Brainstorming: Track Promotion
This is the first in a series of articles on “Brainstorming”, where different subjects that are problems for the Verizon IndyCar Series are tackled with various ideas and suggestions – no matter how crazy they sound. I will take the first couple of topics, but then various guest-bloggers will air their own concerns and suggestions here. As always, readers are heavily encouraged to enter the discussion with their own ideas in the comment section. – GP
One of the things about brainstorming is that you don’t necessarily need to know much about a subject to make suggestions. When seeking solutions, sometimes it helps to get a fresh perspective from someone not that familiar with the problem. It’s possible to be so close to something that you don’t have the ability to take a step back and look at the big picture. What’s the old saying – you can’t see the forest for the trees?
Such is the case for the topic I’m tackling today. There are a lot of areas within the Verizon IndyCar Series that I feel comfortable talking about and tossing opinions around. This is not one of them. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe I’m so far removed from this topic that my simplistic way of looking at it might actually make some sense.
I’m not bragging here, but one of the perks for being an established IndyCar blogger is that I’m invited to participate in conference calls with the media. Last week, I was on the line for the Mark Miles press conference. Robin Miller asked him if IndyCar would ever consider co-promoting some of these races in order to improve attendance. Miles said that he didn’t have any real interest in co-promoting races. Really? Why not?
With all due respect to Michael Andretti and the steps he has taken as the promoter to generate local enthusiasm with this weekend’s race at the Milwaukee Mile; can anyone tell me why track promoters even exist in this sport?
Auto racing is about the only major sport that I know of where the sanctioning body typically relies on a third party, or a “middle man”, to promote an event. The question is…why?
At Fontana a couple of weeks ago, fans in the stands were treated to one of the most exciting races in years. Unfortunately, those fans were few and far between. Yes, I know about the dates that change every year and that it was a Saturday afternoon race in June; but just how heavily was it promoted? I don’t know the answer, since I don’t live in southern California – I’m just asking.
More times than not, the promoter is the track owner. Such was the case at Fontana, a track owned by ISC – a sister company to NASCAR. Although the track does not want to lose money, you have to wonder just how interested a NASCAR-related company is in promoting an IndyCar event.
Where else does this happen in sports? I’ll keep my comparisons local with the Tennessee Titans of the NFL, and the Nashville Predators of the NHL. Both of these teams play in facilities owned by the city of Nashville. I would hate to see what would happen if the Titans relied on the city to do all of the marketing and promotion to get people to go to their games.
Perhaps the Predators present a better example, since the NFL pretty much just has to show up to get people to their games. The NHL is different. With forty-one regular season home games each season, it can be a tough sell to fill up Bridgestone Arena on a Tuesday night in November in a smaller market like Nashville. The Predators have to come up with very creative ways to get people to fill up that building sometimes. That’s why they have a keen marketing department.
To be fair, it is a different situation. The Predators pay rent to the city of Nashville to use their building. The city does not pay the Predators a sanctioning fee to be able to host them in their building. Nor does the city pay the Titans to play their games in Nissan Stadium.
The way I understand it, each track pays a sanctioning fee to IndyCar to come put on a show at their facility. It’s not official, but rumor puts the amount of the sanctioning fee at around $1.25 million per track, although it’s highly doubtful that Michael Andretti is paying anywhere close to that to promote Milwaukee.
Some say that it should be up to each track to promote their race as they see fit, since they have already made the investment to get IndyCar to race there. In this current system, it seems like if IndyCar gets their sanctioning fee – they are happy to put it in their pocket and leave it up to the track to promote the event. If no one comes – so what? They got their money.
To me, this seems like a flawed system. I’ll agree that tracks should help promote the race locally, but it seems to me that IndyCar should be taking the lead in promoting their series. If I were the casual fan that IndyCar is so desperately seeking, and I tuned into that Fontana race last Saturday; the first thing I would notice would be the empty stands. My assumption would be that this is an event that no one cares about, so why should I? I would probably click away before I even noticed the great racing taking place on the track.
Among the myriad of problems facing IndyCar, most agree that the biggest one is poor TV ratings. It’s also the one area that can fix so many other problems. Yes, I’m aware that ratings today don’t mean the same as they did ten or even five years ago. With viewing habits changing so rapidly with different platforms available now, there is no way to compare a 1.0 rating today to a 1.0 in 2007. But when you see that IndyCar pulled a .37 rating at Fontana and NASCAR got a 2.4 rating at Sonoma the next day; that’s significant.
Am I crazy to think that butts in the seats will eventually equate to eyes on the screen? I don’t think so, but I’m the one making the argument in an area that I admittedly know little about.
Let’s live in Fantasy Land for a moment. If I am a TV viewer and I see that IndyCar generally plays before a packed house every race and NASCAR is the series racing in front of empty seats. Given the fact that I have no allegiance to any particular form of racing, which series am I more likely to watch?
Leigh Diffey and Steve Matchett were quite genuine in their enthusiasm during that Fontana race. But a casual viewer might interpret their enthusiasm as over-hype, when they see that there were more people in attendance that were actually connected to the series in one way or another, than there were paying customers.
If I am a corporate VP with a company that has just been approached by an IndyCar team to be a potential sponsor for next year; I will probably tune into the Fontana race to see what this whole thing is about. I may or may not notice that it was an enjoyable race, but the glaring thing that I won’t be able to take my eyes off of will be those empty seats. As a corporate VP that has to answer to my superiors and ultimately to stockholders, I’m likely to spend my marketing dollars elsewhere.
