Don’t Forget The Current Fans
In the celebration of Izod becoming the title sponsor for the (Izod) IndyCar Series, the common theme coming from most people – myself included – has been that the league needs to leverage Izod’s marketing expertise in order to land new fans. That’s true.
However, I listened to Curt Cavin being interviewed the other night by Kohl Kirkland on Planet-IRL’s podcast. Curt brought up a good point in saying that the IRL has a two-sided job. Their mission is to attract new fans while keeping the current fans happy. That’s true also.
As most people have gathered by now, I am not a NASCAR fan. But the Izod IndyCar Series can benefit by learning from NASCAR’s mistakes. Although I have poked fun at their provincial mentality, NASCAR did move quickly away from its grass roots…perhaps too quickly.
NASCAR built its fortune on running at many tracks located in small towns. Have you ever been to Bristol, TN? How about Rockingham, NC? Perhaps you’ve been to Darlington, SC or N. Wilkesboro, NC. I’ve been to every one of these towns although I’ve only attended a race at one of…Darlington. These are all charming little towns but they are not what anyone would describe as major population centers. I am qualified to make that statement as I grew up in a relatively small town myself. Jackson, TN had probably less than 50,000 people when I was growing up there.
The point is, when NASCAR started leaving some of those towns behind in favor of Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas – Ft. Worth and Las Vegas; it ruffled the feathers of the longtime fans. Although it’s not always easy to follow the logic of a NASCAR fan, this one was pretty easy. They felt used, abused and jilted…and for good reason. They were the ones who had built that sport. Without the allegiance (and money) of the hardcore NASCAR fans, there would not have been a NASCAR today. It would have never been more than a regional sideshow never getting past the roots of moonshiners and bootleggers tuning up their cars in order to outrun the “revenuers”.
NASCAR did what it felt like was the best way to grow their sport quickly. It’s hard to argue with their success in this decade, but they acted at the expense of alienating some long-term fans.
Although most who have followed the Izod IndyCar Series would consider this a good problem to have, the league may have to make some tough decisions down the road. Izod has the potential to bring an entirely new demographic to our sport. Everyone seems to be in agreement that they need to do that, but what will these same people have to say if the hip, young metrosexual fans start to overrun our sport? Will we still be as welcoming as we are now saying we will be? I’ve been saying for months that we shouldn’t shun any new fans we get, as NASCAR did theirs – but I said that thinking that they would come in and conform to “our” way of doing things. Being the father of two in their early twenties, I should know better.
Should the Izod IndyCar Series be lucky enough to be faced with such a dilemma of having a hoard of new fans, they’ll have a new problem on their hands – how to retain the new fans and keep them interested while not alienating the core of us who have stuck with this series through some thick and a lot of thin. Like I said – it’s a nice problem to have, but it could actually become a serious problem.
As we have seen with Danicamania, many of those fans were nothing more than curiosity-seekers. A lot of them left about as quickly as they showed up. How loyal will new fans be? The league shouldn’t cast their lot with the new fans because they will have no real staying power or loyalty to the series – not at first, anyway. They won’t be attracted to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway because of their admiration for Jim Hurtubise or Lloyd Ruby. Their fascination with Indy and the series will be that it is a cool place to meet other cool people.
If the hipster dudes lose their interest after a few years after the league sold its soul and forsook its core fan base, the damage could be irreparable. We have seen that almost fifteen years later, there are still a lot of hurt feelings among open-wheel fans that felt betrayed. To kick aside what is left in favor of a fickle, self-absorbed new demographic would be unconscionable.
So there is what the Izod IndyCar Series may be faced with in a few years – and that’s if the Izod marketing arm accomplish what we all hope it can. I don’t envy those in the marketing department. They will have two distinctively different groups to pacify; the new fans who like the speed and glamour of the Indy lifestyle along with those of us who have lived and died with this sport and embrace all of the rich traditions that come with it. They will not appreciate Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again In Indiana” just as we don’t care to have Kanye West as part of the pre-race activities. It will be an interesting juggling act.
I am not known to be the most open-minded individual, especially when it involves accepting something that is a little out of my comfort-zone. But I am still a proponent of welcoming any new fans we can get. Of course, that will change when they want to discontinue milk in Victory Lane in favor of Evian due to the fact that dairy farms might be cruel to animals. Then, we’ll have a problem.