A famous strategist, Sun Tzu, once said, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” In the COVID-19 era, live motorsports events find themselves in a state of daily chaos. If a promoter or sanctioning body rushes to fill the stands with fans, they run the risk of a public health and PR crisis 14 days later. If the grandstands are empty, an equally devastating economic nightmare results.
Motorsports is not like baseball, football, hockey or basketball. In the stick and ball sports, television revenue can sustain ballparks, stadiums and arenas owned by the same pro teams receiving a fat TV rights fee. With the exception of NASCAR, motorsports TV rights fees are neither fat nor are they shared generously with the promoters that own racetracks. Tracks need ticket revenue, sponsorships, hospitality, and concessions to sustain themselves. Fans are needed to bring revenue to promoters, and “Fan Light” scenarios will limit the number of attendees dramatically.
The reality is that the motorsports industry has been challenged for the past decade. Changing demographics and increased competition from other sports has thinned grandstands and trimmed television ratings. Nearly, three years ago, I wrote a piece for RACER noting this alarming trend. I recommended a variety of steps to reinvent the sport and find a new path forward. If 2017 was not a good time to change how motorsports operated, perhaps the current crisis is exactly what motorsports needs to evolve into something much stronger and viable in the long-term.
Survive to 2021
Like promoters and sanctioning bodies, I understand the challenge of working every day to keep a business alive. Our sport’s stakeholders have to find a way to survive until grandstands can be filled safely. Whether or not event organizers can promote live sports events, they are turning to new ways to engage fans. Throughout the sports world, we see three strategies to keep businesses going in 2020.
From live to online: Even though baseball went dark, the Los Angeles Dodgers promoted a Dodgers Zoom Party attracting 11,000 fans. All over the live music industry, concerts are moving online. Stadiums have converted their concession stands to carry-out opportunities for fans missing their favorite foods.
Spool up the marketing machine: Until sports returns to full health, the marketing department will be key to survival. A Boston Celtics exec said his NBA team has been transformed into a “digital content company.” Fans want engaging content and awesome stories. In fact, they want these things more than ever. If the industry rises to the challenge to fill this void with stronger marketing, fans will reward it with dollars.
Cater to avid fans: Even if 25% of an audience shows up to a race, these will likely be the sport’s most avid fans. Avid fans buy more merchandise, eat more concessions, and spend more time following their sport. Also, avid fans are a sponsor’s dream as they are far more likely to buy a sponsor’s product than casual fans. In 2020, racetracks and sanctioning bodies should treat these fans like their most valuable assets.
Use 2021 as a debut for a ‘new’ industry
If the industry treats 2020 as “reset opportunity,” 2021 can be a pivotal grand re-opening. The sport will have battle-tested ways to better connect with fans. Compelling storylines and new event opportunities can upgrade the motorsports fan experience. Racetracks will have adapted their amenities to accommodate COVID-19 safety. Facilities will be cleaner. Events will be more convenient and enjoyable.
The irony could be that the industry not only survives the COVID-19 pandemic, but it uses the crisis a time to strengthen its value for fans. The changes necessary to outlast the crisis would end up reversing a decade of motorsports decline. Sun Tzu was spot-on. Where there is crisis, there’s opportunity.