Mackey Marketing Group Weblog

April 11, 2011

A New Day in Motorsports

by Brian C. Mackey
Mackey Marketing Group, Inc.

Recently, a thoughtful article appeared on the internet that questioned the seemingly counterproductive strategy employed by the ALMS in regards to their television package, particularly the recent 12 Hours of Sebring. The article was taken down by its author once it became unintentionally a viral lightning rod that sparked numerous responses, both pro and con. Therefore, I can’t reference it within this article context.

However, from my perspective, now some twenty-five years on in the motorsport marketing business, one simple element has been missing from many of these similar and parallel discussions. While something is wrong with motorsports, many look for answers from the same well of options. While most can agree that motorsports’ commercial appeal has declined in recent years, the solution that is often mentioned overlooks the root cause.

The simple fact remains is that what once worked in the motorsport marketing business, now doesn’t. Or at least not sufficiently to alter the course of motorsports’ decline. This challenge is not limited to one series, one kind of motorsport, be it Indy Car, ALMS, NHRA or NASCAR, or even Formula One. The problem rests with the sports’ inability to fully grasp that “exposure” is essentially a benefit of the past. Companies that sponsor events, including motorsports and race cars, have moved far beyond the concept that their brand is receiving “top of mind” awareness and building “exposure” as a means to justify the commercial investment in splashing their logo on a sporting event or race car. Where 25 years ago, I could call upon companies and occasionally convince them to place a sticker on an entry in the Indy 500 because “every sports publication, every sports page, every TV sports report, might display a picture or a mention of the commercial affiliation” will no longer carry the same weight in a 21st century marketing environment.

Exposure is not the problem, whether on TV, at the events, or anywhere else. I would contend that media coverage of motor racing, including most specifically television, is quite expansive, particularly compared to 25 years ago. In today’s technology-filled world, exposure is relatively cheap and often far cheaper to attain than the cost of motorsport participation, which obviously, if the commercial model is to succeed, is the amount of money needed for race teams to compete. This gap is essentially today’s sponsorship problem.

To fully understand the issue, I suggest one looks back a few years to the mid to late 1980s, to a time when NASCAR was fully engaged in developing a powerhouse that still carries a remarkable, if not a bit strained in recent seasons, impact and scale of commercial support that seemed unlikely at best, unbelievable at worst, to those who viewed the phenomenon from the outside. “Who would spend millions of dollars to put a logo on the side of a race car?” would be the familiar and uninformed refrain. It wasn’t then, and it most certainly isn’t now, primarily about the amount of publicity a company would receive as a result of painting their corporate colors on what was then a “Winston Cup” car.

The problem is that during those heady days of explosive growth for NASCAR, and everywhere else, is that many of us THOUGHT that exposure was the driving force behind the commercial appeal. We as an industry seemed to rely on it and embraced it. And a lot of sponsorship was sold as a result of it. Rest assured, I’m not suggesting that exposure is not a benefit of sponsoring a race car. What I am saying is that exposure is not the underlying reason for motorsports’ success and growth during that period. Exposure was more simply a by-product of it and a means to measure it, as in the number of people in the racing audience. An audience’s reach does not automatically equate to its ability to interact and influence it.

The real reason for NASCAR’s success was quite simple. It was the fans.

I recall attending a marketing seminar back then where they played a video of a television report that, with some tongue-in-cheek and a chuckle, documented NASCAR fans loyalty to sponsors. The audience snickered at these “good ol’ boys” (and women) who wore sponsor adorned t-shirts and insisted their families purchase “Tide” detergent. But when the lights came up, the seminar presenter reminded the audience that while we may find this level of involvement to be a bit amusing, it was precisely the kind of relationship that we all would want to aspire to achieve if we were to realize similar success for sponsorship and event marketing. In a similar vein, I recall some research from that era, that indicated that some 30% of the television audience that viewed a specific race on TV responded that they purchased a NASCAR sponsored product advertised during that telecast ( and I’ve never forgotten the terminology used), PURELY due to the sponsorship of the race car. PURELY. 30+%. Forget all the other advertising, NASCAR fans bought the product PURELY due to the NASCAR involvement. And that dear readers is why Madison Avenue signed on with gusto.

