:

    Why don’t they just pay a lion to wrestle AJ in the infield. I would pay extra to see that. Oh wait. That has been done already.

  11. Bruce Waine Says:

    Marketing 101 at work ?

    Focusing (ticket prices) on your audience (concert goers) …………………….

  12. There is always a balance in marketing to find the price point that maximizes sales. While having A-Listers perform, gives fans something to see at an oval when there is no track action, performers of that caliber are expensive to bring in. (One of my media planning clients was a performing arts venue and I became familiar with just how much big acts get. Ouch.) There is a point at which something is priced to high to be perceived as a value and it hinders rather than helps sales. Unfortunately, I don’t know what to suggest as an activity to pass the time to avoid sitting in a hot metal grandstand in the sun waiting for something to happen on the track.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      To pass the time to avoid sitting in a hot metal grandstand in the sun, how about standing in the hot sun during music (?) concerts ?

  13. jvolgarino Says:

    Definitely agree George. Marketing has already begun here. I was excited to go to the first one because it gave me a chance to experience IndyCar close to home, but also because my wife was willing to go. What ahe really wanted to see was Tim McGraw, but I’ll take any opportunity to get her to any automotive event. I burned her out on this stuff years ago.

    Something I noticed at this well run event is many people seated around us only were present for the concerts. I wondered if they headed out to the parking lots to tailgate. Us EyeOhWins seem to like doing that kind of stuff.

    But $800? Nah. We won’t do that. The concert lineup is okay, but not $800 good.

    It’s too bad because Hy-Vee did a great job and it was a well organized event. I can afford to go, but that price is outside my comfort level.

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