SBJ/20011224/This Week's Issue

NASCAR nears affinity program

At a time when every big sports property is trying to develop frequency/loyalty programs, NASCAR is set to launch the first affinity program of any major U.S. sports league.

The stock car circuit has agreed in principle to a three-year deal with General Electric under which the company's assurance division would become a promotional partner and establish a fan club/direct-marketing program by the beginning of the 2002 NASCAR season. Details on the program are scant as yet, but sources said fans will be able to join for $79 annually and will be offered the opportunity to buy tickets to big-demand NASCAR events as an incentive to join.

GE Assurance is a division with massive direct-marketing capabilities. It sells and administers the Amoco auto club and a variety of financial services, including auto, life and health insurance, credit cards and brokerage services. Building and running a fan affinity club for NASCAR fans, long considered the most brand-loyal and sponsor-conscious among sports fans, would give GE a new pool of customers at which to aim its many targeted mailings.

The deal is still being sold inside NASCAR, but sources said it is expected to be completed in time for the start of the season with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17.

The NASCAR move into a frequency/ loyalty program comes as every sports property is dabbling in the area. With credit cards containing chips in the offing, leagues and their teams are all looking for a card-based means to add loyalty and sponsor value, while offering fans an easy and convenient way to buy and dispose of tickets and get rewarded for their loyalty.

Successful introduction of a fan affinity program would also help sports properties quantify the value of their sponsorships.

"For the last 20 years, leagues have been desperately trying to find a way to show sponsors the value of their investment," said Bill Henneberry, chairman and CEO of New York-based Smartix, which developed the first fan affinity cards for the NFL and NBA and is running a pilot smart card loyalty and affinity program that will be rolled out to a handful of Major League Baseball teams next season. "All the leagues' businesses are really mature, so what they need is a mechanism to deliver offers to fans and the means to measure their response. That puts them in a whole new business."

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