NASCAR had a unique relationship with its fans that drove the success. The sponsors of these drivers were more than anonymous participants. They weren’t obscure or distant strangers. They were fellow enthusiasts sharing in the success of a favorite driver through interactive marketing campaigns that featured their participation. NASCAR fans weren’t concerned about watching the race on TV, even though they did in increasing numbers, nor did they attend all the races, even as they traveled to more and more of them. But what they did do was essential. They purchased products. It wasn’t the television exposure that did that. It was the people who watched it.

Fast forward 25 years. What can be done today to revive the stagnant if not fading marketing effectiveness of this sport? I contend that the answer does not lie in the past. We can no longer rely on the tools we have used that traditionally “seemed” to be the answer. That means “exposure” is not going to lead the charge. It may provide a sampling of benefit but must reflect just one piece of the pie, not the whole pie. But what will replace it? The answer must be to modernize our thinking to more reflect the times we are in. From that perspective, I applaud ALMS’ effort to forge new paths seeking the answers. While it may be debated whether they missed the mark with electing no “live” television coverage of their flagship event on any traditional broadcast outlet, I do think the basic underlying thinking is precisely spot-on. The mistakes of these initial efforts can be corrected, but the philosophy that initiated them must remain intact. Motorsports needs relevancy to new audiences if it is going to replicate the success achieved by NASCAR or even come close to it. Today, racing’s future is dependent upon our collective utilization of a modern array of marketing and communications tools that will accelerate the sport to new, younger and active audiences. And we must always strive to recreate the interaction between fan and sport that comes tantalizingly close to what NASCAR achieved over the past decades. I don’t believe that “exposure” oriented emphasis will accomplish that. It’s too passive and it’s too old school. Simply broadcasting a signal to more homes, rather than focusing on the relationship between the audience and the sport, is the all important and critical difference. In the future, it may well be too simple to say that network is better than cable, or that internet is too small to be a viable contender. Moving forward, the answer will lie in motorsports’ ability to influence a far greater proportion of a much more highly targeted audience, made as large as possible via a varied and disparate channel of interactive strategies, including television and other traditional motorsport marketing strategies, that results in a significant and measurable response for commercial partners. Fans must respond by interacting with sponsor products. To oversimplify, fans have to buy sponsor product and services, rather than the sponsor’s competitive brands. If the sport can document a strategy that clearly illustrates pathways to higher and higher levels of direct interaction between sport and fan, we’ll find the sport again leading the way in corporate support and activation. For a sport that likes to “push the envelope,” this new challenge is well within our capacity to accomplish. To me, it looks like the recent efforts of the ALMS as well as Indy Car suggest that we are indeed witnessing the beginning of a new day.

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January 14, 2011

In defense of Versus. I’m a reluctant advocate.

Recently, an article appeared in a respected auto racing publication that unfairly, I believe, contended that the IndyCar’s television package was an albatross around the series neck. They indicated that the rating numbers were taking IndyCar in their words, “into oblivion.” I wrote a letter in response.

