The most-attended sporting events in the country? Races, baby

This weekend will see the latest running of the Indianapolis 500, a singular moment in our sporting year. And while the race doesn’t have the reach or influence it’s had in past decades, it’s nonetheless the best-attended sporting event in America, year after year. For that alone, the Indy 500 deserves our undying respect.

But if Indy’s first, who’s next? And where do our favorite other sports stack up, attendance-wise, against the Indianapolis 500? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Now, counting attendance at mammoth events like the Indianapolis 500 is a study in guesswork. The track itself estimated that there were about 250,000 seats at the track, but nobody has any idea how many people could fit into the infield. The same is true at Daytona International Speedway and Churchill Downs. Everybody piles in, and the tracks focus on keeping everybody safe rather than counting heads. 

Thus, in some cases, we’re looking at average attendance, and in others, where certain sports were drawing far above their usual ceiling, we’re looking at specific gate counts. So let’s begin. 

1. Indianapolis 500, 300,000. In 2004, the Indianapolis Star finally undertook a monstrous effort to count exactly how many seats are at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (I’m betting they used interns.) Their count? 257,325. And while hundreds of thousands of people could fit into the infield, observation by trained analysts has indicated that far fewer than that actually did. So we’re looking at about 300,000 people in attendance at every 500. 

2. Brickyard 400, 300,000. Sort of a cheat, because like the Indy 500, this NASCAR race is held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. All of the above stats apply, of course.

3. Daytona 500, 250,000. NASCAR attendance figures are notably slippery. The tracks themselves don’t release figures, so attendance estimation is often left to a media member who stands in the press box, surveys the stands, and estimates attendance at "about X." Now, that guess could be right on the money, or it could be off by 50,000. Still, combining the grandstands and the infield at Daytona gets you a figure of about a quarter-million. And only five of them aren’t Dale Earnhardt fans.

4. Texas Motor Speedway races, 171,000. Everything’s bigger in Texas, especially attendance figures, and Texas’s two NASCAR races draw about 171,000 fans apiece. And this won’t be the last time Texas shows up on this list.

5. Kentucky Derby, 165,000. As with the NASCAR races, it’s difficult to estimate exactly how many people pile into the infield at Churchill Downs. Though the number who remain sober through the entire Derby afternoon remains pegged at a steady 0.

6. Bristol races, 160,000. This past spring marked the first time a Bristol race hadn’t sold out in decades. Prior to that, hundreds of thousands of race fans descended on this tiny hamlet in the Tennessee hills, created the largest city for a hundred miles in any direction, and then vanished as quick as they arrived.

7. Baseball, 115,300. This figure’s a bit of a stretch, since the average baseball game is in the 30,000 range. But in 2008, the Dodgers and the Red Sox held an exhibition game in the L.A. Coliseum, and the result was the most widely attended game in baseball history.

8. Michigan football, 112,000. The universities of Michigan and Tennessee leapfrog one another in attendance, adding on bleachers atop bleachers in some bizarre arms race. The Wolverines currently hold the edge, but it won’t be long until the Volunteers step up.

9. Tennessee football, 109,000. Tennesee set an attendance record in 2004 against — who else? — Florida. (Side note: in 2005, a promoter tried to schedule a Virginia Tech-Tennessee game in Bristol, which would have broken all team sport records for attendance. Tech was willing, but Tennessee was not.)

10. NFL, 105,121. The most recent record on this list, set by the Dallas Cowboys when opening their new stadium in a game against the Giants last fall. Sure, tens of thousands watched from a standing-room plaza, and many others couldn’t even see the field, but so what?

Other notes: the best-attended NBA game came in, of all cities, Atlanta, where 62,046 fans showed up at the Georgia Dome to watch the Hawks play the Chicago Bulls in what was supposed to be Michael Jordan’s farewell appearance. And the NHL’s best-attended game was the 2008 Winter Classic, where 71,217 fans watched Buffalo and Pittsburgh at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. The top-ranked NCAA basketball game was this past year’s NCAA championship, where 70,925 fans watched Duke defeat Butler in Indianapolis.

This weekend, the Indy 500 will draw another quarter-million people to a single location. And once again, every fan will unite in one common dream, one common prayer: that they won’t sit in traffic until Tuesday.

The most-attended sporting events in the country? Races, baby

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