(Bloomberg) -- Las Vegas’ first Grand Prix in four decades was supposed to be the latest big sports win for Sin City. But in the days and weeks leading up to Thursday’s start of racing, ticket prices and hotel room rates have been tumbling, a sign of dwindling excitement around the event.
Liberty Media Corp., the owner of F1, has started to lower profit expectations for the race, blaming unexpected costs.
The falling prices raise questions about whether the race’s backers over-estimated the sport’s popularity in the US, expanded too quickly or just charged too much at a time when overall viewership for F1 on TV is sliding.
“In Vegas, it’s the corporate hospitality, the $5 million packages — you’re not really seeing a lot of the regular fan engagement,” said Vincenzo Landino, a digital media producer who writes the Qualifier, a newsletter about F1.
The cheapest tickets for Thursday night racing are now selling for $119, according to reseller TickPick, and Friday’s are $259 — both less than half what they were a month ago. Saturday’s main event will set fans back $807, down from $1,645.
“When this event was first announced it had Super Bowl level expectations in terms of demand,” Brett Goldberg, co-chief executive officer of TickPick LLC, wrote in an email. “But it seems as though the concept of a race on the Strip was more appealing than the actual event. ”
The drop can be blamed in part on scalpers who stocked up on seats when they first went on sale. Now, with less demand than expected, they’re having to accept lower prices. But a race in Miami this year also didn’t sell out as quickly as in the past.
“We will be sold out by the time of the event,” Renee Wilm, chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Grand Prix, said on a Nov. 3 earnings call. As of Tuesday night seats were still available.
Meanwhile, hotel operators like Wynn Resorts Ltd. that were deliberately holding back rooms — expecting to offer them to high rollers — are now making them available to anyone with a credit card. High-end resorts like the Venetian Las Vegas have rooms for around $700 a night, not that much more than other popular weekends.
F1’s 10-year contract to host a race in Las Vegas is the latest prize for the tourist-driven city quickly becoming a global capital of sports and sports betting. In recent years it has welcomed professional hockey and football teams, and baseball’s Oakland A’s plan to relocate as well. In February, the city will host the National Football League’s Super Bowl, a first for Nevada.
F1 can still make plenty of money beyond ticket sales, thanks to sponsorships and corporate hospitality. A spokesperson for the company said the Las Vegas race is tracking to generate more revenue than any Grand Prix in history.
Other factors may be at play besides exuberance in Vegas. The US TV audience for F1 races, although much higher than a few years ago, is down about 8% from last year, according to ESPN. Global viewership of Drive to Survive, the Netflix docuseries that catalyzed the sport’s growth in recent years, has also slipped 7% from a year ago, based on the company’s published data.
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On paper, Liberty has done everything right. In 2020, it hired Stefano Domenicali, the genial former head of Lamborghini, to run operations. It loosened restrictive TV deals so racing clips could be shared on digital platforms like YouTube. It launched a subscription streaming app and fantasy sports service. It licensed data to betting platforms.
Bolstered by the soapy Drive to Survive series and the multidimensional allure of superstars like Lewis Hamilton, a charismatic Brit who drives for Mercedes, F1 broadened its appeal to new markets, including the US.
Liberty acquired F1 in 2016 in a deal valued at $4.4 billion. Sales and net income have both climbed about 40% since then.
The company had a promising precedent before it poured $240 million into buying the land that would become the pit and paddock for the Vegas race. Texas’ Austin Grand Prix was a success from the start in 2012, with drivers raving about its dedicated track (versus the street tracks temporarily created in cities like Vegas) and ticketholders happy about its affordability and accessibility for “real” racing fans.
“Austin just continues to be the one race where [fans] know that they’re going to have a good experience,” said Nicole Sievers, one-half of the duo that produces the Two Girls 1 Formula podcast. “They’ll be seeing good racing and it won’t cost them a kidney.”
Miami was a hit, too, at least when it started. After Austin’s 2021 race drew a record 400,000 fans, almost 70% of them first-timers, Miami’s three-day suite and grandstand presales sold out within 24 hours. The cheapest ticket cost more than $600. Top seats fetched $32,000 on secondary markets in 2022.
But some racing stalwarts complained it was geared toward corporations instead of fans and balked at the ticket prices. Tickets for this year’s race in Miami started at $880 and ran as high as $5,000. They were still available days before the event.
Many of the people looking for a fun weekend at an F1 race also had a new alternative: Vegas. Famous for knowing how to party, the city has been gearing up for this extravaganza for months, putting race cars in the lobbies of hotels and advertising $1 million experience packages, and caviar-fueled dinners curated by Jean-Georges and Mario Carbone.
On the conference call earlier this month, Liberty Chief Executive Officer Greg Maffei flagged startup costs for the Vegas race, including extra security, design of an app, traffic planning and an opening ceremony that he said won’t be repeated.
“There were other ones like consultants that help us set it up, permitting costs that were unusual and the like,” Maffei said. “There are a bunch of initial costs that are probably higher than we had originally estimated.”
A big reason for the lower ratings and softer ticket sales may be the circuit’s lack of suspense. After winning a record 15 races in 2022, Max Verstappen, the Red Bull racing team’s blue-eyed star, returned to win 17 of 20 races so far this season. He’s already clinched this year’s championship title, and Red Bull the manufacturer’s title.
In the past, fans flocked to the sport to see upstarts like McLaren and Red Bull challenge Mercedes. But now that Red Bull is dominant, the drama has decreased.
And while Vegas is awash in cash and myriad diversions, it lacks the longstanding glamor of the race in Monaco, and the deep sporting history of the races in, say, Silverstone, England, and Montreal.
“The bar is already so high,” said Landino, the F1 writer. “What’s it gonna be in five years? Are people going to want to go to that event year in and year out?”
(Updates with ticket executive’s comments in sixth paragraph.)
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