What’s the most important trend in American sports right now?

Improving the Fan Experience.

That should be -- MUST be -- the highest priority for NHRA, series sponsor Mello Yello, track operators, event promoters, and other Business of Drag Racing partners.

When even the 10,000-pound gorilla of U.S. sports -- the National Football League -- understands this New Reality of the marketplace, you know the NHRA industry had best get with it, too. 







What’s the most important trend in American sports right now?

Improving the Fan Experience.

That should be -- MUST be -- the highest priority for NHRA, series sponsor Mello Yello, track operators, event promoters, and other Business of Drag Racing partners.

When even the 10,000-pound gorilla of U.S. sports -- the National Football League -- understands this New Reality of the marketplace, you know the NHRA industry had best get with it, too. 

What the NFL has learned through thorough research and basic common sense is this modern truth: The marvel of wide flat-screen HD TVs with pause buttons and picture-in-picture and instant replays from many angles, coupled with surround-sound audio systems, special satellite services like packages that allow you access to virtually all the games plus the “Red Zone” (which lets viewers see every team’s scoring plays) and the simple convenience of watching from home has made relaxing on the couch more attractive than paying Big Bucks for tickets, parking, gasoline and concessions. Not to mention sitting in traffic and standing in restroom lines.

The Cleveland Browns hired an outside firm to focus on fan needs. Measures have been taken to get ticket-holders into the stadium more quickly. Once inside, there are original videos and music. Service providers have worked with the team to boost the cell phone signal.

The Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders are two NFL franchises struggling to sell tickets. Yes, they are losing teams playing in older, outmodeled venues, but other clubs have discovered that the novelty and niceties of a new stadium can pass after only a few seasons. Even those built just a few years ago probably don’t have Wi-Fi. It’s a never-ending race to keep the infrastructure contemporary with the technology.

Other leagues also have noticed. Some Sundays ago, the Arizona Republic sports section included four stories on four different sports that had this in common: All mentioned bettering the fan experience.

I say delivering the best-possible fan experience is even more vital for NHRA than for the stick-and-ball games. That’s because drag racing, above all other sports I can think of, is a sensory, visceral spectacle. That sight, that sound, that feeling and -- yes -- that smell can’t be transmitted no matter how many gizmos ESPN deploys. And that’s not a rip because the network has made useful advancements in audio and especially super slow-motion replays. Plus, it has Mike Dunn, the best expert analyst in any motorsport.

But those cablecasts are delayed. In an age of social media and instant information, most of us already know the results. And, well, it’s just not the same as being there. And never will be.

To make new fans, to grow its customer base, NHRA flat-out HAS to get people into the stands for that unique at-track, in-person experience.

The process, obviously, starts with the physical facilities.

Among those who have gotten this message are Daytona International Speedway and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sure, the scale is vastly different from drag strips, but both are instructive.

Daytona, having failed to secure funding from the Florida legislature, has embarked on a $400 million redevelopment scheduled for a January 2016 checkered flag. According to the announcement, there will be five expanded fan entrances leading directly to escalators and elevators to move customers to three different concourse levels. All will feature football field-sized “social neighborhoods” -- 11 total -- where people will meet and socialize during events without missing any racing due to an open-sightline design and dozens of video screens. Every front stretch seat will be new -- wider and more comfortable -- with added restrooms and concession stands. The back stretch grandstands will be removed, dropping total seating capacity from about 140,000 to 101,000. There will be 53 suites for corporate clients.

“By moving all seating to the front stretch, all attendees will have the opportunity to enjoy the full race-day experience including pre-race ceremonies (and) pit road action,” explained John Saunders, president of International Speedway Corp., which owns Daytona and 12 other tracks.

“The decision was made with strong consideration of the current macro-economic condition and a clear view for our long-term growth,” said ISC Chairwoman Lesa France Kennedy. “This significant private investment is a strategic use of our capital that will ensure the long-term viability of the iconic speedway, and when completed, will contribute favorably to the Company's revenues, as well as to our community and the sport as a whole.”

IMS, built more than a century ago, says $100 million will be spent after the Indiana legislature approved a bill to help. Specifics of the master facilities plan haven’t yet been revealed. For the NASCAR Brickyard 400, the Speedway provided incentives for fans to arrive early with entertainment ranging from a zipline, volleyball, giant slide and other games.

It’s fair to ask: What’s going on at NHRA member tracks to make the spectators’ day more enjoyable, entertaining, comfortable and -- overall -- worth the cost of admission?

More than two years ago, I wrote a column citing the need for drag strips to become more distinctive, more creative in their attractiveness. A few months before that, in another column, I included this quote from Robert Hight:

“If you go to a NASCAR race there’s probably more things for a fan to do. I took my daughter to Fontana (Auto Club Speedway) and there was a place for kids to get into a bubble and fool around. There’s a lot of different entertainment there. I believe we need to entertain the fans a little better. Pre-race over there is spectacular and you need to have something like that here, like a concert, something to break up the day a little bit.”

NHRA itself must set the right example by bettering the facilities it owns/operates.

ESPN set the correct tone for the Norwalk Experience by opening that show with Dunn and Dave Rieff in front of the ice-cream stand, enjoying the famous pound-for-a-buck treats. Smart track operators should be offering fans regional favorites at reasonable prices. Don’t dare tell me it can’t be done: Yes it can! One visit to Road America, in Elkhart Lake, Wis., where local church and civic groups serve-up delicious brats, burgers and corn-on-the-cob for a few dollars, which can be enjoyed in picnic-like settings, proves my point.

NHRA’s sales staff needs to be out there aggressively pitching Samsung, Sony and Panasonic for a series-wide deal to bring modern large video screens to every track. Not just outside each lane, but with high-definition TV monitors carefully positioned in food courts, souvenir areas and the manufacturers’ midway, so customers can continue to follow the racing away from the grandstands.

Every track president should ask: Is parking a pain? Are seats wide enough? And set at the right angle for an unobstructed view? Do the restrooms look (and smell) like something from a Third World country? Are they adequately cleaned and maintained throughout the day? Can people easily find their way around the track via directional signs? Does the public address system have enough horsepower to let Alan Reinhart & Co. be heard? Is there a well-publicized social media capacity so management can communicate with fans about weather issues or offer special deals? Can fans use their wireless devices to ask questions or get help? Do we need more trash cans?

Are there enough entertainment choices? Are you sure?

Finally: Coca-Cola (Mello Yello) executives need to stop promising and start delivering. Enough time has passed and there are no more legitimate excuses: Do business as a SERIOUS (how about PROUD?) series sponsor, like Winston did in NASCAR and NHRA, and PPG did in CART. A few well-placed video game and racing simulator arcades would be a useful, if long overdue, start. As would adding to patron value by passing out giveaways -- imagine a nice colorful poster, which might well draw the attention of others back in the office or shop or man cave. Or, at the very least, product coupons.

That’s called “added value.” And, these days, customers are looking for it. No, they are expecting it.

Yes: Putting the funding in place is complex, but the over-riding imperative for drag racing that is improving the fan experience is simple to understand. The “every ticket is a pit pass” slogan no longer is enough. Popping T-shirts into the stands no longer is enough. Having some dare-devil parachute into the track with an NHRA flag no longer is enough.

And, sorry, but neither is good racing.

No: Not nearly enough.

Follow Michael Knight on Twitter: @SpinDoctor500