The acid test for COTA

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At a reported cost of $450m, COTA is the most expensive Formula One track ever built. However, all that glittered for investors Bobby Epstein and Red McCombs turned out to be a colour other than gold. They have in recent months been in negotiations to sell the Circuit of the America’s, though the deal has now reportedly collapsed

COTA receives a $25m subsidiary from the state of Texas towards the promotion of the Formula One event each year, based upon claims that the F1 weekend brings in $300m of benefits to the Austin region. Despite this, the circuit struggles to make a profit and in each of the subsequent years following the inaugural F1 event in 2012, the attendances for the US GP have fallen.

One reason for falling attendance maybe the cost. Those visiting the US GP in Austin in previous years have described the expense as ‘astronomic’ and hotels as expensive as those in Monaco.

The coming weekend is a big one for COTA because it is now back to back with the Mexican GP the following weekend. Previous estimates suggest up to 40% of COTA’s prior year spectators have been fans travelling from Mexico. If this is the case, COTA may be facing a crisis with the upcoming US GP.

Add into the mix, the weather forecast for Friday through Sunday looks pretty grim, which could deter those who purchase tickets last minute. The present forecast is a high probability of thunderstorms for tomorrow which continue into Saturday when the likelihood of localised flooding is high. On Sunday rain is forecast to fall from Saturday’s predicted level of 2 inches to 0.5 inch, though rain is expected for most of the morning with showers following during the race.

One advantage of the weather forecast being wet for the entire weekend, is that there is likely to be more running on Friday than we have seen in the past when Friday is wet, but Saturday and Sunday are expected to be dry.

However, the President of the COTA, Jason Dial, tells Sports Business daily he is confident the F1 weekend will be a success, claiming “We expect to exceed the number of visitors in 2014.” Dial recognises the impact the scheduling of the Mexican GP is likely to have, but is convinced they will make up the loss from the growth from “other groups of visitors”. Apparently more fans are coming from “California, Florida, New York, Chicago, we also see increasing numbers from abroad.”

COTA have been heavily promoting ‘a range of entertainment at various venues’ which they have planned surrounding this years F1 event, with an Elton John concert scheduled following the race.

There have been suspicions that the official figures COTA released for its attendances in 2013/14 were optimistic, with some fans reporting 8-10 less  temporary grandstands than in 2012. Of course COTA has since introduced general admission – none grandstand tickets, but whether this will compensate for the potential loss of the Mexican spectators is unknown at present. Then again the Mexican GP has been sold out for weeks, with the promoters claiming they could have sold the tickets twice over. Perversely this could in stem the fall in number of Mexicans not travelling to Austin this year.

Given Formula One’s troubled history with its races in the USA, can the sport afford another failure should COTA withdraw from its Formula One commitments?

Have you been to a race at COTA, or are you living in the USA and an F1 fan who has considered attending the US GP in Austin? Share your thoughts on the issues raised surrounding this event in the comments section below.

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30 responses to “The acid test for COTA

  1. “…an Elton John concert scheduled following the race.”
    Which says something about the target demographic – or not.
    Given the [proximity to and importance of the Mexican connection, maybe they should try hiring some of the “narco-corrida” bands?

    • +1

      Elton John! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

      So the target market is old, has-been, prolly quite well off and conservative enough to think that EJ is still a rockin’ kinda guy.

      God help us 🙁

      • Elton John is a true rocker. And I’m not that old. He’s a brilliant musician. He even did a song on the last queens of the stone age album…

  2. I live in USA.
    I am F1 fan.
    I glimpsed at the prices when cota first started and not since.
    Texas is not a state I enjoy.
    I avoid Texas.

  3. I went in 2013 and I will be getting on a flight in a few hours to go again this year. I am certainly interested to see how weather will affect the turn out as I don’t believe the event has yet earned enough die hard fans who will brave any conditions for the event a la Indy or Daytona.

    As for pricing, while it certainly was not cheap by any means I did not think it to be out of line with any other event of its size and stature that I have attended, except maybe the Daytona 500 which had slightly less expensive concessions. I definitely do think they could do more to help the price gouging that goes on for hotels, but even then I can understand them raising prices for the weekend. I’d be interested to see how rates compare during the F1 weekend to other popular Austin events like SXSW and City Limits and even the WEC weekend.

