Where Are The Big-Name Sponsors?

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Take a look at the starting grid for a typical CART race in 1993. Twenty years ago, you found many household names as the primary sponsors on the sidepods of most of the cars in the series. Names like Budweiser, Miller Genuine Draft and Molson made up the beer contingent. Automotive products were represented by Valvoline, Texaco Havoline and Pennzoil. Household consumers could relate to Target, K-Mart, Duracell and Panasonic being vividly displayed. Then there were the tobacco sponsors that are no longer allowed to participate.

Fast forward twenty years later. The only remaining primary sponsor is Target. Granted, there are some other household names gracing the sidepods of entries in this year’s IndyCar Series. Verizon comes to mind, along with HP, RC Cola, Midas, Sun Drop and DHL. Those sponsors, along with Target, are the only names that everyday fans are likely to recognize that are primary sponsors for every single race. Then there is the National Guard and the Boy Scouts of America, who have come to the series. Twenty years ago, the military or organizations like the Boy Scouts did not advertise in motorsports.

Go-Daddy is considered a big-time sponsor today, but I’ll wager a bet that a lot of the viewing public don’t really know what they do other than air racy TV commercials.

Through PDVSA and the Venezuelan government, which is not exactly popular in the US – EJ Viso carries Citgo on the cowling of his DW12, the area reserved for high paying associate sponsors. Shell/Pennzoil has been on the car of Helio Castroneves just once this season. I am assuming they will be on his car for the street race in Houston since they are the title sponsor of the race, but that is only an assumption. Aside from that and Lucas Oil being on the sidepods of Tristan Vautier at this year’s Indianapolis 500 and a few spot appearances by Sunoco; the automotive industry has been noticeably absent from sponsorship in the series this year. That is, unless you count a handful of races that saw Ana Beatriz carry sponsorship from Ipiranga – but who in the US, outside of die-hard IndyCar fans, has heard of them?

Fuzzy’s Ultra-Premium Vodka gives Ed Carpenter full-time sponsorship and they had a huge presence at Indianapolis this past May; but you would be hard-pressed to find liquor store owners in Nashville that have even heard of Fuzzy’s, much less carry it. Maybe that just speaks to my backwoods area. I haven’t done any scientific sampling anywhere, nor have I even casually looked for it outside of Indianapolis and Nashville. Still, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a household name.

Nowadays, it seems that teams have to resort to giving big-time sponsors only a handful of rotating sponsorships. IZOD was on AJ Allmendinger’s car for two races, while Quicken Loans was the sponsor for two others. Helio Castroneves, arguably one of the most recognizable names in the series, has already carried sponsorship from Hitachi, Shell/Pennzoil, Itaipava beer, AAA and PPG Automotive Finishes. Other teams have scrambled to find sponsorship from obscure products like Unistraw Electric Energy Straws, CyclopsGear.com and Barracuda Networks, who after being a full-time sponsor in the series, I’m still not sure what they do, but I’ll guess it’s something in the IT realm.

Maybe I live under a rock, but I had never heard of the winning sponsor for this year’s Indianapolis 500 – Hydroxycut. I could look it up, but I still don’t really know what they do. I think it may be a vitamin supplement or a weight loss pill, but I’m not really too sure. Regardless, you can be certain that after May 27th, a lot more people were aware of Hydroxycut than before.

You can say the same about Unistraw and CyclopsGear. Carlos Muñoz ran up front all day in this year’s Indianapolis 500 and could have easily won. Instead, he finished second. During qualifying weekend, Susan Googled Unistraw Electric Energy Straws from her phone and learned about the product. Then, they were smartly giving away samples in the garage area. Neither of us are into energy drinks, but it was a unique concept.

Pippa Mann was sporting CyclopsGear sunglasses in the garage area also. It is a unique concept for recording video from your point of view with a tiny camera lens located between the two sunglass lenses. Susan remarked it would be good to wear at work in reading glasses in case you wanted to do some spy work. The CEO of CyclopsGear was quoted as saying their orders quadrupled in the month of May. That could also be attributed to Pippa being so savvy on how to use social media.

