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Volume 21 No. 1

Events and Attractions

A year ago, NASCAR convened its first Sprint Cup race in Kentucky and found nothing short of disaster. Traffic backed up for miles. Parking at the speedway was insufficient. Fans missed the race.

Speedway Motorsports Inc. Chairman Bruton Smith, whose company owns the Kentucky track and seven others, made a rare public apology after the race. His company spent the better part of the last year working with the state to make improvements in and around the speedway before NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series returns this weekend. The state spent $3.7 million to expand the highway and interstate near the track, and the track spent $8 million to $10 million constructing 15,000 to 20,000 parking spaces.

Smith spoke with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Tripp Mickle about those improvements and more last week.

Bruton Smith said ticket sales were tracking well for the race at Kentucky.
Photo by: ICON SMI
What do you wish SMI had done differently before the inaugural Cup race in Kentucky?

SMITH: I wish we could have convinced the highway patrol of Kentucky. I kept trying to explain what a huge crowd we had coming. … The biggest thing that hurt us was the rain. It converted the parking we had into an impossible situation.

What do you have to do to reconnect with fans?

SMITH: I made promises on what we would do and we’ve done it. And I’ve done it with the state of Kentucky. The governor of Kentucky came forward and got the state to approve a lot of things. We have what was a two-lane road operational at seven lanes. They also installed a 12-foot-wide pedestrian walkway, and the state built a tunnel under [Kentucky highway] 35 so that people can walk right on through the tunnel and onto the speedway side.

You don’t apologize often. Why did you apologize for this race?

SMITH: We hated that we didn’t do a better job. Here again, I’m not going to knock Kentucky, but they were not aware of what was going to happen. This time [the state highway patrolmen] went to school on it. … They know what to expect and they will do an outstanding job.

How are ticket sales tracking?

SMITH: Very good. I won’t say we’ll sell out, although we might with Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. winning a race. It’s really making the phones ring.

How would you characterize the state of the sport?

SMITH: It’s better today than it was two years ago. It’s not where we want it. … Ticket sales [are better].

What do tracks need to do in order to get more fans in the stands?

SMITH: It’s back to what we produce. We’re in racing. We’re in show business. We’ve got to put on a great show for the fans. If we do that, fans will be there.

What could NASCAR do to help tracks cut expenses?

SMITH: Sanction fees. Staff. There’s a lot of areas. You could list all 50 or 60 and see where we can cut. We’ve allowed the expenses to become a runaway freight train. We need NASCAR’s support on that.

What about shortening the season?

SMITH: I’m not for that at all. These speedways cost an awful lot of money. We spend millions of dollars on these speedways to make them comfortable for fans and teams and everyone. We need the races.

How do you feel the current leadership of the sport is doing?

SMITH: You’ve still got people there doing a great job. Brian [France, NASCAR chairman and CEO], NASCAR does a good job. [NASCAR President] Mike Helton does a good job. But I think sometimes what they do is [when] they have something they want to do, they jump in and have too many people. I’m saying hypothetical, they need five people but they hire 15. I’m in business. I have 15,000 employees in the two companies we have. We don’t just throw people at something. We like to train, train, train. I have a college of knowledge. We school people constantly in what we’re doing. That’s what is important: well-trained people, knowledgeable people, people who want to succeed at what they’re doing.

The NFL has been talking for years about the 50th playing of the Super Bowl, set for 2016 in a venue to be chosen next May.

And then there’s the Canadian Football League. While the CFL can’t match the NFL for many of the leagues’ metrics, when it comes to championship game legacies, the CFL can more than match its U.S. counterpart.

The 2012 CFL season, which opens this week, will conclude in November with the 100th playing of the Grey Cup championship game.

American audiences are expected to be able to watch the centennial Grey Cup under a new TV deal the CFL was working on last week. The league would not disclose the network other than to say it is not NFL Network, which carried CFL games last year.

In addition, the CFL and its backers will spend more than $10 million this season touting the 100th Grey Cup, making it the largest promotional effort in the league’s history.

Commissioner Mark Cohon is rolling out a major marketing effort this season.
Photo by: NEWSCOM
“This is the biggest undertaking the league has ever done,” said CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon. He pointed to the league’s marketing campaign, broadcaster TSN’s plans, sponsor activation, new licensed products and the Grey Cup festival in Toronto as hallmarks of what will be the largest media blitz in CFL history.

The league this week was set to unveil details of a three-month, nationwide tour to promote the 100th game, bringing the championship trophy to nearly 100 communities. In addition, Canada will issue official Grey Cup coins, and the postal system 50 million stamps, the biggest such effort in that agency’s history. TSN is planning an eight-part documentary series focusing on events and players in CFL history, and the annual Grey Cup festival will expand from its traditional three days to 10 in this year’s host city for the game, Toronto.

The Grey Cup rotates among the CFL’s eight team markets.

Sponsors are promoting around the championship, too. Sponsor Nestlé currently has a promotion in movie theaters affixed to buckets of popcorn.

Moving the X Games from late July to late June cost ESPN’s sales team a month of sales time and resulted in the loss of some traditional sponsors, but the group managed to sell 11 sponsorships and meet sales expectations.

In addition to overall sponsorships, ESPN for the first time is selling specific event deals.
ESPN moved the X Games up to this week rather than trying to compete with the Olympics, which open the last weekend in July when the X Games historically have been held. As a result, Eric Johnson, ESPN executive vice president of multimedia sales, said that the event lost some of its traditional sponsors, such as movie studios, which preferred sponsoring the event when it was held in its traditional late July time frame.

“We’re really pleased with the sales efforts,” Johnson said. “We had a little bit of attrition because of business timing, [but] I would deem Winter and Summer X Games a success by all our goals.”

For this week’s event, ESPN’s sales team sold three official partnerships (Ford, Navy and Red Bull), six event partners (Casio-Verizon, Geico, Hot Wheels, Mobil 1, Sony and Supercuts) and two other partners (GoPro and Olympus).

The only official partner from a year ago that opted not to return was BF Goodrich. The tire company developed a commercial around X Games competitor Shaun White last year and promoted it during Summer X, but it is not promoting that campaign this summer.

For the first time, ESPN sold event title sponsorships for the X Games. Sony will be the title sponsor of its Moto Step-Up competition, and GoPro will own BMX Big Air.

X Games partners

Official: Ford, Navy, Red Bull
Event: Casio-Verizon, Geico, Hot Wheels, Mobil 1, Sony, Supercuts
Others: GoPro, Olympus

Source: X Games

Hot Wheels is another first-time deal for the property. The sponsorship gives Mattel, which owns the brand, on-site activation rights but does not include any media. Hot Wheels is building a six-story, double vertical loop on-site and will attempt to break a world record for racing two vehicles through the loop at speeds of 52 mph.

All three of those deals highlight what Johnson described as an X Games shift to customized packages.

“It’s the way we’re selling sponsorships and indicative of what we’re going to do with global [X Games],” he said.

Johnson added that this week’s event will be the last held under X Games’ current sponsorship business model.

ESPN is taking the property global with events in France, Brazil, Spain, Germany, Los Angeles and Aspen, Colo. It is looking for six global sponsors that will have rights to all of those events. It also will sell local sponsorships in non-competing categories.

X Games will host dozens of prospective global X Games sponsors at this week’s event.