What To Look For In A Title Sponsor – Part II

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This past Wednesday, I discussed some of the past title sponsorships that have existed in motorsports and their varying degrees of successes. We also dissected what went wrong with the IZOD sponsorship that IndyCar actually benefited from for the past four seasons. The main question remaining is where IndyCar goes from here in their search for a new title sponsor. I’m also curious about jumping into the world of the hypothetical. In a perfect world where IndyCar got to choose the perfect title sponsor – who would it be?

First, let’s deal with the real world. As I mentioned on Wednesday, I am assuming that those now in charge of the IndyCar Series have been anticipating IZOD’s exit for some time and have not been sitting around twiddling their collective thumbs while waiting for the ax to fall. I do know that before he was fired, former CEO Randy Bernard was courting three companies who were considered serious replacements for IZOD whenever they left for good. Two were current partners to the series and one was to be a new company that had no previous relationship with IndyCar.

I am not an insider and I have no idea who the mystery company is or was. Maybe others have heard rumors, but I have not – so I will not even throw out a guess as to their identity. But the other two are fairly common knowledge and I would not have a problem with either. Of course, I’m talking about Firestone and Verizon.

Firestone has a long and established history with open-wheel racing and the Indianapolis 500, dating back to the first 500 in 1911. They left open-wheel racing after the 1974 season and didn’t return to competition until 1995. With the CART/IRL split that began in 1996, Firestone stayed neutral and supplied tires to both series, as did Goodyear – their competitor in both series. By 2000, Firestone had run Goodyear out of both series. Since then, Firestone has been the sole tire supplier to the IndyCar Series.

Firestone has taken on full race sponsorship and bought tons of airtime for their outstanding commercials. Walk into any Firestone store and you’ll see IndyCar displays and mentions (at least the ones I’ve been in).

They played hardball a couple of years ago when they dramatically raised the prices of their tires to the teams. Randy Bernard tried to use Continental Tire as leverage, but the owners would have none of that. They preferred to pay the higher price for the safety and quality they knew they would get from Firestone. Owners don’t unify over very much, so to have them united in their stance on this issue speaks volumes for what an outstanding partner Firestone has been for the series.

I’m somewhat partial to Firestone for another reason also. They are a Nashville based company and I’ve seen how aggressively they market the properties they are involved with. Through their parent brand Bridgestone, they are highly involved with our NHL team, the Nashville Predators. The arena they play in is now known as Bridgestone Arena and is also the site of the many big-name concerts that come to Music City on a regular basis. Bridgestone is also heavily involved with the NFL nationally and the Tennessee Titans on a local level. Bridgestone/Firestone have the corporate muscle to move the needle and bring a lot of other new companies into the IndyCar fold. Bridgestone is a very good corporate citizen in Nashville and I have seen first-hand what they can do promotionally.

Some would see an automotive company as the title sponsor for a racing series as a natural fit. Others would see it as a stale move that is predictable and safe, but would do little to grow the company. I take the stance of the former. It would be a natural fit given the long-term relationship IndyCar and Firestone have known over the years, but I also think a partnership on that level would elevate things beyond most fans expectations.

Verizon is the other company that is believed to be in the running for titles sponsor for the IndyCar Series. Roger Penske brought Verizon on board for his IndyCar team in 2009, when Will Power was hired as a back-up plan in case the tax case against Helio Castroneves kept him out of the car. As it turned out, Helio was out of the car for a total of one race. When Helio was acquitted and showed up at Long Beach the next day, Penske pulled out the No. 12 Verizon car he had stashed in a transporter just in case that unlikely scenario unfolded. Power drove some selected races for Penske in Verizon livery and some in Penske Truck Rental livery that was reminiscent of Al Unser’s 1987 Indianapolis 500 winner. Power broke his back at Sonoma that year, but returned in a fully funded Verizon ride for 2010. Verizon, Power and Penske have been together ever since.

But Verizon has been a model sponsor, not only for Penske and Power, but the entire series. The Verizon IndyCar app is excellent and their exhibits at races are second to none.

Then there is this…Verizon now has a relationship with Comcast to battle the combination that AT&T has with U-verse and DirecTV. Who does Comcast own? The NBC Sports Network, that’s who. The possibilities for cross-promotion between these two companies would be endless. It’s almost mind-boggling to think of the new corporate blood they could bring to the table.