The question is, would big-name sponsors help the TV ratings or do the TV ratings have to rise before the recognizable names will come back? Unfortunately, the answer to the question is the latter. Start-up companies can win big by hitching their star to a Pippa Mann or a Carlos Muñoz. But companies can also be bitten when a known company like Office Depot takes the plunge and Michel Jordain, Jr. fails to make the race while carrying their logo on his sidepods.

It seems that CART/Champ Car/IndyCar has always had more business-to-business type sponsorship than NASCAR. Most of us have no idea what Mi-Jack does, but before I saw their name on IndyCar sidepods off and on for the past twenty years, I would have had never heard of the large industrial crane company. The same goes for ABC Supply Company, which has been a loyal primary sponsor for AJ Foyt Enterprises for the past ten years. It’s good that teams can rely on the B2B sponsors, but I’d really like to see the return of Budweiser, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and Valvoline – companies that have all served as primary sponsors in the past.

When I tune into some lesser known form of racing, I look at the sponsors. If I see major brands that I easily recognize, it lends credibility to the series. It tells me that even if I’m not familiar with a certain form of racing, obviously these mega-companies see this series as a viable entity worth advertising through. If fans tune into an IndyCar race, they do see Target and RC Cola, but they also see a plethora of companies they’ve never heard of and/or can’t even pronounce.

The problem is, no company like Miller Beer or Coca-Cola is going to invest in the series while the ratings are so poor. I’ve seen varying figures for the ratings at the most recent IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio. Generous figures say that the broadcast on NBCSN garnered a 0.1, while others suggest it was closer to a 0.08. Perhaps many reports round up. Whatever the case, those figures are never going to get even a sniff from the everyday brands you see in NASCAR.

Now don’t think for a minute that I’m complaining about those sponsors that have chosen to advertise their products or company through the IndyCar Series. On the contrary, I am quite grateful for them. There would not be a series without them. In fact, whenever possible – I go out of my way to support those companies that support IndyCar. I drive a Honda every day to work. I now drink Sun Drop instead of Mountain Dew. I will buy Shell gas or Citgo above any others. I can’t count how many IZOD products are now in my closet. I shop at Target probably more than any other store and this very site is hosted by Go-Daddy. I am not alone in my quest to support IndyCar sponsors. I just wish that potential sponsors knew just how loyal IndyCar fans are. For a complete list of IndyCar sponsors for 2013, our friend Megan Bickel has put together a site devoted strictly to sponsors of IndyCar.

Does the presence of everyday brands translate to success? Some that I talk to don’t believe that it does, but I do. To have a Pepsi, Taco Bell or Domino’s Pizza on a car doesn’t mean any more people will watch, but it gives a better overall image to have those companies represented instead of some of the more obscure names we’ve seen on sidepods over the years like Sammy (2004), TrimSpa (2003), Tae-Bo (1999 & 2000) and Rachel’s Potato Chips (1998).

As the old saying goes, perception is reality. Obscure sponsors must mean an obscure series, so why should I watch if no one else does? I think that teams and the series would be wise to focus on doing whatever it takes to make the series attractive to these type sponsors. How do they do that? Well…that’s the real problem.

George Phillips

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19 Responses to “Where Are The Big-Name Sponsors?”

  1. All of which may provoke the question of where is an Indy Car series sponsor for 2014?

  2. Can’t remember where I read it, but about 2 years back someone wrote a piece about the split and its effect on sponsorship, comparing Ncar & Indycar. One of the things they pointed out was that both had a heavy reliance on Tobacco companies in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. But when Tobacco advertising/sponsorship was banned, Indycar did not prepare themselves as well for the transformation. Regardless, sponsors want eyeballs. No secret there. If you think Indycar sponsors are a mystery, watch a sports car race.

  3. Megan K. Bickel Says:

    Great observations, George. And thanks for the shout out for my sponsor site (I like to call it the yellow pages of IndyCar sponsors).

    One thing I’ve noticed putting together my site is that teams don’t always do a great job of promoting their sponsors. Blame it on the frequency with which they change or laziness for website upkeep, but I often have trouble finding accurate up-to-date sponsor info. I almost wish I could get contacts t the teams to update me and I’d get it up on my site at least.

    I actually had one sponsor contact me to put their info up this year, which I did happily. But when I went to that team’s website (one of the biggies, I might add), this sponsor wasn’t listed!