While you indicate that you are one of Indy Car’s staunchest critics of their television package, I seem on the other hand, to be one of their more reluctant advocates. This is not because I feel particularly oriented to being a cheering section for the Versus television package, but rather I’m one who subscribes to the idea that the television package is not the source of Indy Car’s basic problems. On the contrary, Indy Car seems to be addressing a number of issues of importance and the momentum of positive developments signals a change that brightens the prospects of 2011 and beyond. I believe in many ways, the television package will “fix itself” based upon the popularity of the series and not the other way around. Television won’t fix, can’t fix, IndyCar’s decline in popularity. ONLY IndyCar can do that.
Your recent article is I believe, a bit off track. Here’s why.
First, let me warn you that in one of my earlier lives, I was a salesman of television time for a local ABC television outlet. That is important to know because it gave me a quality understanding of ratings and more importantly, extensive experience in interpreting, some might say, spinning, the rating numbers in ways that served the best interests of the television station. I understood then, better than most, the meaning of television ratings and shares. I can “interpret” with the best of ’em.
Here another way to look at things – and as a former “salesman” of TV time, let me make some contrary observations and spin, I mean, interpret them in a way I would if I was selling Indy Car spot advertising:
– In the all important prime time, Versus is the number 3 sports cable network! Behind ESPN and ESPN2.
– Versus has a HIGHER prime time viewership average than Speed Channel!
– Versus has higher prime time viewership average than Speed, NFL Network, NBA TV, Golf Channel or MLB Network!
– Since 2007, Versus has GROWN nearly 20% in prime time. In that same time period, ESPN2 has actually lost nearly 4% of prime time viewership.
– Versus has grown faster since 2007 than ESPN (18%) or ESPN2 (-4%). Versus has grown 19%!
With numbers like these, how can you say that Versus is taking IndyCar into oblivion! It’s all in the interpretation! Yes, I know, I’ve cherry picked the numbers a bit, but that’s the point. Ratings are very susceptible to “spin” and to negatively “cherry pick” rating numbers is equally misleading. Ratings are very often “spin”, how else could we have so many #1 programs?!
I still believe that Versus is an adequate television broadcaster for IndyCar. More than this, they can be a strong partner who will promote and devote real focus on IndyCar as it reflects a “prime” sports property for the network. IndyCar can receive CONSISTENT attention and have regular and attractive time slots to broadcast the events and support programming. IndyCar needs fans and the fans are the ones who primarily tune into television coverage. Without fans, you will not now or ever achieve the kind of ratings growth needed that would allow IndyCar to grow beyond the relative modest audience size of Versus. Period.

November 10, 2010

MACKEY MARKETING OFFERS AUGMENTED REALITY CAPABILITY THROUGH MARKETING PARTNERSHIP

Mackey Marketing Group announces the addition of the Christopher Paul Group of the UK to its growing and trend-setting marketing affiliations. This U.S. exclusive marketing arrangement offers the ground breaking and revolutionary technology of augmented reality capability to Mackey Marketing’s 21st century approach to motorsport marketing.
“I firmly believe that augmented reality is one of the most exciting new developments to motorsport marketing in many, many years,” offered Brian Mackey, president of Mackey Marketing Group. “It’s a game changer and we’re excited about the potential this new technology can have for motorsport marketers and partners who want to engage the racing fan in new and innovative ways. It will enhance the benefits to levels heretofore unthinkable. As you get your hands around this new technology, the opportunities and applications are virtually endless.”
“We at the Christopher Paul Group would like to add that we are delighted to be working with Mackey Marketing Group as our sole partner in the USA and we look forward to a long and successful business venture,” added Gary Chadwick, managing director of the Christopher Paul Group, Ltd.
Imagine pointing your cell phone at a race car passing by and with augmented reality, a full bio of the car, team, driver or sponsor is displayed on your cell phone; or perhaps it might be where to purchase sponsor products, or the nearest sponsor outlet, or coupon. Augmented reality is a developing technology that enables the user’s device, whether computer or smart phone, to “identify” the object with the device’s camera aimed at a “marker”, which then triggers an interactive and digitally usable enhancement of the “reality” the camera focused on. It opens a level of potential uses that is as varied as the imagination might devise, from the race track to the user’s home computer. Augmented reality is positioned to become as common as the cell phone itself, or the laptop computer.
This new affiliation joins a list of powerful marketing partnerships that makes Mackey Marketing Group one of the leading agencies for advancing the applications and benefits that can be derived from motorsport marketing. Some of the marketing affiliations Mackey Marketing Group has developed include Brand Thunder, leaders in the creation of functional, custom designed web browser themes; RocketBux, a text marketing communications firm that enables race fans to text an opt-in message to receive sponsor offers and benefits directly to their cell phone. These offers might include sponsor coupons that can be downloaded directly to the cell phone and in some cases, saved and then scanned from the phone itself at the sponsor retailer’s point of purchase.
Additionally, Mackey Marketing Group works with the developers of the Venue transformable hospitality unit. This state of the art, fully custom-designed hospitality vehicle offers capabilities for on-site hospitality at race events that features more advanced levels of service and VIP entertainment capability than traditionally utilized.
“Today’s motorsport marketing is at a new level of sophistication,” said Mackey. “We are seeing advanced technologies that introduce new methods for marketers to reach race fans. Motor racing has always been a leader in event marketing strategies and with these new technologies at hand, we rewrite and revitalize the benefits of motorsport marketing in ways I could never have imagined when I started my agency in 1986.”
Companies utilizing motorsports as a marketing function are encouraged to contact Mackey Marketing Group to commence development of a custom designed motorsport marketing strategy that can include these remarkable new technologies as part of their overall motorsport marketing promotion. Mackey Marketing Group is a veteran specialist firm that has been active in the motorsport marketing arena for nearly twenty five years and is headquartered in Marietta, GA, near Atlanta. For more information on the agency as well as its marketing partnerships visit http://www.mackeymarketing.com.