At first glance, you might think that a wireless company wouldn’t be ideal, since practically all wireless customers complain about their cell phone carriers, no matter who it is. There is little loyalty to their brand. But, we aren’t just talking about the individual eyes that a new sponsor can bring No, it’s much bigger than that. We’re talking about how many new companies they can bring to IndyCar. That’s where Verizon could excel.

Both Firestone and Verizon would be solid companies, if either of them chose to become the title sponsor of the IndyCar Series. They both could bring significant cash and promotional abilities, as well as a nice collection of companies they have relationships with that could also become involved with the series. But would either of them open doors to an entire new market of fans? That’s debatable.

For fun, I’ve also thought about other companies that have the star-power to expose the series to a whole new world of potential fans, and have the financial prowess to force-feed the IndyCar Series to mainstream consumers. Of course, I’m not sure any of these companies have expressed any interest in coming aboard as the title sponsor, but I can dream can’t I? This is only an exercise in fun. Please don’t think I’ve lost my mind. I know none of these are even on the radar.

Target – This one is easy. They have been a primary sponsor to Chip Ganassi’s team since 1990. They are currently the longest running primary sponsor in the series. They are considered fresh, young and hip. Their stores are clean and immaculate and fit the demographics that IndyCar covets – young fans in their teens and twenties with disposable income. Target ads appeal to the (to use the phrase again) young and hip crowd. They have the ability to convince this crowd that IndyCar racing is the next big thing and it would be very “un-cool” to not jump on board. Merchandise for the series, teams and drivers would be readily available in almost any market in the US and now, Canada.

The downside is that merchandise would be limited to only Target stores. Plus, Chip Ganassi would probably want to keep the sponsor that has been with him for the past twenty-four seasons. If they stuck with Ganassi, would they give Will Power Verizon merchandise the same space as Scott Dixon Target items? Hmm…

Coca-Cola – I’ve often wondered why the cola giant wasn’t more involved in IndyCar. As best I can remember, they’ve never been beyond the associate level on a car. They sponsor the stage in the Pagoda Plaza at IMS, but the rest of their sponsorship is centered on NASCAR. They now sponsor the July race at Daytona and they have their “family” of Coca-Cola drivers. Imagine the possibilities of convenience store displays, IndyCar images printed directly on Coke cans and anything else their marketing muscle could provide. Do you think they have an arsenal of companies they could bring into IndyCar? Probably so.

Apple – IndyCar racing is considered high-tech (at least compared to NASCAR). What better way to promote that image than with a leading tech company that everyone has heard of. While other tech companies have been involved with the series on some level, they are not perceived as “fun”. The maker of the iMac, iPod and iPhone is considered a “fun” company because they deliver fun products. The only problem is, while Apple has clever print and electronic ads – I don’t recall them ever sponsoring anything. I think they limit their marketing dollars and pour the majority of their resources into research and development.

Google – For the most part, see above. But Google seems to be trying to take over the world with their Google Chrome Browser, Chromebooks, Google Drive and the Android operating system. They dream of a world without Microsoft. At the rate they are growing, they may succeed. Like Apple, they probably have no interest in sponsoring a motorsports series, but imagine the companies they could bring on board.

That’s justa few of the companies I could dream about investing in the sport we follow. I’m quite confident that Mark Miles & Company have been working diligently to fill the void soon to be left by IZOD. We just don’t see it or hear about it because they prefer to work quietly in the background instead of the out in the open style utilized by Randy Bernard.

I do think it is vital that whatever company they pursue, the company needs to be stable and established. In addition to those requirements, it is vital that the company or brand be one that is recognized by practically everyone as a brand or product for the future, not a tired old company or industry that is already seeing a decline. As hard as it is to imagine for my generation, beer has been seeing a steady decline in sales for years – especially the mainstream domestic beers. As much as I’d like to see the return of Budweiser and Miller on the sidepods of cars, I’m not sure they should be considered as title sponsors. The same goes for fast-food. As consumers become more health conscious, I’m not sure the McDonald’s IndyCar Series has a good ring to it.

Although I didn’t intend for it to, this week has carried a sponsor them to it. Once I started typing, I just couldn’t stop. That’s how important I feel this is. The right title sponsor for IndyCar is critical to the long-term viability of this series. Overall, I think IZOD was a success for the series even though they wouldn’t consider it a success to them. The next partner has to be even better than IZOD for the series to acquire the health it needs for the future. They cannot afford another dud like Pep Boys or Northern Light.

Sponsors breed sponsors. If the right sponsor is named title sponsor, that will make it easier for the teams to find sponsors willing to take the plunge. With the name of a dud in the logo, that’ll make the team’s hunt for sponsors more difficult than it already is.