    I think IndyCar teams, in general, have a long way to go to make sponsorship a two-way street.

    • Could the problem be too much handled by the teams and not enough by the league? Seems like the league should be all over stuff like this.

  4. It should be a two way street. For example, when I go into a Target store, why don’t I see a life size cardboard cutout of Scott Dixon, IndyCar champ? Or, if I go to Target.com?

    On a Verizon ad, other than during a race, why not use Will Power, or at least refer to him, or a phot of him sitting in his car? Same with ABC, long time sponsor of AJ Foyt. I go by an ABC store every day. Why no mention of them being a sponsor of AJ, perhaps the best driver of all time. Show a picture of Sato’s Indycar. I’m sure there are people who have never heard of Indycar who might want to watch if they even knew it existed.

    These things might draw some interest.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I don’t know about in-store displays, but ABC Supply does maintain an Indycar racing-specific website that they prominently link on their home page.

      Target’s use of their racing sponsorship is pretty sparing, though. That they don’t promote it via their website is very puzzling.
      On occaision, you will see Franchitti, Dixon, or Montoya’s cars on shelf-talkers and on the in-store channel that loops on the displayed televisions. They were also one of only two national retailers (along with Toys ‘R Us) to sell the Hot Wheels Indycar diecasts that came out back in 2009-2010.

  5. It’s all about audience size, especially with consumer goods. Imagine you’re a Chief Marketing Officer and you have to explain to your CEO (& shareholders) why putting $3 million into a series that attracts 200k on TV and another 35k at the track is a great plan compared to allllll the other options for that $3 million marketing investment. You’d be canned before you got to your last powerpoint slide.

  6. Sponsors will come with higher ratings. The simple way to get higher ratings is…uh…um…well, uh…

    Anyway. Here’s how not to improve ratings: have one race every two months.

  7. The Lapper Says:

    The ICS should have a willing television partner who wants to grow the series. IMO, the IndyCar Series is a great product and could attract more fans if it were shown on a single broadcast partner that worked with the series management. Eddie Gossage thinks so much of the series that he helped with buying airtime to promote it. Maybe that is something to finally cansider.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    I actually think the series is doing much better gathering recognizable sponsors compared to a few years back, though there’s certainly a long, long ways to go to match the 80s and 90s.

    I recall walking through the paddock at the Champcar race in Houston in 2007 and noting how few sponsors I recognized despite following the sport so closely. It was fairly sad.
    Even the first reunified series race in 2008 saw such names as Cirrus Aircraft, Ares, Sangari, Plantronics, and Formula Dream on the sidepods of cars.

    This isn’t just an Indycar problem, though. Traditional racing sponsors are as scarce as they’ve been in some time across all of motorsports. The beer companies have fled the NHRA, have not title-sponsored a race in any series in years, and only one NASCAR Cup car carries full-time sponsorship from a brewer. Similarly, only a single Cup car carries full time sponsorship from a motor oil and only a handful of cars carry regular sponsorship from any automotive product/store. It’s a challenge for all of racing these days.

  9. Great post, something I was thinking about recently. The lack of blue chip consumer product companies is alarming, especially when you compare it to other forms of racing. Some companies, like GoDaddy and Target, participate in multiple series, but aside from a select few, corporate America stays away. Overall, the IndyCar Series fails to interest banks, telcoms (save Verizon), and tech companies (who have huge sums of money). Apple, Microsoft, Oracle – all absent. As are eBay, Amazon, and other hardware companies (Samsung etc).

  10. Count me in with Pressdog. In the course of my business career, I worked for a time with Phillips-VanHeusen, the parent of IZOD. PVH not only covers the Van Heusen name along with IZOD, but also Geoffrey Beene and G. H. Bass, makers of the once-famous “Weejuns.” I can safely assume that IZOD came aboard looking for a younger demographic for IndyCar than what they found. Either they were going to have to “bring” that demographic to the table or they were expecting it to be there.

    I grant you that in the first year of the series sponsorship, IZOD essentially ran ONE commercial, all year long. It got to the point where even I was muting the damned TV every time that ad came on. In all fairness, however, IZOD (PVH) was expecting a LOT more “bang for their buck.” Because there has been a shakeup at the top of PVH since the series sponsorship happened, I suspect that a few marketing guys got canned even BEFORE they started their Power Point proposing to remain involved with IndyCar.

