Are there strong rooting interests?
When I first began working in racing, the fantastic rivalry between Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr was at its height. Many fans chose sides and would lose their minds cheering for their guy and against his opponent. This is the essence of the rooting interest at the heart of all professional sports. A strong rooting interest sells tickets, drives television ratings, and makes sponsors joyous.
Unfortunately, few, if any, rivalries in this decade have matched Gordon vs. Earnhardt. However, fans must be encouraged to be interested in their favorite driver, team, or automaker.
- Put drivers out front. This is not a new suggestion. In fact, I’ve felt so strongly about it, I wrote a book on the subject in 2007. However, sanctioning bodies must commit to a sustained process of driver brand-building. Marketing research indicates that fans want athletes to be role models. This type of connection promotes a solid rooting interest.
- Focus on competition at every level. All motorsports can deliver competition worthy of fan interest. Competitions can be driver vs. driver, team vs. team, automaker vs. automaker, or technology vs. technology. When fans pick a side, they connect to that side at the racetrack and on the broadcast.
- Serve up reasons to be inspired. When a sport inspires, it signals to a fan that it’s worthy of devotion. Inspiration is the heart of success for sports. Publicists and marketers would be well-served to tell stories of why a driver’s story should inspire us or how a team’s effort is worthy of our admiration. These are critical rooting connection points.
Can the industry promote like a challenger brand?
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the industry could not build racetracks fast enough. Since then, grandstand seats have been quietly removed, and short tracks have been sold to real estate developers. While motorsport has adjusted to shrinking markets, I don’t see the ambition and intensity to reset the sport and grow again.
In 2021, the motorsport industry could be described as a challenger brand. A challenger brand is positioned behind a category leader, aggressively marketing its product to displace the dominant industry players. Challenger brands take many forms depending on their level of irreverence, feistiness, or innovation. In business, Tesla, Uber, or Airbnb are challenger brands.
In sports, the UFC serves as a good challenger brand example. From its controversial no-holds-barred roots, the UFC assertively built a sport that many argue has displaced boxing. Their sport creatively engaged its fighters to create a social media following, structured its bouts into fast-paced and condensed events that fans wanted, and leveraged reality television (The Ultimate Fighter) into a multi-billion-dollar sport.
We can point to flashes of a challenger brand attitude in motorsports. (Kudos to F1 and Netflix for Drive to Survive). However, I don’t see a similar no-holds-barred perspective to build motorsports into the 21st century. In my view, motorsports as a challenger brand would promote some of the following:
- Convert pro drivers into promotional juggernauts. Some drivers do a tremendous job of promoting their careers and sport. However, many drivers don’t want to be ‘distracted’ from their work on the track, and most teams fully support that position. Like every sport, athletes drive fan engagement. Without improving the driver’s notoriety with mainstream consumers, motorsport’s growth will be constrained.
- Adopt innovative marketing strategies. Sanctioning bodies should adopt out-of-the-box marketing strategies to reposition what consumers think about racing. Uber changed the way people think about taxis, just like Airbnb became the bane of a hotel’s existence. Similarly, consumers can’t think of racing in the 21st century as they thought about it in the last century. Racing must be more than watching which car places first.
- Remember, it’s a circus. Spiritually, racetracks should return to their P.T. Barnum roots. Earlier in this article, I referenced several of the great promoters in the sport. They believed that promotion never ended, and there was always an opportunity to sell a ticket by any means possible. Digital marketing and emails won’t sell out grandstands alone. A fire in the belly always separated great promoters from mediocre ones.
Motorsports has many talented and ambitious professionals ready to build the sport to its fullest potential. My intention is not to critique them. I simply want to offer several roadmap elements, working for other businesses and sports, which could serve as a solid foundation for our children and grandchildren to enjoy motorsports well beyond this decade.