October 21, 2010

Versus vs. something other than Versus

by Brian C. Mackey, Mackey Marketing Group.

I find it interesting that when NASCAR’s current decline in popularity is reported, including the recent announcement of the Daytona 500 Experience closure, it is reported as due to the economy or other element. The television coverage is not often included among the rationale despite a current ratings downdraft. The content of a NASCAR televised event is subject to the debate, but not the television distribution capability itself. The reason is rather obvious; NASCAR has essentially a strong television package foundation. It is particularly strong when compared to other motorsport series. Yet when describing Indy Cars decline, the Versus television package is nearly always mentioned as a major, if not primary reason, for Indy Cars current malaise. As I have often written in various articles including Autoracing1.com, Indy Cars television package is not the primary reason for their predicament. It is merely the symptom of a much larger problem.
Here again is my basic premise. Television coverage does not “create” fans sufficiently economically to warrant spending the necessary funding to broadcast Indy Cars on major network television on a regular basis (see CART), whether the broadcast funding comes from the network or the sanctioning body. If Indy Car were to be broadcast on network television today, it would continue to battle low ratings, albeit larger than can be achieved by Versus alone, but not on par with other sporting alternatives. The fact remains that Indy Cars popularity among race fans has declined. This regrettable situation appears to broaden to include the number of race fans in general, as they also appear to be in a similar downward spiral and the real crisis facing racing series today.
Television “merely” broadcasts events. Like any television programming, it relies on its ability to attract viewers to justify the investment to broadcast. Popular programming is profitable. Unpopular ones are not. The audience must have an interest in watching. Regardless of what network the races are broadcast, no level of technological and sophisticated broadcast wizardry will ever succeed until there is a willing audience of fans to watch it.
That is the reason why I believe the various race series should focus their energies on creating new fans, primarily from the events themselves, in order to carve out a sizable and passionate base of race fans. They in turn will watch the events on television. No fans. No ratings. No future; whether on Versus, Speed, ABC or anywhere else. To paraphrase, it’s the fans stupid.
The Versus television agreement with Indy Car is a realistic and appropriate level of television coverage for Indy Cars current level of popularity. The story line shows it is growing and increasingly gaining viewers. Until it reaches a plateau where regular major commercial television coverage is warranted, it is precisely the kind of programming we should expect and bottom line, support.

Mackey Marketing Website: http://www.mackeymarketing.com

August 31, 2010

The Track We’re On.

It’s been recently announced with some fanfare that a major motor racing sanctioning body is going to commence a new department to focus on new integrated marketing and communications strategies. Wow, that’s nice. Not to take the wind from their sails and with a bit of modesty we’d like to point out that Mackey Marketing Group has been working on developing similar new capabilities for quite some time. Under our banner umbrella of “making racing work”, we understood that racing’s future growth and relevancy is tied to development of new marketing and communications channels that will bring 21st century innovation to a sport that is in need of new thinking and creative input.
Obviously, Mackey Marketing is just a boutique agency and our impact and scale is but a small fraction of what a multi-billion dollar enterprise can and will undertake. But we are already doing what I think others in the industry will soon find are actionable strategies that will lead them to offer similar sorts of solutions in the communication and marketing space. Developments like our marketing partnership with Brand Thunder, developers of functional, custom-designed and branded web browsers, or our affiliation with RocketBux, a mobile texting and virtual coupon solution that puts actionable response capability directly into the hands of race fans in real time and immediate return on a sponsor’s call to action. These are new and creative outlets that race teams and race sponsors can use now to more fully offer modern and effective new ways to keep the fan interested and motivated via the promotional platform of motorsports.
So, in a manner of speaking, we welcome to our quest our fellow racing colleagues. We welcome them to the track we’ve been on for nearly a year. It’s nice to have some company. With more and more entities of the motorsport industry following a similar path to the future, and with perhaps a little input from our creative selves drawn from our noted head start, the collective strength and compounded improvement to the sport of motor racing will result in a thorough revitalization of the sport’s marketing and promotional capabilities. That is a worthy goal.
For now though, it’s great to see you in our rear view mirror!
This kind of innovative thinking is what we are focused on at Mackey Marketing Group. With others joining on a similar quest for innovation, it is further proof that our “making racing work” campaign is precisely the right direction, the proper focus and the best solution for our agency and our clients moving forward.

