Editorial

Do heroes make a sport, or does a sport make heroes?
It's time to engage CART's sponsors

 by Mark Cipolloni
December 4, 2000

 

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Did NASCAR make Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, or did they make NASCAR?  Did AJ Foyt, Jimmy Clark and Mario Andretti help to make the Indy 500 or did the Indy 500 make them? Did Babe Ruth make baseball, or did baseball make Babe Ruth. Did Muhammad Ali make boxing, or did boxing make Ali?  The question and answer to those examples are no more clear than the question - what comes first, the chicken or the egg'   The one thing that is clear is that every sport must have its heroes, for without heroes a sport will not thrive.  Does CART have heroes?

There are two things that make sports heroes, great athletes and the effective marketing of those athletes.  A sponsors role in that marketing is paramount.  Some would have you believe that the sponsor's primary contribution to the race team is financial support.  However, sponsorship isn't just about throwing dollars at a team.  It's more than that.  Much more than that.  The most successful sport sponsorships are the ones who help an athlete grow into a celebrity while the celebrity brings increased sales to the sponsoring company.   Nike is doing that with Tiger Woods. Goodwrench Chevrolet has done that with Dale Earnhardt, DuPont with Jeff Gordon, Nike with Michael Jordan. The list is long.  In almost every documented case of successful sports sponsorship, the sponsor has used the athlete as an integral part of their advertising strategy.  And the sponsor gets a whole lot in return:

  1. A professional athlete can help a company reach goals of increased sales through better customer awareness. 

  2. A company can create high-visibility opportunities around athletes to impact target audiences with your message. 

  3. An athlete's presence can establish or enhance a company's image. 

  4. Working with a professional sports figure can set a company apart from the competition. 

  5. An association with high profile names and events will foster a sense of pride and loyalty among a company's employees, customers and vendors. 

In addition to the previous points, each company has their own reasons for developing an association with a celebrity. Some companies simply work an athlete into their existing marketing and public relations activities. Others create entirely new programs around the athlete. 

Other major sports derive the vast majority of revenues from TV-rights fees and ticket sales; for them, sponsorship dollars are almost gravy. Well, it's the exact opposite in auto racing. This sport hasn't traditionally been able to charge a fortune for TV rights or tickets, so it has long needed corporate dollars to survive. Team owners usually budget $10 million to $20 million annually.  Most, if not all, of the cost is covered by sponsorships. "Everybody out here realizes how important the sponsors are: Without 'em we're a bunch of broken-down old cars," says Dale Earnhardt. 

Like any other sport, Auto Racing is a team sport.  The driver, the engineer, the chief mechanic, the owner and the pit crew are all important.  However, just as important to the teams success is the sponsor.  The sponsor?  Yes, the sponsor must be an active part of the team, not only the actual race team they are sponsoring, but also part of the sport itself.  It isn't all just about the $10 or $20 million in team sponsorship.  It's about the the sponsors own marketing plan too.

Somehow all of NASCAR's sponsors seem to understand this. Advertisements utilizing NASCAR drivers are everywhere.  On TV, on radio, in magazines, on the side of buses, on soda cans.  You can walk into a Kmart and see a standup display for its NASCAR drivers, yet none for its CART drivers.   Is this by coincidence, or is NASCAR working behind the scenes with all current and potentially new sponsors to help them see the big picture.  To understand that sports fans worship heroes, and that heroes aren't born they are made, is to understand what sports marketing is all about.  If a sponsor can help make a hero, that hero will help them sell products.

The same can't be said for CART's sponsors.  My hat's off to Target, and more recently Toyota.  They are the only CART sponsors that regularly feature their drivers in their TV commercials.  Except for Michael Andretti, and maybe Alex Zanardi, and previously the Unser's, Rick Mears and Bobby Rahal, CART has not had many true 'heroes'.  Texaco Havoline used to feature TV ads with Mario Andretti racing his son Michael down store aisles to find the Texaco Havoline oil.  Mario Andretti has been featured in many Texaco ads, even recently.  It has helped the Andretti's gain recognition with people. 

CART's sponsors are not buying into the 'program' like NASCAR's sponsors are.  They are not engaged.  Yes, they are throwing money at the teams, but do the teams who sign these contracts insist that contract language stipulate an aggressive marketing campaign around the team and the driver?  Is that sort of planning done at the time of negotiations, or is it an afterthought? 

