Motorsports Seeks Ways To Grow Base, Focus On Drivers

Nascar team owners and league marketers agreed on several points during the opening panel of the 8th Annual Motorsports Marketing Forum in New York on Tuesday. Among them: motorsports needs to grow its base without alienating core fans, and the teams need to highlight their drivers' personalities and use them to give their teams identities.

"You don't want your team to be the lead brand," said Max Siegel, president of global operations for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. "The drivers have to be. You have to develop the drivers. We are in a uniquely different situation because the Earnhardt name leads us. You have to keep your finger on the pulse of core consumers but embrace those who aren't exposed to the sport."

Jim Obermeyer, managing director, brand and consumer marketing for Nascar, said team marketers must make brandable personalities of their drivers' authentic personas, and exploit story lines--rivalries, clashing personalities, for example--to build audience interest.



"You have to magnify the story lines, you have to develop them as products, don't fake it, but highlight their individuality, and allow more freedom for them to express themselves," he said.

David Higdon, executive vice president/strategic development and communications for Champ Car World Series, said avoiding a bad match between a brand and a driver is also critical. Higdon, former senior vice president of communications at ATP, the governing body of men's professional tennis, said tennis star Andy Roddick's association with French sports apparel company Lacoste is an example of a poor alliance because Roddick's personality is so strongly American. "The key is connecting the driver to the brand that makes the most sense, then magnifying and activating it."

Both Higdon and Steve Lauletta, president of Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR), say motorsports growth opportunities are in diversity markets in North America and through international expansion.

"Drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya [who drives CGR's No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge Charger] are good for us on the global front, and diversity front," said Lauletta. "Dario Franchitti [who drives CGR's No. 40 Dodge Avenger] allows us to go to companies outside the U.S. who want to introduce product here or vice versa because of drivers who are personalities in other countries, who generate interest from consumers."

Obermeyer says that currently about 9% of Nascar's fan base is Hispanic. "There's a huge opportunity in this segment," he said, adding that last year Nascar races were covered for the first time in Spanish by ESPN Deportes. "We are getting our feet underneath us with broadcast partners."

Obermeyer says Nascar is expanding to Mexico City in the spring, while in North America the league is focusing on key markets--specifically Florida, Texas and the Southwest Hispanic markets.

He added that the largest challenge for Nascar--vis-à-vis marketing to Hispanic consumers--is finding a way for disparate teams to work together on a unified marketing plan, so that Nascar marketing transcends team-by-team efforts. "We have had a lot of luck with [Montoya] pulling Sprint Nextel's promotions, with [Montoya] doing Spanish-language commercials, and with Bank of America. We need to continue to convince with a voice in those markets that it's worth the time and effort; the best way to do that is everyone having a single plan rather than a number of different plans that will be a barrier to breaking through."

Siegel said a second challenge is expanding the Nascar fan base without risking core fans. "The new fans and core fans want different things out of the sport," he says. "Casual fans want Nascar to be more mainstream, and would like them to do things that legitimize the sport. The other fans still feel this is the club they signed up with a long time ago, that they would like to preserve."

He added that from a sponsorship perspective, they are seeking more national execution versus purely regional and local. "They provide better fan experience, whether around tracks or through national sweeps. Larger national partners like Sprint Nextel are using technology to help better fans' ability to interact with sport."

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