August 26, 2010

And now a word from our sponsor…..us!

Click on the pdf file below.

second and a half pdf

August 18, 2010

The “great” button caper

Sometimes simple things drive home deeper lessons. Such is the case for the “great” button giveaway at the Mid Ohio Sports Car Course. The track was hosting the Indy Car Series and one of my clients was debuting in the series at this event.
His name is Francesco Dracone from Turin, Italy and unless you are a serious student of open wheel racing, you’ve probably never heard of him. Francesco comes to Indy Cars via the Euro F3000 series, a car of similar speed and power to Indy Cars and, in my humble opinion, a better looking and undeniably, better sounding, race car.
Faced with the prospect that virtually no one in the USA has ever heard of Francesco, I wanted to devise a way to introduce him to the Indy Car crowd. With a modest budget, I use the term “budget” loosely here, I wanted to come up with something that would generate some awareness without costing a bundle. I came up with the idea of producing some buttons with Francesco’s name on them. But to emphasize his Italian nationality, and the fact that Francesco always greets and says goodbye with a cheerful “Ciao”, I added the Ciao word to the button. The “Ciao! Francesco!” button was born.
francesco button
I packed the 1000 (!) buttons into my suitcase and took off for Lexington, Ohio to join Francesco in the experience of his Indy Car debut. It’s always exciting to be part of this kind of event and Francesco was very excited about competing in the Indy Car series driving for Conquest Racing. He had never been to Mid Ohio, never raced in the USA, never competed in Indy Cars and never driven at an event that sported this level of fan support and packed grandstands. It was going to be exciting.
Going to an event often means an assortment of marketing and publicity objectives, and here at Mid-Ohio among these were to be my button duties! So here I am, armed with my 1000 buttons and I arrive to meet with Francesco at the track. Now, to be sure, the button idea was mine and while Francesco was supportive of the idea, I wanted the button giveaway to be successful and not fall on its face from lack of interest. I mean, after all, it’s only a button! I brought with me a sign we had made up, saying “Free! Please Take One!” along with a small container to hold the buttons. So I went about looking for a convenient spot to display the buttons. At first, that wasn’t easy. There were no tables around, and the paddock area at Mid-Ohio is a bit cramped and there is not the usual paddock space normally found at an Indy Car event. With no place to put the buttons, the first inclination that this might not work crossed my mind.
Ever an entrepreneur, I devised a small table, made out of a flat discarded shipping cardboard box and placed it over an unused trash container. Voila! A table. The “table” was placed directly next to the garage that housed Francesco’s Indy Car. Now things were beginning to look a bit brighter. Now, I’m ready. I put out my hastily constructed table, placed the buttons and sign on the table and moved away to see what the reaction was going to be for my buttons.
………waiting…………..waiting……….waiting…………..
Not much. A few people would come up to the table, read the sign, maybe even more than once, and stare at the table of buttons. But many wouldn’t take one! They just looked at them! Some people grabbed one or even two and walked away. I reminded myself that these were just buttons, not something people would necessarily be too excited about! But I had a 1000 of these things! I didn’t want to take them home with me! At this rate, I had a multiple season stock of buttons!
It was getting close to lunch time and the crowd in the paddock area was at its peak. Thousands of fans were strolling through the paddock looking at the Indy Cars. The area was packed with fans. If these things didn’t go now, they would never go.
So, I took a chance.
I grabbed the button box and from the paddock, began to hand them out like a carnival salesman!
“Get your free Francesco Dracone buttons here! Free buttons from Francesco” I said in a reasonably loud and enthusiastic voice. I started to add a bit of “sales” pitch to my efforts. “Free Francesco buttons here. We’re welcoming Francesco Dracone to Indy Cars. This is his first Indy Car race. Welcome Francesco with a free button!”
The change was instantaneous!
I would estimate that 95% of the people who passed by me took a button. Before long, there was a bit of a feeding frenzy for a free button. I couldn’t give them out fast enough! Obviously, kids loved them and parents liked them too! Some people stopped to ask me about Francesco; “Where is he from?” “This is his first race? That’s cool!” The fans were very supportive of the idea of welcoming Francesco. “Where is he?” was a common question. “He’s over there by the car,” I responded. When it was a female who asked me, the response often was, “He’s so cute! I’ll wear his button anytime!”
In the course of about an hour or two, I managed to give away most of the buttons. My voice was beginning to give out and I was getting a bit tired of it, so I stopped. While I had managed to give away most of the buttons, I was relieved to find that many fans didn’t just pack them away. “Ciao! Francesco!” buttons were easy to spot on fans all over the paddock area. The fans wore them on their shirts, their hats, on their backpack, camera bags, everywhere. Fans asked me if they could get Francesco’s autograph and several trips to the Conquest transporter to grab a few of Francesco’s autograph cards were in order.
As I neared the end of my bag of buttons, and as the race itself neared, I returned the button container to my improvised table and left the remaining buttons for the fans to grab on their way through the paddock. When I returned after the race, they were all gone. Every single one of them.
The lesson learned here is really a very old and basic one. When it comes to promotion, you can’t take too passive of an approach to it. I was reminded that I can’t rely on the fans to take the initiative and grab a button. No, that was my job! It was up to me to “promote” the idea of the button and create some excitement surrounding my effort. The fans were eager to respond and enthusiastic in their support but taking the initiative was not part of their role.
If you’re promoting someone, something, some event, just remember my button lesson. You must take the lead and push the idea yourself. If the message is heard, the response from the fans is fantastic. Racing fans are legendary for their support and enthusiasm toward this sport. Sometimes, we just need to hand them, one at a time, a reason to cheer.
Thanks to Francesco and to Conquest Racing for allowing me to hand out the buttons without too much distraction to them from the job at hand.
For the record, Francesco had a great race. His goal for the event was to race as competitively as he could but without getting taken out of the race with on track contact with another car. He raced strongly and continually lapped the track faster as the race wore on. He finished in 22nd spot of 27 starters, one position behind Danica Patrick. Francesco’s 1:10.5 second lap during the middle stage of the race was his fastest lap of the weekend and more than 1.5 seconds faster than his qualifying pace. It was a very successful first race and the first of what we all are working on to be many more Indy Car races in the future.
Thanks for reading.
Ciao!