    While IndyCar may have fans spread out all over the demographic spectrum, there is just not the impact in any key group to continue such a relationship. Consequently, the ideal series sponsor has to have a product which reaches all across the demo spectrum. I don’t know if Bridgestone/Firestone provides tires for any other domestic racing series, and maybe after the Indy Lights fiasco they might not be interested, but I’ve thought that Firestone might be your potential series sponsor. They spend a lot of their technology keeping our favorite little rocket sleds underneath their respective pilots, and their product spans all age groups and income levels.

    As I often say…”Just a Thought…”

  11. It’s a combo of two things, bring UP the ratings and bring DOWN the cost. Once those two get to a certain point, then it will be easier to get sponsorship money.

    I also think some of it has to do with WHERE IndyCar races. The cost to sponsor a team is about the same whether the race is in Iowa or Phoenix. While I enjoy the Iowa race, I completely understand why sponsors would rather see the cars in Phoenix than Iowa.

  12. For at least the last ten years cable and dish providers have been losing customers at a steady rate. I am one of those. I became fed up with the ever increasing cost for access to shows I had little interest in and opted out. I have never regretted that. I take the money I have saved and use it to go to races. Much that appears in real time on cable, including IndyCar, is available a day or a few days later on internet sources such as Hulu, YouTube, etc. and the cost is minimal. Of course, programs on those internet sources include advertising with the shows and many of those advertisers are large companies like Ford and GM. If I cannot be at a race, I prefer to watch it when it is convenient for me to do so. Those of you that have cable often DVR a race when you cannot attend, and that also has potential advertisers worried.

    I believe that at this point in time companies of all sizes are conflicted and unsure of exactly where to put their advertising dollars, so they are spreading it out. I believe that cable and dish will continue to lose customers unless somehow internet sources become unavailable or very expensive and that is unlikely IMO.

    I am personally much more interested in how IndyCar can attract more advertising dollars for the promoters of their race events and how they can make those events more affordable to those promoters and prospective promoters. As Joel suggested above, somehow IndyCar needs to bring down the fee that they charge prospective promoters. TV ratings are not going to matter much if IndyCar continues to have such a short season with 2-3 week gaps between races. I think IndyCar needs to take a long look at their business model and adjust it to suit today’s economics. An Andretti Autosports spokesman recently told the Milwaukee Journal racing writer Dave Kallman that the lack of a event sponsor and an increased IndyCar fee is making it difficult for them to confirm a Milwaukee Mile race for 2014. Why would IndyCar think that increasing their fee for a 2014 Milwaukee Mile race is a good idea. Continuity is needed at such tracks to rebuild the customer base and to attract sponsors.

    The sports car races at Road America over the weekend attracted about 100,000 fans and was also on ABC. IndyCar needs to be at Road America and would also attract a good crowd, but the promoter cannot afford the IndyCar event fee.

  13. Valvoline is on Graham Rahal’s cars. It’s not a small logo at all.

  14. Erik Stevens Says:

    I was just having a conversation like this with a friend of mine. My angle was more on the separation from the automotive industry. Where is the Valvoline car? I mean car. . . you didn’t have to read the fine print to know which car it was. Quaker State, Texaco, Mobil, etc. We all remember those automotive tie-ins. Many are still in NASCAR, so it is not a dead industry. My question is based more off is this a result of tv ratings or spec series racing? With everything being so specified is there even the option to run different oil, different coolant, etc. I think we have lost touch with that as well. Besides Danica’s Peak commercials I can think of no other advertisements supporting an actual automotive performance product. I just did see Andretti’s MagnaFlow commercial, but honestly didn’t remember ever seeing a decal on his car for them. That’s my two cents. . . . love the blog and find myself relating to your opinions 80% of the time! Thanks!

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  16. I guess HP, Microsoft and Intel on Pagenaud’s car escaped your notice? Some research would be appreciated, otherwise this reads like yet another CART nostalgia rant.

    NHL hockey games don’t do much better than Indycar on NBCSN, the series needs to market its product and get on a better TV channel.

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