SBJ/March 14-20, 2011/Opinion

How NASCAR can maintain its early-season momentum

Busch
NASCAR drivers and crew chiefs use the phrase “dialed in” when the race car is at its optimum level of performance on the track. Much like a driver and crew chief working together to find the right adjustments, NASCAR needed to adjust to the market conditions and make modifications to get the sport turned back in the right direction.

Through the first three races this year, there is a different vibe around the sport. The energy is back and it couldn’t have come at a better time. You saw it in the days leading up to Daytona and it has carried through the season’s first three races.

NASCAR joined all sports properties in taking a hit during the economic recession, but when the core of a sport relies on sponsorship, the downturn takes on even greater significance. A lot of the credit for this year’s early resurgence goes to NASCAR leadership for being proactive this offseason in developing a plan to unify the sport’s various stakeholders: teams, tracks, sponsors and media partners.

Before Daytona, NASCAR met with nearly every major organization within the sport — from the teams in and around Charlotte, to the tracks that host the events, the media partners that promote the sport, and the sponsors and agencies. In these meetings, NASCAR presented extensive research and laid out a detailed plan to solidify the core fan base, reach new fans, get younger fans and better promote the sport in 2011.

All of this, along with perfectly timed wins by rookie Trevor Bayne at the Daytona 500 and slumping star Jeff Gordon in Phoenix, as well as the historic fourth-place finish for Danica Patrick in the Nationwide Series race in Las Vegas, certainly makes it feels like the sport is headed in a positive direction. But brands don’t make marketing decisions based on headlines, so here are some tangible reasons why NASCAR appears to be headed in the right direction.

• Television ratings: After a steady ratings decline over the last few seasons, NASCAR rode exciting racing, the anniversary of the death of its greatest star and strong prerace promotion to a ratings rebound. Fox earned an 8.7 Nielsen rating and 15.6 million viewers for the Daytona 500, up 13 percent and 17 percent, respectively, from last year. Fox followed that up in Phoenix with a 5.9 rating, up 5 percent from last year and making it the most-watched race in Phoenix’s 23 years as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series venue. The 5.3 overnight rating in Las Vegas is up 44 percent from last year.

• Online: NASCAR.com scored a Daytona 500 record with 1.6 million daily unique visitors, up 11 percent over last year. NASCAR.com also experienced growth in page views both on the site, with 11.2 million (up more than 8 percent), and via mobile, with 3 million page views (a whopping 169 percent increase).

• Track attendance: With at or near-capacity crowds of more than 182,000, 75,000 and 140,000, respectively, for Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas, it’s clear that the fans are coming back to the tracks. What I hear most from fans at races is that they’re appreciative of how tracks are working hard to offer ticket promotions and new benefits for diehard fans.

• Sponsor activation: The quantity and quality of marketing activation is also on the upswing. In Daytona, we saw an increase in at-track activation by sponsors, most of whom were engaging with race attendees and, more importantly, providing them value. There was plenty of shoulder programming at Daytona, and the midway was packed with companies reaching out to brand-loyal fans. Additionally, we saw activation from new sponsors, such as AARP, and the continued return of longtime sponsors like the automotive manufacturers. We’re also seeing more effort put into digital, mobile and social media marketing tactics to allow for continued engagement with the fans after the race.

• Social media: NASCAR, like every other sport, is pushing social media interaction to reach fans because data suggests that the more the fans are consistently engaged in a sport, especially during the week between races, the more likely they are to tune in to broadcasts. NASCAR now has more than 1.3 million likes on Facebook and more than 80,000 followers on Twitter, both up significantly from last year. Behind-the-scenes content and other promotions have increased significantly and it’s not just from the sanctioning body. Drivers such as Michael Waltrip (@mw55), Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) and Denny Hamlin (@DennyHamlin) and even NASCAR executives like Steve O’Donnell (@odsteve), vice president of racing operations, are providing fans with compelling content and insights.

NASCAR’s standing may not be back to what it was pre-recession, and a trio of successful races doesn’t guarantee a successful season, but it’s clear there is a significant change in the dialogue, press coverage and vibe around the sport. Now comes the hard part: sustaining the momentum beyond the first three races. NASCAR must continue to do what it can to produce exciting racing, foster rivalries, allow drivers to show their true personalities and speak their minds without fear of penalty. It must also work with media partners to build promotions that will drive ratings and expand the fan base.

Should each effort prevail, it will help NASCAR’s retooled communications group spread the message that stock car racing is, once again, dialed in. 

Greg Busch (gbusch@gmrmarketing.com) is executive vice president of client management for GMR Marketing, which handles sports sponsorship strategy and/or execution for clients such as Lowe’s, Procter & Gamble, MillerCoors and Comcast.

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