Francesco Dracone

April 20, 2010

Minting new fans at Barber

by Brian C. Mackey, Mackey Marketing Group, Inc.

A couple of weeks ago, I ventured out into the world and attended an Indy Car race. It was the inaugural Indy Car event at Barber Motorsports Park. Not far from home and I could drive over and return all in the same day. My kind of work. I only went on Friday to make the rounds a bit and to see what the landscape of Indy Car racing is looking like from the vantage point of a spectator.

I came away with one underlying fact. For the growth of the series, remember this simple idea. Events beget fans. TV reinforces them.

For years, I’ve heard many people bemoan the seemingly weak television package for Indy Car. Not much network and far too much cable. People keep rehashing that not many people are watching the races on TV and that is problematic in attracting sponsors, developing more fans and on and on. They blame cable. However, TV is not the solution to Indy Car’s primary problem and it won’t be resolved with the best television package available. I don’t care if all the races are beamed primetime on NBC. Ratings will be weak and won’t get much better no matter how much television coverage is out there. The simple fact is that Indy Car racing has lost much of its fan base. Without fans, no one cares and the audience is not likely to tune into programming that they don’t care about. When was the last time you tuned into ice barrel jumping?

I’m here to tell you; fans are born at the race track and not on the couch watching from home. So my simple plea to Indy Car management is to focus their attention, their resources and their creativity to designing events that fans at the track will get excited about. Not “festival” excitement mind you, but racing excitement.

Allow me to illustrate with a simple recollection of what happened when I went to Barber.