Should IndyCar look at the model that exists in racing where attendance is left up to the individual tracks? Following the status quo is not working, yet Mark Miles has already said that they are not interested in co-promotions. Maybe they should have their own brainstorming session. They could blow up the existing model and approach promotion with a whole new framework.
Lost in the terrible tragedy at Las Vegas in 2011 was the fact that former CEO Randy Bernard decided that IndyCar would take over the promotion for the race. As I understand it, IndyCar rented the track from Bruton Smith and assumed total responsibility for all the promotion. Now I know that there were still only about 20,000 in attendance that fateful day, but that was only one race. It’s not fair to judge whether or not the idea worked after only one race. Besides, that was only a makeshift attempt because it was done on short notice and known to be a one-time deal. But I thought it was a great idea. Unfortunately, with the way that day turned out – the idea was never even considered again. Maybe it should be.
Remember the rules of brainstorming – there are no stupid ideas. Anything is up for consideration.
I’m always willing to spend other people’s money for them. Therefore, I’m suggesting that IndyCar hire or reassign staff within their marketing department to focus solely on the promotion of every race on the IndyCar schedule. That means multiple trips and meetings in each location to work hand-in-hand with the track to learn the local market. That may even mean engaging a local advertising firm in each city that knows the ins-and-outs of that market. What works in Los Angeles may not necessarily work in Milwaukee. What appeals to fans in Indianapolis, may not be as popular at Pocono.
Track promoters also only know what they do best. While NASCAR continues to be a big draw at Michigan International Speedway, IndyCar attendance was abysmal the last few years they raced there. Perhaps those in charge at Michigan know how to appeal to stock car fans, but no clue how to attract open-wheel fans to their facility. It can be done, but it takes a little extra work and creativity. Simply hanging a NASCAR sign in front of the track twice a summer may work for Cup races, but that approach won’t work for IndyCar. Did Michigan officials go that extra mile and exhaust all possibilities for promotion, or did they just decide IndyCar wouldn’t work at their track with the same amount of promotional effort they put into NASCAR.
Instead of the tracks paying an exorbitant sanctioning fee, could IndyCar either rent each track or heavily discount the fee in order to use their own promotional team? Sure it would cost a lot in the beginning, but it could be what finally gets them where they need to be in terms of attendance, viewership and positive public and corporate perception. Curt Cavin always says that IndyCar needs to be wanted by tracks before they can race there. If IndyCar is paying the tracks rent, why would they not be wanted?
The entire model of the way IndyCar does business would have to be blown up. It would require cash and a lot of it. Hulman and Company would have to make a huge long-term investment and be patient enough to let it work. It would be a work-in-process that would not have overnight success, but it seems to me that a team that does nothing but promote IndyCar would be better suited than a track’s local marketing team that has no idea how to position a different product. And make no mistake – IndyCar is a different product from NASCAR.
Let’s go back to Bridgestone Arena here in Nashville. Not only does the NHL team play there, but it happened to host more concerts than any other large indoor venue in the US in 2014 (this is the Music City, you know). Some of the really popular acts like Taylor Swift or the Eagles are paid by the arena to come play at their venue, sort of like the sanctioning fee that tracks pay to IndyCar. It’s a complicated setup, but to simplify it – the artist gets a cut of the gate receipts, all merchandise sales as well as the up front fee. The venue gets all the parking, concessions along with a cut of the gate. Smaller, lesser-known acts pay the arena "rent" to play there, but they work it out where they get most of the revenue after the arena’s expenses are covered. For a comparison, we’ll call NASCAR Taylor Swift and IndyCar a lesser-known act.
Why would a lesser known act pay for arena rental? For credibility. These are usually up-and-coming acts that are trying to get exposure in order to grow their brand. To say they played in the biggest indoor arena in Nashville says that they are an act to watch. Sound familiar?
Of course, there’s one problem with this idea – IndyCar doesn’t know, themselves, how to promote their own product. Remember, we aren’t too far removed from the laughable “I am Indy” campaign. Few, if any, remain from the regime that took their cue from Gene Simmons on that debacle; but you get my drift. Each year, the marketing strategy for IndyCar changes. The on-track product is great, but they need to come up with a consistent message to promote that great product. Come up with it, refine it and work it down to a science that only has to be slightly tweaked in each market.
That way, IndyCar has direct ownership in attendance and how the entire series is perceived. The landscape in the corporate world is littered with great ideas and products that were not properly packaged, presented and marketed. Likewise, there are some pretty useless products out there that took off simply through brilliant marketing concepts. Care to compare a Hardee’s hamburger to McDonald’s? Most would agree that Hardee’s, by far, makes the better burger. Yet, McDonald’s continue to blow everyone away with better marketing. IndyCar keeps using strategies like the new creepy version of Colonel Sanders for KFC. Does anyone really think that’s going to improve their market share in the fast food industry? Yet some focus group thought that this was a great idea. Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees.
There are a lot of you reading this that know the relationships between tracks and the series better than I do. What do you make of my IndyCar promotional team idea? Am I totally off-base with this idea? It certainly rocks the boat and upsets the status quo, but is it doable? Could it be done if IndyCar were to ever define their marketing message to consumers? Presumably, IndyCar knows their product better than track owners. What are some of the pitfalls of this idea that I didn’t come up with?
This is the whole idea of brainstorming and this series of articles. Maybe some of the ensuing discussion will come up with an even better idea. One thing is for sure, based on what we saw at Fontana and may see at Milwaukee this weekend – the current way of doing things is not working.