    I cannot speak highly enough of my first time in 2013; the track was great, the City put on a hell of a great weekend (6 square blocks downtown for the fan fest!), food everywhere was amazing, good weather too. Needless to say I would be gutted if we lost another USGP especially because I really do think COTA and Austin are good homes for it. It’s just that now the work really begins for the promoters as the shine has worn off a bit, but I do think they are on the right track with bringing in lots of music to support the weekend, especially because of Austin’s rich history in that area. I really think COTA’s bigger problem, as with most tracks, is not the big events but the other 362 days of the year.

  4. (Moonycock: SXSW and ACL – that you mis-called “City Limits,” are shadows of their former selves. I’ve seen SXSW as both a spectator and an artist-participant. It has become grossly over-priced and over-the-top corporate. Lesser-known but talented music acts are no more; in fact SXSW went to far as to ban metal bands from the festival! ACL is much the same.

    Sure, to an outsider, COTA week might be fun – if you can afford it and want to feel like you’re part of the rich and infamous sauntering into a city and making it your personal playground for five to seven days while pretending that it’s a boon to anyone other than its corporate sponsors.)

    ——————————–
    Live in Austin… have not been inside COTA during an event, which is a travesty. Expensive? Hell yeah! Too expensive? Ummmm, I’m not there. Logistical nightmare? Well, it is pretty much always out of the way for people who live in Austin, as everything worth going to in the surrounding area is located north, west, or south-southwest except for that sprawling blight on America called, Houston… unless, of course you’re on your way to the “Hillbilly Riviera,” or, Victoria, Texas; or one of the older BBQ joints in the country (though you can find absolutely awesome BBQ in backyards throughout the city), or one of the biggest McDonald’s playscapes in Texas).

    COTA, for Austinites and people who have lived years for some time has come to represent yet another sign of the death of the city as we once knew it. Now, faux-nostalgia aside – U.S. citizens who yearn for the 1950s – Austin has lost its way due to a gross influx of tech companies, hipsters, and far right-wing politicians (many of whom have purchased houses here in the last dozen or so years) and their real estate-grabbing henchmen who have proceeded to plop down huge condominium complexes any and everywhere in and around the immediate center of the city. Older, well-known even to the outside world establishments are falling by the wayside daily. The city known as, The Music Capital of the World,” has fallen prey to these henchmen to the point where you’d be hard-pressed to find any decent music anywhere on an average weekend; venerable clubs gone while the name brand clubs remain but since they now force local talent to pay to play in their venues, they are next-to worthless… unless you’re ready to plop down $40-$60 on a ticket and $5 for a Lone Star, aka the local cheap beer anywhere else to watch a banal national pop-country act.

    For as long as Austin has been known as a haven for outsiders and out-of-the-box thinkers, it has been hated by the Texas new money (and old money that slithered here to steal oil wells from state locals and then shut them down despite their still being able to produce the “black gold” when it became apparent that they could take oil from the Middle East and pay no taxes on the endeavor). And these —– haters —— have done their level best to rip this city apart and replace it with their version of America: gross displays of consumerism, corporatism just around every corner, replacing beautiful minds at the U. of Texas with tow-the-line, I’ll take your corporate funding and lie about everything from the environment to the common cold-type professors. The city’s housing is among the most expensive in the U.S. and the overall attitude here is palpably sterile.

    Unfortunately for F1, COTA, built on the shallow bedrock of what was country land is all of the aforementioned – expensive, grossly corporate, and sterile.

    And though some people might admonish me for typing out the aforementioned description of the real “now” Austin, think about this concerning Texans, in general: doesn’t anyone find it odd that Texas is known as one of the quintessential American lands, yet it is the one state whose politicians and, therefore the fools who voted them into office, are ready, at the drop of a ten-gallon hat, to secede from the rest of the United States???

    Keep Austin Weird… and add some funkiness to COTA by making it at least feel accessible to the people of the city and state who are the true supporters of motor racing.

    Diatribe over.

    • Thanks for that, very illuminating. I hope you (authentic Austinites) will boot out the goons before I visit!

  5. Long story short I travelled 4,600 miles to a Texas wedding last year and missed out on COTA by under 200 miles. Being forced to watch the (frankly terrible) US race coverage in a corner of a DFW airport hotel bar whilst the machinations of infidelity played out around me was a low point of that trip.

    Last year only offering weekend passes and no options for just practice/race/qualifying was a massive mistake. I see this year they’re at least doing a ‘Sunday only’ option which might help some folk justify the cost of the trip.