Now, over the past twenty-three years, I have attended a fair number of races. I’m the first to admit that I have become a bit jaded about going to races and that is something I very much regret. I miss the ol’ time excitement of going to a motor race; that gnawing excitement in the pit of your stomach that meant you were about to enter the gates.

But here is what happened at Barber to remind me what “normal” and even more casual fans experience when they go to a motor race. Barber management had spectators park their cars off site at nearby Birmingham Race course, a horse track. With acres of parking available there, they motor coached the fans from the parking area to the race track. I was in one of those buses filled with soon-to-arrive potential fans. They all talked excitedly among themselves about how they had been to a NASCAR race, but had never been to see ‘these Indy Car types.’ They were definitely excited to be going to Barber. These were a wide variety of people, men and women, families with children, all seated in a motor coach for the ten minute ride to the race track. As we approached the track, the excitement became more evident. You know the scene, people stretching their necks, eagerly trying to catch a glimpse of an Indy Car through the window of a motor coach. We happened to arrive at the track during Indy Car practice so that cars were on track when the motor coach drove into the track facility.

A woman was the first to see one. “THERE! Did you see it?” she shouted. She moved her two children to in front of her so that they could get a better glimpse of the track. At that moment, Ryan Hunter-Reay in the IZOD car screamed into view and quickly disappeared behind a row of trees. “WOW! Did you see that?” she exclaimed. The kids eagerly nodded yes with an impatience for the coach driver to quickly park the bus so that we all could get off and find our way trackside. Everyone on the bus was shifting in their seats trying to get just one more look at what they just saw. All that excitement generated by just the quickest of glimpses of an Indy Car at speed on the track. It was a reminder to me of the simple visual power of a thoroughbred race car at full song. It’s a most impressive introduction. When you add in that there is a driver in that car, you create drama that can’t be replicated anywhere else. I’m confident that many of my fellow coach riders seeing those cars for the first time won’t soon forget the image and I’m certain those kids are now first in line for Indy Car’s next generation of fans.

That kind of excitement simply doesn’t happen back at home. No one will jump out of their couches with excitement watching on TV when the race car flashes on-screen. Doesn’t happen. It can only happen by being there and feeling that familiar excitement of getting close to an Indy Car and the drivers who drive them; the sights, the sounds, even the smells of an Indy Car event. I know it well. We all do.

Once a fan, you’re more likely to watch on television. But it’s a completely different reference point. You watch because you want to keep up with the action. Action you first saw at the race track.

I know. There will be exceptions to my rule. There will be those among us who watched on television and became fans. But that is an expensive way to find and create them. The best, most compelling way to find new fans is to get them to the race track. Barber probably minted more new fans than multiple races beamed nation wide to hard to find television viewers. Once you have fans, television viewers will follow. And if Indy Car can create a big enough number of really hard-core fans, they’ll watch your television coverage no matter where it is; on network, on cable or wherever they can find it.

That’s the solution to Indy Car’s first and most pressing problem. One of several problems that Indy Car series is now addressing, everything from new cars to the need for American drivers. But at its core, Indy Car needs to make new fans. Lots of them. From the looks of Barber, and the reaction of the new fans I myself saw minted firsthand, they should take notes and repeat this success as often as possible.

November 24, 2008

“Why the Versus/IRL television agreement is a good move”

I have read numerous negative stories regarding the recent IRL television agreement with Versus cable network. While I am not a stalwart supporter of IRL (I was in the CART camp of supporters), I do believe that the direction and the philosophy regarding this choice to be on target. Without inside knowledge to the “deal”, I can only go on what’s been published. Allow me to share some contrarian input on why I believe the IRL television agreement with Versus is an overall positive.

