If you tuned into the NASCAR race at Dover International Speedway on Sunday, there’s a good chance that what caught your attention weren’t the cars on the track as much as the fans in the stands — or, more to the point, the lack of fans in the stands.
This has been going on for quite a while now, but it was never more evident on Sunday during the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks, when an estimated 85,000 fans showed up at the 135,000-seat track to watch Jimmy Johnson win another race here. Any time television showed a long-distance shot you couldn’t help but notice row after row of empty seats, and that’s not even counting the entire sections they now drape over with advertising banners so things don’t look so bare and barren – sections that were added in 2001 when NASCAR was the hottest ticket around.
NASCAR’s fan interest and support have cooled off considerably since then and there are several reasons for that, but that’s a story for another day. The issue here is how the drop-off at Dover is just the latest thing to chip away at the Delaware sports scene and the money and attention the state receives from it.
It wasn’t that long ago that Delaware had its own, little (of course) empire when it came to sporting events. It was mostly minor league, befitting at state like ours. When it comes to major league sports, Delawareans have always had to adopt another city’s heroes, but we had our own little niche there for a while and it was a lot of fun, not to mention profitable.
The NASCAR races at Dover have always been the biggest attraction, annually drawing hundreds of thousands of people who add millions of dollars to the local economy and giving the area exposure to visitors and viewers alike. But now even that is dwindling.
The next biggest event was the McDonald’s LPGA Championship, held annually at the DuPont Country Club. It was a big-time event (we can debate later whether the LPGA is really “big time’’) that also brought national television cameras to Delaware and it was an event of which, more than any other, Delawareans took possession. They attended by the thousands and volunteered by the hundreds and many even played hosts to the LPGA players and formed life-long relationships with them. But despite all that love, the LPGA tournament was torn away from us and taken down I-95 to Maryland, where it flopped big time and now the event is held in Rochester, N.Y., and isn’t even a major anymore.
Then there was the Tour DuPont, which began as the Tour de Trump. From 1989-96 many of the top international cyclists came to Wilmington – including the best in the world at the time, Greg LeMond, and an up-and-coming kid named Lance Armstrong — to race their bikes through the city and down the state. And since it was sponsored by the DuPont Co., it really was ours. It flourished here for many years and generated much revenue for the local economy, until, suddenly, it didn’t – DuPont dropped its sponsorship and the event disappeared like a, well, if you’ve seen “The Shawshank Redemption’’ you know what it disappeared like.
And let’s not forget World Team Tennis, which brought current superstars like Venus Williams and past superstars like John McEnroe to a parking lot-turned-stadium at DuPont Country Club. The Delaware Smash tried mightily to make it work here, but that, too, eventually faded away.
Somebody even tried to resuscitate the Blue Bombers, the semi-pro basketball team that was very popular in the 1960s when they played in the Eastern Basketball League and played their games at Salesianum School. The 21st century version never really got off the ground before it also died.
The one constant has been the Blue Rocks, which has remained a successful and vibrant franchise. But even they don’t generate the interest they did when they first returned to Wilmington and it seemed as if they were winning Carolina League championships every year. The novelty wore off a long time ago and you don’t see as many Blue Rocks caps around the state as you used to.
But at least it doesn’t appear the Blue Rocks are going anywhere. These days, that is a victory in itself.
Contact Kevin Noonan at email@example.com.