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Daytona spent $400 million to reinvent itself. Here’s what it learned

Three years after the new-look speedway opened, we checked in to find common issues and fixes for the Rays, Gators and Seminoles.
LOREN ELLIOTT | Times Action is seen during the Daytona 500 NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017.
Published Feb. 8
Updated Feb. 8

DAYTONA BEACH — When Daytona International Speedway officials took an honest look at themselves six years ago, they didn’t like everything they saw.

The 50-year-old track was showing its age. The grandstands were ancient and uncomfortable. They weren’t doing enough to compete in a crowded entertainment marketplace.

Attendance for its marquee Daytona 500 dropped from 200,000 in 2006 to 175,000 in 2010. Corporate-wise, admissions revenue for the track’s parent company fell more than $100 million from 2007-12, according to the International Speedway Corporation’s earnings reports.

“We’re not blind to the fact that people are changing the way they consume events,” track president Chip Wile said.

Daytona decided to change, too, with a renovated stadium that opened in 2016 and a nearby shopping complex that will end its first phase this spring. Total cost: more than half a billion dollars.

The problems the track tried to address through those twin investments aren’t unique to NASCAR, or its 2.5-mile crown jewel. They’re some of the same ones facing the Rays, Gators and Seminoles.

That makes Daytona an interesting case study as it prepares to host Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash and next week’s 500. Here are five lessons the World Center of Racing has learned that can resonate throughout the sports world.

Lesson 1: Less can be more

The main problem Daytona tried to fix was its fan experience. What the track had been offering for decades simply wasn’t good enough.

“It doesn’t make sense in this day and age to sell a subpar experience,” then-track president Joie Chitwood III said before the 2016 Daytona 500. “And if you sell a subpar experience, you expect the fan not to come back.”

The worst experience was the backstretch, where poor sightlines fueled the lowest renewal rate in the stadium. So Daytona demolished it.

With 40,000 fewer seats to fill, the track focused on making each of the remaining 101,000 seats better — wider, with more legroom and a cup holder for each one. Forty new escalators and 14 new elevators made it easier for patrons to get to those comfier chairs, too, social neighborhoods gave them a place to congregate during lulls.

This trade — fewer seats for a better environment — has become a trend.

The Rays, who continually rank near the bottom of the majors in attendance, are closing the upper deck at Tropicana Field in part to create a “more intimate, entertaining and appealing experience.” The capacity for their aborted Ybor City stadium would have been an MLB-low 28,216, but it would have included more creative options, including picnic, patio and fountain seating.

After the Gators had their smallest football crowds since 1990, Florida officials have discussed downsizing Ben Hill Griffin Stadium by several thousand to give wider, better seats for season-ticket holders, and they’ve boosted amenities with more food options and a beer garden. Florida State axed 9,000 bleacher seats at Doak Campbell Stadium to make way for the cushy Dunlap Champions Club.

RELATED: We asked. You answered. Why college football attendance is down

Because NASCAR stopped releasing attendance figures after 2012, it’s hard to quantify how much the renovation helped Daytona. But the 500 sold out each of the first two years after the overhaul, and Wile is optimistic it will do so again this year.

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times Ryan Newman's pit crew gets to work during the Daytona 500 NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017.

The project “slightly exceeded” expectations of creating an extra $20 million in revenue during the first year, according to ISC’s earnings report. Daytona’s transformation was successful enough that its parent company spent $178 million on a similar renovation at Phoenix and is investing another $50 million at Talladega.

Wile said Daytona’s fan surveys are “far and away better” since the renovation. A woman in her sixties even hugged him at the pool one night; without the track’s new elevators or escalators, she told him, she wouldn’t have been able to keep attending races.

“Those are the kind of things that have shown up as big wins for us,” Wile said.

Lesson 2: Diversify

The high-end Rolex 24 Lounge is unlike anything the old speedway offered.

“The closest thing we had was the 1876 club, which was a tent outside in the parking lot…” Wile said. “This is not a tent.”

Definitely not.

The high-end Rolex 24 Lounge is a new addition to Daytona International Speedway. (Daytona International Speedway)

There’s a chandelier made up of the layout of Daytona and its 12 sister tracks. You can sit inside near the bar, where the chairs are plush and TVs are all around. Or outside, where the seats are spacious and the aisles provide plenty of legroom. Either way, the view of the track is tremendous.

