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Volume 20 No. 42
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Survey: Rotating sponsors don’t cut fan avidity

Three more full-season primary sponsors — UPS, Home Depot and Red Bull — bit the dust in 2011, adding to a growing list of sponsors in recent years that have opted to fund fewer races.

Such moves have led NASCAR team and agency executives to fret that race fans will struggle to identify and connect with drivers and the sport because of increasing sponsor fragmentation, but a recent study by Turnkey Intelligence shows there is no reason to worry.

Longtime partnerships like Jeff Gordon-DuPont were among the most recognizable to fans.
Shared primary sponsorships, which result in cars rotating paint schemes among anywhere from two to four sponsors during a season, don’t erode fan avidity, according to the study. The primary way casual and avid race fans identify a car when attending a race or watching on TV is by looking at the car’s number.

Some 46 percent of avid fans and 44 percent of casual fans track cars and drivers primarily based on their numbers when they attend a race. By comparison, 27 percent of avids and 33 percent of casuals look at sponsor logos and 26 percent of avids and 23 percent of casuals look at a car’s color scheme when following a driver at the track. Fans watching races on TV were even more likely to look at the number on a car to identify a driver (see chart).

The results, which came from an online survey of 300 casual and 300 avid NASCAR fans 18 and older, mirrored conversations with more than two dozen fans who attended the spring race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the fall race at Martinsville Speedway. The majority of fans said they didn’t have trouble following their favorite drivers, even as fewer sponsors offered season-long support, but most conceded that it could make it difficult for friends or family new to the sport who tune in or attend a race for the first time.

“As far as me knowing race cars, it doesn’t matter for me, but for young kids, it’s tough,” said Mike Amos, 41, of Martinsville, Va., who was attending the Martinsville race with his 11-year-old son, Casey. “He likes Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch and they change sponsors back and forth. He knows Kyle and Kurt are [Nos.] 18 and 22 but struggles to see them.”

Walter Leaver, 45, of Mint Hill, N.C., agreed, saying he had no trouble recognizing his favorite drivers during a race and always looked to their number first, but he added, “It does [become difficult to recognize drivers] at times, especially your fifth- or sixth-favorite driver like Michael Waltrip. If it’s anything other than Aaron’s that he’s [driving] in, it’s not going to register for me.”

How fans follow a driver

When attending a race
  # of the car Sponsor logos Color scheme
Avid 46% 27% 26%
Casual 44% 33% 23%
While watching on TV
  # of the car Sponsor logos Color scheme
Avid 62% 18% 18%
Casual 62% 18% 18%

Note: Totals may not equal 100 percent, due to rounding

Which of the following driver/primary sponsor relationships do you believe is best recognized in NASCAR?

Driver/sponsor first appearance % of fans
Jeff Gordon/DuPont 1991 23%
Jimmie Johnson/Lowe’s 2002 21%
Dale Earnhardt Jr./Amp 2008 14%
Kyle Busch/M&M’s 2008 11%
Michael Waltrip/NAPA 2001 7%
Kurt Busch/Shell-Pennzoil 2011 6%

Note: Respondents were given 16 relationships from which to choose.

Who was the PRIMARY sponsor on Tony Stewart’s No. 14 car during the last race you watched?

  Office Depot Home Depot Mobil 1 Burger King
Avid 36% 30% 11% 7%
Casual 21% 30% 10% 9%

Note: This question tested fans’ memory/recognition of Stewart’s partners. Office Depot was the primary sponsor of the No. 14 car during 25 races this season; Mobil 1 held that distinction at 11 races, and Burger King appeared on Stewart’s hood twice. Home Depot was a primary sponsor of Stewart from 1999-2008.

Source: Turnkey Intelligence

Leaver’s comments about recognizing Waltrip reflect another element revealed in the Turnkey study. As sponsors UPS and Home Depot reduce the number of races they support from 36 to nine and 24, respectively, fans are more likely to have trouble connecting their brand with the driver they support.

Fans had the easiest time recognizing drivers who had long-term relationships with a sponsor or were supported by a sponsor who funded more than 30 races a year for a driver.

Fans were asked which was the most recognizable driver-sponsor relationship and given a list of 16 drivers and their sponsors to choose from. Fans identified the drivers and sponsors with ties of at least a decade, such as Jeff Gordon and DuPont (23 percent) and Jimmie Johnson and Lowe’s (21 percent).

They also identified drivers and sponsors with at least 30 races, such as Kyle Busch and M&M’s, who have been together since 2008, and Shell-Pennzoil and Kurt Busch, which first partnered this year.

The study also showed sponsor recognition appears to decrease when a driver leaves a longtime sponsor. When fans were asked which of the following brands — Office Depot, Home Depot, Mobil 1 or Burger King — sponsored Stewart, 30 percent of avids and 30 percent of casuals identified Home Depot even though Stewart hasn’t been aligned with the big-box retailer since 2008.

It was a sentiment even Stewart fans seemed to understand.

“I see the orange car and still think, ‘Tony Stewart,’” said Sabrina Carter, 31, of Pickens, S.C., who was attending the Sprint All-Star Race in Charlotte in May. “Today’s the first day I’ve bought a red (Office Depot) Tony Stewart shirt.”
The study’s results mirror analysis done by the sports marketing agency rEvolution. The agency did a study that shows that sponsors need to fund 20 of 36 races to have “ownership” of a car in the mind of fans, said Darren Marshall, executive vice president, consulting and research, at rEvolution.

“We’ve found that unless the sponsor does a brilliant job of activating, anyone who does less than half a season disappears into the clutter,” Marshall said.

SportsBusiness Journal research director David Broughton contributed to this report.