Where Are The Big-Name Sponsors?
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.