  6. I have been at the last 3 US GP and leaving today for my forth. The Hotels in the San Antonio/San Marcos Area are not expensive and San Antonio is less than an hour from the track. The food is excellent and not expensive. Bernie screw the race with Mexico 1 week later

  7. Building COTA they actually had to pay a real wage to the workers,I can’t think of any other recent F1 tracks that would have been done. It would make a big difference in the building price. I would bet if you looked at the jobs with balanced costing the Americans were substantially cheaper. Vlad spent fifty thousand, million dollars on the Olympics, 500 million, on his scale, isn’t much for a race track. I read he spent nearly that on the retreat he built for himself and the Mrs.

  8. In my opinion, the whole COTA business was an impressive undertaking, but it’s been the wrong move for Formula 1 just like it was done in every other corner of the world. Expensively constructed tracks and high yearly appearance fees paid to FOM need to be financed somehow by the local owners, but that doesn’t send the right message and it certainly doesn’t open up new fanbases. Or said in another way: it’s just another short-sighted move by Ecclestone. Then again, the guy is old and doesn’t have many years left so he’ll have to make all the money he can right now 😉

    The cheapest grandstand tickets for an upcoming Nascar race (Talladega on October 25th) cost 55 USD with free entry for all kids 12 and under. In contrast, the cheapest grandstand tickets for the F1 race at COTA cost 184 USD and children are only free at 2 years and under. That’s more than three times as expensive and it’s hardly an incentive for a family weekend either.

  9. I live in Austin and went to the USGP in 2012 and 2013. I noticed a distinct drop in attendance between those years. Yes, the USGP is a costly event but compare that to the other sports in the USA, better yet in the state itself. For less than $200US, you can get a 3 day general admission ticket to the USGP. Compare that to attending a Dallas Cowboys American football game where a general admission ticket start at $125 and rapidly go up depending where you want to sit. That does not include the $20-$40 parking fee around the stadium. I think COTA’s biggest problem was its date on the F1 calendar-first it was mid-November and now late October. The USGP must compete with America’s most popular sports: American NFL and college football seasons in full swing, Major League Baseball playoffs, start of the NBA season. With all that competing for attention, the USGP and F1 in general is relegated to a second tier status. For the Austin locals, the race has been scheduled on the same weekend as a University of Texas football game(regular attendance just over !00k) which puts hotel accommodations at a premium. COTA should change their date to earlier race date.

    • charlie x-
      Dallas Cowboys tickets start at $29 in the standing room section, which is one of the most popular viewing sections in all the NFL, at any stadium. The Cowboys sell what you’ve termed “general admission seats” for $119. The GA seating at COTA are not seats but “hills” which is fine, except for the fact that most people stand with the passing of the cars. And if you arrive any time after the gate initially open you are guaranteed to have a poor view of the race (I do know of people who have attended each F1 race and will be in the grandstand at Practice 1 tomorrow right through the weekend). And this year with the rain that’s expected, how are those hills going to be for spectators?!

      To park anywhere near the track the price is $100 and traffic is mightmarish, so the shuttle buses are the only decent travel option, money-wise. Also, because the track is such a huge expanse it takes real planning to figure out which bus will get you closest to your seats – and even then you face a good walk. However, the slightest misjudgment in calculating where you’re sitting equates to a longer walk than a spectator would take at any NFL stadium (plus miscalculating at a stadium is nearly impossible, thanks the their shape and uniform seating layout.

      On scheduling at this time of year: since you live in Austin, you know we faced 90-degree temperatures here just last week. Scheduling a GP before Texas football season begins late May-August would more often than not mean facing triple-digit temperatures. Now, if you wanted to ensure low attendance, schedule an F1 race during that little more than three month period. Lastly, on scheduling: you’re also talking about having an F1 race in America during the heart of the European schedule – and that’s not going to happen.

      I’d love to have great things to say about COTA – and COTA relative to the city

  10. Hotels such as the Ritz are crazy expensive. That said, there are places to camp for reasonable rates and small towns East of the track with fair rates.

    I went the first two years and had a great experience. Staying away this year because of Merc domination and the lack of sound.