  1. An underlying aspect that one needs to understand is that event marketing as a whole, and motorsports perhaps in particular, relies on the relationship between fan and sponsor to generate value. Motor racing has an extended enviable track record of doing this. As evidenced primarily by NASCAR, race fans have proven to be exceptionally and reliably brand loyal to sponsor products. Event marketing, including motorsports, sell their value based on this relationship and not solely on the size of the audience reached. The reason why this form of more intimate marketing rather than the more “traditional” mass marketing of the past is growing, is the relationship that is developed between sponsor and consumer. It’s why a sponsor sponsors a race car, why they sponsor concerts, festivals and just about anything where people gather for a particular interest.  Sponsors want to show this targeted audience that they share their particular passion and hope and believe this interactive relationship will result in greater product sales. It’s not primarily about “exposure,” it’s about relationships. There is no other leading reason for doing it.
  2. The other element that one needs to understand is that television exposure does not primarily beget fans, events do. I keep hearing about “exposure” generating fans and the need to get a racing series on television. While it may do so to some degree, the vast and more efficient means of generating fans is to get people to the races. Television numbers follow the trend of a series ability to attract fans. NASCAR? It has fans. Subsequently, a stronger television package because networks, sponsors and series all understand that fans (aka television audience) will watch – and buy sponsor product. Several years ago, I read a report that indicated that 30% of the television viewers (aka fans) who watched a NASCAR event on TV reported that they purchased a particular sponsor product, PURELY due to the motor racing sponsorship. That’s a heady number and mind-boggling influence over consumers. No wonder sponsors have gravitated to this form of motorsport success. If NASCAR is now losing viewers on television, it isn’t due to less “exposure” of the sport; it is due to NASCAR losing fans. If one understands that “viewers” of racing events on television are primarily “fans” and vice versa, then the ratings numbers generated and the corollary impact on sponsor influence begins to emerge clearly.
  3. That brings us to Versus. IRL did not choose to “buy” their way onto commercial network television, in my estimation, properly so. It would have cost millions to generate a modest television rating number because the IRL does not have sufficient FANS to instantly produce big numbers! And buying television time will not generate them economically enough to impact rating numbers. See CART.
  4. Some have suggested that IRL is losing sponsor interest due to the weak television deal and not the economy. I doubt this is true. I do believe the economy may be driving away prospective sponsors with or without Versus. It’s a difficult environment out there. However, my contrarian viewpoint is that motorsport marketing (and the event marketing industry as a whole) may be able to gain advantage among sponsor companies due to the increased value placed on the influential manner in which these audiences are reached. In today’s environment, advertisers may not desire to continue to throw enormous numbers of advertising dollars at a passive mass audience. They want response and event marketing is the place to find it. It does bode well for motor racing if sold from the proper perspective. But right now it is difficult time to find willing sponsors.
  5. I think we all can agree that the IRL is in a regrouping phase after the prolonged and difficult split. I believe the IRL must focus their energies on building event strengths and then take those strengths to further their television coverage. They already have built-in strength in the Indy 500, a pivotal starting point. I think we can agree that the primary force that race events have to attract people to races are the drivers. Rather than spending millions on weak network television numbers, it is better to spend money on generating interest in events. NASCAR has demonstrated this and built their series around generating driver stars. IRL also seems to understand that drivers drive fans to the races. Like her or not, they have Danica Patrick. They also have a growing list of marketable and popular names to build their fan base, including the important aspect of American drivers. While the whole grid should reflect an international element to build a scale of importance, the grid should have a measurable American presence. Names like Andretti, Rahal and others bode well for the IRL.
  6. Finally, the advantage of Versus. We all understand that the rating numbers generated by the Versus television network is likely to be smaller than one generated by a commercial network coverage. But if you’ve been listening, you know that size of the audience is not the only measurable element. The number of “fans” watching the coverage is also an important factor. Fans will search and find the television coverage whereas passive television viewers won’t. If the audience grows to significant numbers by Versus scale, then the IRL will be successful in generating new and loyal fans. Fans who purchase sponsor products. And sponsor product sales are what keep sponsors happy. It is just as important to demonstrate to perspective sponsors the growth of a fan base rather than relying on comparably weak network rating number from a passive audience of viewers.
  7. From the Versus perspective, IRL is a plum. It enables Versus to feature IRL and drive the IRL fans to watch the events on their network. By becoming a lead featured program of Versus, the IRL gains a marketing partner in helping to build fans and not just a broadcast outlet.

All in all, I feel that the Versus television deal is a good one. It has all the elements needed, promotes growth, enables greater focus on the IRL through features, expanded coverage and higher network priority. And the millions off dollars saved can be diverted to greater purpose.

All of us who view open wheel with high regard can help by supporting this growth period and redevelopment of the brand. The Versus TV deal may only be a first critical step, but I am confidant a step in the right direction.


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