It looks like a great place to watch a race — or hold a black-tie dinner or business seminar. It can even host three holiday parties in one night.

The lounge’s versatility shows the shift in corporate strategy. A decade ago, admissions made up 30 percent of ISC’s revenue. Now it’s 16 percent.

“As sports organizations look at their ticket sales and everything else, they are looking, I’m sure, at the same opportunities we’re looking at to try to help diversify our core business,” said Jeff Boerger, ISC’s vice president of corporate development.

It doesn’t make sense to have world-class facilities but only use them a few times a year. That’s why The Swamp will host its first concert in a quarter century when country superstar Garth Brooks performs in April, and why the Rays discussed yoga classes and culinary lessons at their Ybor City stadium.

Daytona’s offerings have expanded to RV shows, musical festivals, American Ninja Warrior, esports and a Christmas lights show — all to supplement and showcase its iconic speedway.

Lesson 3: Think big

Before the Rays’ Ybor City plans fell through in December, one financing proposal included the development of 4 million square feet near the stadium. But the Rays didn’t want to be in the real-estate business.

Daytona, however, has made it an integral part of its portfolio. Just look across the street from the track, where ISC transformed 70 acres of one-story office buildings into an entertainment plaza that feels like a cross between The Shops at Wiregrass and Tampa Premium Outlets.

One Daytona has restaurants and shops with a subtle racing flavor.

You can buy fishing gear at Bass Pro Shops or flowery dresses at Pink Narcissus. There’s a movie theater, a barbecue joint, a pizza place and brewery, plus a splash pad, fitness park and the city’s only bowling alley.

When the track hosts the Sports & Entertainment Alliance in Technology conference in July, the several hundred participants can stay at one of One Daytona’s two hotels, then walk across the street for meetings. At the end of the day, they can walk back to the plaza for dinner, drinks and dessert.

On the surface, it has little to do with racing, but Boerger views it as an important supplemental revenue stream. Its street, Daytona Boulevard, literally turns into NASCAR Drive.

“It’s all about starting with the foundation, which we’ve done with the racetrack,” Boerger said. “This is just helping complement that, and it all kind of revolves back to the speedway — our core business.”

Lesson 4: Plan for the long term

Some of the most important decisions Daytona has made are the ones that didn’t materialize.

Wile has talked with the NFL, NHL and MLS about hosting a game at the track, but only if it’s done properly. A football fan who can hardly see the field from his seat in Turn 4 probably won’t have a good time or want to return.

“You really have one shot to capture an audience that wouldn’t otherwise want to come to the speedway for a NASCAR race…” Wile said.

So you can’t blow it on an a subpar experience.

The same goes for building out One Daytona. A giant lot near its entrance remains vacant because the company hasn’t found the perfect tenant for its prime real estate.

One Daytona includes a fitness park, which should get more use when the area's residential component appears in the coming years.

The speedway can’t fix its problems by moving to Charlotte or Montreal, so it has to decisions that are best for the long term, sometimes at the expense of the short term.

“Not only does it have to succeed within five years,” Boerger said, “but it has to succeed in 50 years.”

Lesson 5: Remember who you are

Although Daytona’s corporate strategy is shifting, its identity is not. It’s not an entertainment company that also hosts races. It’s a racing company that also does other things.

“We can’t lose focus on our core business,” Wile said.

Everything is still geared toward racing, just as it was when the track opened in 1959.

The nine-figure investment in One Daytona boosted the fans’ experience while they’re in town by giving them something else to do after the checkered flag.

The same key sponsors at Daytona International Speedway are featured prominently at One Daytona.

The concerts and conferences? Their main goal is to drive potential customers to the track.

The speedway even hosts most of the proms in Volusia County — partly to strengthen ties to the community it will never leave, but also to show off for teenagers who might not have ever been inside. If they see how impressive the stadium is, maybe they’ll want to come back for a race.

“You do all of these unique events to draw people back into your core motorsports events,” Wile said. “That’s why you do them.”

And that, Wile said, should never change.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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