George Phillips

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6 Responses to “What To Look For In A Title Sponsor – Part II”

  1. “But would either of them open doors to an entire new market of fans? That’s debatable.”

    And that is the key. Being an old race fan I would prefer Firestone (of course the ultimate would be STP for a long time fan and they are beginning to sponsor some Nascar stuff again so who knows). Get auto related industries in here. Verizon is fine but its not auto industry related. I think you lose something when you do that.

    What made Indy car big in the 50’s-60’s-70’s is what is needed. Go back to the roots.

    A sponsor cannot make up for some of the wrong directions Indycar has been taking since even before unification or even the split. Indycar has got to get more of the traditional ovals on the schedule. Preferably those with a history in Indy Car (Phoenix and Michigan come to mind quickly, with later additions Chicago and Kentucky in the mix). Gettnig Pocono was a huge plus in that area.

    Even for road racing fans, the best venues are currently not in Indy car. Go get them. Watkins Glen, Road America. Cut back on the street courses.

    Get a 50/50 mix of ovals and road/street courses. Support the feeder series more than is done. Promote home grown drivers.

    Rebuild those partnerships with the automotive industry. Bring back the technology. Go for new track records (NASCAR has set at least 9 track records this year. Indy car should be doing that!)

    Of course, at the end of the day, it means the league having more control and influence over the owners, which is the crux of the problem in Indy Car going back to at least 1979.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    If I recall, the scuttlebutt was that Continental Tire was the “mystery company” Bernard was talking to. Serious or simply as leverage to lower Firestone’s prices? Not sure anyone but Bernard knows that for sure.

    Landing Firestone or Verizon as a paying, promoting title sponsor would be a tremendous positive for Indycar. Unlike PVH and Izod, both companies control a sizable number of retail outlets and both purchase a larger volume of television ads across the board. They have platforms to activate that Izod does not, and that PPG, Northern Light, RJ Reynolds, and even FedEx (at the time) did not. Whether they would is another story…
    Landing ANY sponsor that would chip in to cover part or all of the prize fund would be even bigger. That was PPG’s role for many years and it surely saved CART many millions.

    A couple of observations on your dream sponsors:
    – It is worth noting that Coca-Cola currently has a motorsports title sponsorship, the NHRA. Via PowerAde, Full Throttle, and now (oddly) Mello Yello, Coke has been the NHRA’s title sponsor since RJ Reynolds was forced to pull Winston’s sponsorship after 2001. Seems like its been a good relationship.

    – Apple has done essentially nothing in the way of sponsorships for close to 20 years, but they do have a couple of Indycar connections from the past. Arie Luyendyk’s record-setting car at Indy in 1996 had an Apple logo placed prominently on the nose, just under the #5. Also, none other than Bobby Rahal drove an Apple-sponsored Porsche 935 in IMSA in the early 1980s.

  3. Apple is unlikely, but it would be incredible. Honestly, Indycar (and racing in general) needs consumer electronics and energy drinks + soft drinks and everything would be fine.

  4. Zzzzzzzzz…the firing of Randy Bernard has made me dispise anything IndyCar that doesn’t happen on track. Those clowns don’t deserve the attention. Either way IndyCar will be IndyCar just like Jacobs Field and Cleveland Browns Stadium are still Jacobs Field and Cleveland Browns Stadium.

  5. The giant photo/mural of a black and white photo of the Indy 500 that covers an entire wall at my Firestone store is the only reason I drive out of my way to go to Firestone instead of Goodyear for tire repair/replacement.

    I like the idea of a sponsor associated with the automotive industry, which makes sense. Also, I’ve been impressed with some of the Honda commercials broadcasted on the major networks (and not limited to during Indycar races) that show pride in Honda’s association with Indycar, (which used to be) synonymous with cutting edge innovations in improving motor vehicle speed and safety. Would having a title sponsor/regular sponsor in the high-end sportscar manufacturing world give an equal exchange of cachet to both Indycar and that manufacturer, because their name and product would now be associated by the public with the fastest cars in the world?

  6. I like the way you have explored this problem, and for the life of me, can’t find any angle that you haven’t addressed.

    IndyCar will be healing from The Great Divide for the next couple of decades, and the first priority should be a sponsor that LOVES IndyCar, speed, and motorsports. In my mind, that’s Firestone. My guess is you’d have unanimous support from ownership also. What does Firestone get out of it? Being attached (literally) to the coolest, fastest, and most tire-oriented sport on earth.

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