In NASCAR's case it's clear that sort of planning is done upfront.  Another example is CART itself.  CART signed a contract with FedEx to sponsor its series.  Here again is a CART sponsor throwing money at CART, yet their marketing plan pretty much ignores the product it sponsors.  FedEx's biggest competitor, UPS, recently signed a package deal to sponsor Dale Jarrett's NASCAR team.  Just watch how much UPS will work Jarrett into their advertisements, while FedEx continues to throw money at CART, but not much more.  How is it that NASCAR teams have the foresight to ensure this happens, yet CART can't even make it happen for themselves (FedEx), let alone them helping their teams and sponsors understand it.

Not only are CART drivers not becoming heroes, CART itself is gaining little, if any, name recognition, recognition NASCAR has achieved. This year we continued to see full-page Honda advertisements in the USA Today newspaper touting the success of their engines and their driver (this was good), yet the word "CART" was not even mentioned!  Honda was not alone. Is the right hand even talking to the left?  This is a team sport, remember, but the sponsors don't seem to be 'real' players throughout the entire CART family of drivers and teams. 

What NASCAR has working in its favor, and CART against theirs, is longevity.  NASCAR drivers stay in the series, what seems like, forever.  CART drivers are more transient.  CART and F1 are pretty much a young mans game because of the demands road course racing places on driver reflexes.  NASCAR being primarily an oval track series, does not require the ultra quick reflexes that a road course dominated series like CART does.  Hence the career of a NASCAR driver is usually much longer, whereas the career of a F1 or CART driver tends to be much shorter.  In addition, NASCAR Winston Cup is viewed by its drivers as the pinnacle of their sport.  A place where they come to stay.  However, F1, with its big budgets and World Championship moniker, is a lure to many CART drivers because they have the skills and experience to drive a F1 car.  The same can't be said for a Winston Cup driver, at least not the majority of them.  

How does a sponsor wrap an intense multi-year marketing plan around a CART driver to help grow then into a hero figure when that driver might be gone in 2 or 3 years?  It's a valid problem, but one which certainly is not insurmountable.  Adrian Fernandez the driver has sponsors that he brought into the sport.  Sponsors that help make him a hero back in Mexico while he helps them sell Tecate and Quaker State.  Mario Andretti the driver, has a major personal sponsor in Texaco.  These sponsors stay with the driver regardless of what team they drive for.  Texaco signed a 5-year $98 million sponsorship deal with Newman Haas that stipulated Michael Andretti be the driver.  Texaco invested a lot of money to help grow Andretti into a hero, and when Carl Haas didn't have Andretti as a driver anymore, Texaco cried foul.  You can bet that once Texaco settles their lawsuit with Carl Haas, they will be right back in the Andretti camp (unless some new sponsor agreement precludes it).  Sponsor/driver relationships are as important as sponsor/team relationships, maybe even more important.

In a recent article I talked about CART's need for a Corporate Visionary.  Like the heroes in stories, corporate leaders create a sense of drama, and conflict in building a corporate mythology. In effect corporate visionaries understand the key elements of building a strong story, whether this is understood consciously or unconsciously. The elements could be picked up from a book on drama or screen writing.  Pervading all is the drama of conflict, or the age old battle between the "good guy" and "bad guy." Perhaps one of the key qualities of the great business leader is that he/she can articulate the story and drama of their company so all employees (drivers, owners, officials, and sponsors) can gain a sense of the heroic themselves.  NASCAR employees and sponsors all seem to understand the folklore of NASCAR's history and the heroes of the past and the heroes of the present.  The corporate visionaries in NASCAR (and F1) have done their job, and done it well.

Will CART's next leader be that corporate visionary who can convince its sponsors to be part of the CART team, to grow the series and the drivers; to make heroes where there are few, and to make touchdowns where there are only field goals?  

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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User agreement & disclaimer

Copyright 1999 - 2000, AutoRacing1, Hamilton, NJ

 

uff/bullet.gif" width="4" height="7"> CART must differentiate itself - clearly

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For CART, it's now or never

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  2002 CART TV ratings by the numbers

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