Hall attendance, sponsorship spur cuts

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A gross over-exaggeration of estimated attendance during the bidding process and a shortfall of expected sponsors has the NASCAR Hall of Fame looking to cut between $2.5 million and $3 million in annual expenses to balance the budget.

But the hall's actual expected attendance figures of between 250,000 and 350,000 are on par with those anticipated at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., and are ahead of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

They also aren't that far off those at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn., and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, albeit far short of the first year attendance for both venues used to make the original estimate of 800,000 for the NASCAR Hall.

"I admit we were wrong," said Tim Newman, the chief executive of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority that headed the city's effort to get the shrine. "We should not have been talking in those numbers. Because it was a public competition you had those numbers out there. We were trying to win the business.

"I was not as concerned about the validity of those numbers at that time."

Newman and the CRVA are in the process of re-estimating attendance for the fiscal year that began in July. He hopes attendance will be between 250,000 and 300,000 on the low end, significantly higher if the economy turns around.

That is within the range of the 289,818 -- the first time in 12 years below 300,000 -- who visited the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 2009. It is much higher than the 196,000 expected at the Pro Football HOF, whose highest-ever attendance was 247,203 in 1972.

Meanwhile, the CRVA must make cuts to reach the forecasted operating profit of $620,000. As of August the hall was $190,000 in the hole.

The Pro Football HOF, by comparison, works on the premise of breaking even, according to spokesperson Tonja Marshall. The Baseball Hall is a not-for-profit educational institution.
"Our budget is based on goal, which was significantly off last year," Marshall added.

Newman said cuts at the NASCAR Hall will not impact plans for current and new exhibits or presently involve laying off any of the 27 full-time employees. He added that the induction ceremonies and surrounding events in May also won't be significantly impacted, adding most of the cuts deal with day-to-day expenses and the hours of part-time employees.

Approximately $156 million of the original cost to build the hall was financed through a 2 percent increase in the local hotel/motel occupancy tax. An additional $32 million loan was taken out to enhance the exhibit experience, with the CRVA obligated to pay $1 million over each of the first five years.

"We'll be fine on paying that," Newman said.

Newman said he was encouraged that more than 10,000 passed through the hall last week as Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted a Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup event. With two major conventions in town this week he is hoping the hall is "coming into a strong period again" even though summer months are considered the strongest for most venues.

There also are several local promotions in the works that, if successful in increasing local attendance, could make the budget cuts less severe, Newman said.

"The fact of the matter is, if we had a poor product I'd be very concerned," Newman said. "We have a great product and people love it. We just have to get the right number coming."

Jeff Idelson, the president of the Baseball Hall of Fame, isn't surprised attendance is waning at any sports museum because "we're in the middle of the biggest depression since the Great Depression, so business across the board is in trouble."

Idelson estimates between 275,000 and 280,000 will pass through the hall by year's end.

"We're not insulated," he said. "Coming to a museum you're dipping into discretionary income. At the same time, we're a good value, so we're riding out the storm and we'll hit the ground running when the economy starts to return."

There's no way to compare opening year attendance for the baseball hall with NASCAR's. The baseball shrine drew about 25,000 its first year in 1939, then fell to 7,000 the second year when World War II began.

But the NASCAR Hall research company that helped come up with the 800,000 estimate was hoping to come closer to the approximate 1 million the Country Music Hall and Rock and Roll Hall drew in their first years.

Both have since dropped to 350,000-450,000 annually, with the Rock and Roll hall drawing 373,604 paid in 2009.

Newman said those figures were used because the NASCAR Hall wanted to promote itself as an entertainment facility as much as a museum.

"The best way to characterize it was deal envy," Newman said. "When you're in competition with somebody else for an attraction you start talking about numbers that are just projections and before the facility is designed."

Charlotte was contending with Richmond, Daytona Beach, Atlanta and Kansas for the Hall. According to published reports, Atlanta estimated 1 million in first-year attendance and Daytona Beach 500,000.

Charlotte's estimate when the search was narrowed to three cities was down to 400,000, with officials calling the number conservative.

"Bottom line, all were guesses," Newman said. "You can't change things in the past. If you could, [estimated attendance] is the one thing we would."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.