  11. I live in the US and I’d like to go there, but it’s not likely. If I go it’ll be for MotoGP first.

  12. I have been attending F1 races in the states since 1978. Several of us attended Austin in ’12 and ’13. We rented a 7 bedroom home each year. Because of the ticket scandal in ’13, long walks from the bus stop, price gouging on almost everything, lack of the ability to upgrade our tickets, we decided not to return. Indianapolis knew how to treat and respect returning ticket holders. It is sad that CoTA did not learn from Indianapolis. I’m sure that attendance will be down. Next year we will go to Canada.

  13. Some clarifications:

    1) Attending the Mexican GP will be in average far more expensive than attending the US GP, even for a person living in Mexico attending the US or Canadian GP is cheaper than attending the Mexican GP. I believe Mexico could be the most expensive GP in the championship this year.
    2) The tickets for the Mexican GP are NOT sold out, there are tickets still available. Mexico is a corrupted country and the GP didn’t escape from corruption. Tickets were offered in three or four batches, every time most –but not all- tickets were sold directly to re-sellers from organizers, if re-sellers didn’t sell all the tickets in certain time they returned them and a new batch was offered and the process repeated. Tickets are available today, both from Ticketmaster and re-sellers –they offer them in the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez’s Facebook page, as per request of the Autodromo the offers are identified as “I can’t attend the GP…” since the scandal produced by them openly identifying themselves as re-sellers-. Promoters have since the beginning said that tickets are sold out and done many other false statements that corrupt and ignorant Mexican media have repeated to the world.

    I don’t see the Mexican GP as a threat for COTA in the near future. Yes, this year there is the hype of the GP in Mexico but the hype will fall in the next years, add to this the high prices and attendance will fall.
    Another thing that plays against the Mexican GP is that I believe many will be disappointed. As today they haven’t finished the works in the Autodromo, yesterday Charlie walked the facilities and gave green light for the race but the reality is that they are doing a very bad job. E.g. they screwed up with the asphalt:

    • Correction: According to newspaper Excelsior eight days before the race weekend they still don’t have FIA approval… because marshals weren’t ready, they will practice this Sunday to get their license Monday.

      • Huge problems with the Mexican GP: they finally realized they won’t finish all the grandstands, currently refusing to answer questions from people holding tickets for the grandstands that weren’t build.
        If COTA fails in the future it won’t be because of the Mexican GP.

  14. I believe, management will always be the obstacle, that keeps this facility from ever reaching the potential or status, it could. They not only lack in racing experience, they are not even race fans.
    The original mastermind behind this project was full on racing freak.
    Tavo’s plan was very simple.
    Build a world class facility, and make sure everyone that walked through the gate, left feeling like they got a bargain .
    Let’s face it, you only complain about price, if you don’t get your money’s worth.
    That is certainly not the philosophy of Bobby Epstein.
    As someone who was there, through construction, up to the second F1 race, I saw every different direction cota took, after Tavo’s departure. And none of it, screamed, We are in this, to become a world class, long running, race facility.
    The, 450 million dollars price tag, is so laughable. It is just one of the very over inflated numbers, that falls out of Epstein’s mouth. Much like the attendance numbers.
    Bobbys decision to cut building permanent restrooms and concessions buildings so he could build an outdoor music venue, was proof of his dedication to racing and paying fans.
    And, even though they have the music venue, guess where Elton John is NOT playing.
    So, if this is the hope, for F1, in the US, better get use to NASCAR!

    • You nailed IT. The COTA development plan changed after Tavo left the finish out ended up as a more “temporary camp” on race day. The lines to do anything are too long & the food truck venders are overwhelmed. The 2015 fan fest changed locations down town and was scalled back. It looks like in my opinion the “Fan Experience” overall is getting outsourced resembling a cattle call no pun intended since we’re in Texas & cattle Country. Exceed the “Fan Experience” win the race !!!

  15. After leaving my front door step in California in 2014 for Austin I spent $4515 US dollars before I returned home. I don’t want to say we went cheap on the way but tipping shuttle drivers at LAX airport to buying a seat cushion at the track it added up quick.

    I can say the pizza trailer at turn 8-9 was the cheapest way to ingest calories I could find with hardly any line. We sat at turn 3,4,5 and getting to the other side of the track was a 30 minute affair.

    Go eat at just about any bbq joint and you will be impressed. Some places have long lines some don’t. Either way you probably haven’t had bbq the Austin way. Only Kansas City bbq was better IMHO.

    So yeah was it worth it? Yeah it’s worth it. I am actually going through withdrawal symptoms not being there this year.

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