Every industry inevitably hits a fork in the road.
Fifteen years ago, the mobile phone market hit that fork. Nokia, the global leader at the time, chose a traditional direction for its flagship product. By introducing his market-disruptive iPhone, Steve Jobs chose another. By 2013, Nokia had left the mobile phone market. Today, Apple trades at $125 per share.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the motorsports industry’s approach to its own fork in the road. This one represents something more complicated than a choice between two mobile phones. However, the sport can become as irrelevant as a clamshell flip phone if it’s not careful.
In my view, the sport’s leaders have three challenges facing them: determining the role of technology, updating the fan experience, and lifting the sport’s perspective above each respective paddock or garage area.
Honda’s recent commitment to sell only EVs and fuel-cell vehicles by 2040 signals clearly where the automotive industry is going. The auto industry is responding to what consumers will demand in the future. Fortunately, IMSA, IndyCar, and Formula 1 have committed to hybrid power, with NASCAR signaling its Next Gen car could move that way as well.
Nevertheless, the racing industry has not decided how to position this move with its audiences. Motorsports has been sheepish about why, like the auto industry, racing is moving towards electrification. It’s seems like it is too controversial to make any mention of climate change, global pollution, and fossil fuel depletion.
There are still oil companies and a U.S. automotive supplier industry reliant on an internal combustion engine. These companies make up many of the sponsors and suppliers whose support makes motorsports possible. This creates an uncomfortable one foot on each side of the fork in the road. Eventually, motorsports must plant a flag in the ground and announce its direction or risk alienating its audience moving to a different future.
Motorsports can remain as exciting, competitive, and relevant in 2040 as it is in 2021. However, the sport will also have to be responsive to consumer preferences regarding the health of their communities.
The fan experience
As with the future of engine technologies, the motorsports fan experience remains in flux. Motorsports compete with many other sports and forms of entertainment. As new NFL stadiums and NBA arenas integrate every new technology to improve the fan experience, the weekend racing experience must keep pace.
In 2020, many of us enjoyed racing from our couches, as we couldn’t attend all the races we wanted to. In 2021 and 2022, what will lure fans back, and how will it stack up against competitors outside the sport? Audiences will expect that grandstand viewing, timing and scoring, concessions, ticket purchase, and parking all work together to create an experience worthy of leaving one’s couch. Without question, the industry understands this challenge, as evidenced by the recent upgrades to Daytona. However, the sport must be focused on these issues or risk losing millennials and Gen Z to other future-ready entertainment.
The industry’s perspective
I left the motorsports industry as a full-time participant in 2005. Since then, our CHARGE Sponsorship Agency’s work has taken us to various markets, including the NFL, NBA, the Olympics, and eSports. I don’t believe any of these areas have more or less appeal than the sport where I started my sports marketing career. However, many of these forms of sports entertainment maintain a strong external focus, hyper-sensitive to their audiences’ changing needs and wants.
Motorsports, unfortunately, can lull itself into complacency with “paddock think.” Like “group think,” paddock think runs like this: “We have the greatest racing in the world. People who don’t like it must be crazy.”
I see this challenge of perspective in my own family. Both my sons grew up in racing because of my career. My eldest son loves racing. My youngest son could not care less about motorsports. Unfortunately, until the sport recognizes why “the greatest racing in the world” doesn’t matter to my youngest son and millions in his millennial and Gen Z generations, paddock think may hold the sport back from a healthy future.
Fortunately, there’s always a choice when reaching a fork in the road. In the motorsports industry, though, the time to choose is now. Like the challenges 100 years ago, the key to the sport’s future lies in its cultural relevance to the state of technology, the quality of the fan experience, and its perspective in accurately understanding how these factors all piece together.
For the sake of all those who love the sport in whatever form it takes, I hope the industry’s leaders prefer the path to keep the sport relevant into the future. I’ll certainly be watching what happens on my Apple iPhone.