Impossible to ignore, NASCAR has continually tinkered with every aspect of the product over the last several years, using the sport as a real-time innovation laboratory. With an eye toward enhancing competition, improving safety, reducing costs, and increasing product relevance, NASCAR has enacted countless changes, including the upcoming 2016 low-downforce aero package and the digital dashboard to bring fans more directly into the cockpit experience.
As fans, we’ve found enlightenment in the modern-day Chase playoff, the PRO camera officiating technology that offers expanded content for followers to consume, the ultimate Trackside Souvenir Superstore now managed by Fanatics, and the Drive for Diversity development program to attract minority and female athletes to the sport, just to name a few prominent NASCAR-backed initiatives.
Change has become an imperative. Your entertainment choices are everywhere, and audiences are fragmenting as the avenues for content consumption expand. Pandora, SiriusXM, NetFlix, Amazon PrimeVideo, Hulu, and a growing array of traditional television channels (HGTV, anyone?). All prime-time sports are competing for eyeballs, and standing still on your laurels is no longer acceptable.
Yet through all the noise, NASCAR remains a compelling sports platform for investment with broad appeal to reach a dedicated mainstream audience. Right now, NASCAR’s experiments are yielding some early payoffs, showcased by the ability of fans to directly connect with drivers (both virtual and real) at the just-concluded NASCAR’s Champions Weeks in Las Vegas, where many events were sold out and available via simulcast.
During its Vegas entourage, NASCAR publicized that a record number of fans consumed NASCAR through digital and social media during the 2015 season. NASCAR amassed 4.1 billion (that billions with a “B”) social media impressions, 1.1 billion page views (up more than 20 percent from 2014), and a 34 percent annual increase in its mobile audience. In addition, driver merchandise sales at tracks increased more than 20 percent since the Fanatics Trackside Superstore launched in July.
Perhaps that staggering television package for NASCAR broadcast rights, the jaw-dropping $8.2 billion, 10-year deal with NBC and Fox, is not such a bad investment by those two networks after all.
Brands are much more than just sponsors in NASCAR. They become partners. Often, the brand becomes the mascot of the team (Smithfield’s Fueled by Bacon campaign, anyone?). That can be a lot of page views and media impressions for companies savvy enough to invest wisely in winning teams.
Take Lowe’s Companies, the home improvement chain of almost 1,800 stores, which announced in September that it had extended its current 15-year relationship with Hendricks Motorsports through the end of 2017, to run concurrently alongside the contract extension of six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson as driver of the #48 Chevrolet.
So should we really be surprised that Lowe’s would renew with Jimmie Johnson? This is a driver who is currently 8th on the all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup win tally, on a quest to win seven championships, placing him alongside two of the sport’s largest icons in Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
If Johnson were to achieve that pinnacle, the value for Lowe’s would live on indefinitely, even after Johnson retires from racing. Imagine the value for an iconic Corporate brand that is able to write themselves alongside Johnson into the history books. Certainly, Lowe’s already has a compelling long-term investment with Johnson and is “In It to Win It”.
Accordingly, the second half of 2015 provided a decent bounty of partner renewals and new commitments; the most notable including:
- M&Ms’ partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing and 2016 Sprint Cup Champion Kyle Busch was extended to a tenth season, with a three year contract renewal.
- Quicken Loans teamed up with Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) driver Kasey Kahne as a primary sponsor for three races, and as an associate sponsor for the remainder. Moreover, Farmers Insurance already committed to keep sponsoring Kahne for an additional three years.
- Monster Energy will step up to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) driver Kurt Busch.
- Kroger Company’s renewal of its relationship for multiple years with JTG Daugherty Racing, thereby affording the team the ability to extend driver AJ Allmendinger’s contract through 2020.
- Nature’s Bakery joined SHR to become the primary multi-year sponsor of driver Danica Patrick.
- NAPA AUTO PARTS stepping up as the majority sponsor of HMS rookie driver Chase Elliott and his #24 Chevrolet team through 2018.
Accelerating rekindled interest in NASCAR sponsorship is the tighter glue that connects fans with drivers on digital platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and streaming apps such as NBC Live Extra and Fox Sports Go.
Social media extends the brands of these driver celebrities and their sponsors, as fans can scratch their innate curiosity regarding their heroes’ hobbies, families, and personal interests beyond the sport.
Collaboration between NASCAR, team owners, drivers, and the broadcast partners is helping ensure that the sport and its stakeholders are generally rowing in the same direction, allowing the teams to better serve sponsors and do a better job of marketing the entire sport.
These fundamental changes and ability to leverage social media may just be the magic elixir in NASCAR’s search for a new title sponsor for its premier Cup series.
“If you haven’t been around NASCAR in the last two or three years, you really haven’t been around NASCAR,” proclaims Brent Dewar, NASCAR’s chief operating officer. “It’s really allowing us an opportunity to talk to a wide group, whether it’s blue-chip domestic companies, to internationals, to regional companies – and we have a great story to tell. We hope to find a partner that will deliver equally the strength that we’ve gotten from Sprint.”
Let’s see what NASCAR can continue to ring in for the New Year, as the lifeblood of American motorsports is depending on NASCAR to forge a path forward for other road-racing series to follow.
By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano