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NASCAR is no longer concerned about the average fan

COFFEE TALK by Matt Harvey

ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR

I've got a friend who has liked NASCAR for years now.

Just a few years ago, I could have started a conversation about stock car racing and we easily could have talked for 10 or 15 minutes about cars, drivers and tracks.

But lately, it seemed like each time I brought up NASCAR, she changed the subject.

Puzzled, I asked her about it.

Her reply?

She told me it just wasn't as much fun anymore.

"They're just not concerned about the average fan anymore," she said. "You just have to have a lot of money. ... It just seems like they're not interested in attracting the people who got the sport to where it was."

When my friend started following NASCAR, it was easy to get a good, cheap camping site close to the track. Best of all, it was first come, first serve. Campers who got there early got to pick out spacious sites, sort of like Manifest Destiny pioneers.

Now, the campsites are getting pushed back, sometimes as far as a mile's walk from the action, and some tracks have plans to section off their campgrounds into small lots, plus require reservations.

Bottom line: The move will create more and better accommodations for corporate VIPs, who are willing to pay big bucks for the privilege of parking close to a track, or putting up a hospitality tent nearby.

It's like that in other sports, too.

Take 10 minutes and watch an NBA playoff game this week, even if you don't like the NBA.

When the camera pans to the crowd, check out who's closest to the court. Chances are it will be someone in a silk tie or Gucci loafers and wielding a cell phone -- again, someone who can pay big bucks for the privilege of a great seat.

Ever wonder why stadiums are popping up across the country faster than sweet corn in late July? Because the old stadiums don't have enough luxury boxes or VIP seats.

Our country's economy is booming, and has been, for the most part, since the 1980s. Corporations have money to spend, and they see sporting events as a great place to spend it.

It's a great perk, for one thing, and it's also a great place to wine and dine customers.

That's bad news for middle- and lower-class fans.

Where they once could sit close enough to count teeth of their favorite star, they now are likely to need binoculars to see the action.

And for a big contest, or a postseason game, they'll be lucky to get a seat at all.

My friend is right. It isn't fun, and it isn't fair.

It's business.

But she can take solace in this: The economy, like sports teams, usually runs in cycles.

And when this cycle of success finally turns downward -- and it will, someday -- businesses will cut costs.

Perks, like big blocks of tickets at the ballpark or the racetrack, will be the first things slashed from budgets.

And then those high-dollar seats will go for low-dollar prices as sports teams see their bottom line fall, too.

A lot of those blue-collar fans will come back. But some -- like my friend -- might not. In fact, probably won't.

Sports tycoons ought to consider that now instead of only considering today's bottom line.

They also ought to remember that the foundation of sports always has been the masses.

Because if those tycoons lose that building block, their future, and that of all those masses of concrete, steel and brick, will have a lot in common with a radio broadcaster's home run call: Going, going ...

GONE!

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