Vibrant, relevant, different, important to new fans. That’s what people are saying about Indy Car’s new partnership with Verizon, a mega-player in sports business if there ever was one in the U.S. today. Then again that’s what people said about IZOD’s involvement four years ago, and Izod put its money into non-conventional spending and branding as it sought to lift the sport away from its core fans and find more casual interest. Unfortunately the buzz, didn’t offset the in-fighting, confusing television, the departure of several stars and at least one major tragedy, to lift the sport away from anything, and the apparel brand moved on to projects that probably best fit their brand message. Cool and hip didn’t match really with fast and exciting all the time.
So now the 10 year relationship is being heralded as another huge lift for the very exciting, ultra-experiential racing brand as it seeks to find its mainstream footing as well as gain momentum amongst the racing fan in North America, with the continued battle with NASCAR and the always hovering specter of Formula 1 sitting out there to engage as well. Will it work?
For sure Verizon is a much better fit for the world’s fastest and most technologically savvy racing circuit. Speed and efficiency are what Verizon is supposed to be about, so there is a match there. Telecommunications companies are all about using sport as a testing ground for new products and as a way to engage mass casual audiences, and Indy Car can deliver on both fronts. They can also borrow some pages from what Sprint has done to market NASCAR and vice versa, and can even go one step further since the brand already sponsors the highly successful Team Penske program, as well as being the primary sponsor of the cars of Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya, so it is not like an effective partnership has to re-write the book on successful integration.
The question remains how well can Indy Car market itself as well. It appears that maybe the cards are aligning as best they have in years. The Danica Patrick hangover is gone, and the sport has as deep a field of talent and telegenic drivers as it has had in years, with Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon and Marco Andretti all potential crossover stars. It has the keystone of the Indy 500 to use as a lynchpin to casual fans, and it has a second year race at Pocono Raceway to draw brand and fan interest from both Philadelphia and New York, a place where Indy Car is missing a consistent presence that the other circuits have sought to drive to help sell its story, in addition to what is now a more consistent series across the country. Its TV package is better, and Verizon can also hopefully bring the weight of cross-promotion across its other sports platforms to lift the profile of the drivers and the races. Their coverage area is heavy in cities where Indy Car is NOT a household name, so that spillover can also be a boon for name awareness as well as brand affinity. So a bigger push married with a mainstream consumer brand which has that name recognition away from retail could just be the trick.
Will it work? Not overnight. The announcement and the series have gotten a late start for 2014, with the announcement coming just prior to this weekend’s opening race in St. Petersburg. The competition on telecom for elite sports not just in North America but across the world is very high, and the race to gain market share can bring many to question the ROI on spends like title sponsorships. However Verizon is one company that seems to have made the title work well beyond just slapping a name on a building or a circuit. The learning curve for casual consumers with Indy Car is still pretty high, although almost everyone can understand what racing is when they see the cars in any form of media. What they will need to see more of are the drivers and their personalities, which is what NASCAR has done best. What will also have to make this work are other sponsors investing in the sport on the large scale marketing side, as Verizon cannot do this alone. The races are very expensive, the technology is fast and the risk factor for disaster remains high, so it will not be easy. It will have to be a steady build with little wins along the way, and it is not something which can be evaluated by ratings numbers for a weekend broadcast in a single year. Indy car needs to take a page out of the NHL and MLS in terms of selling its partnership; continued digital integration, a cool and wow factor and cutting edge non-traditional promotion while still embracing its core fans. It won’t be easy, but the sport has excitement, power and it is highly experiential, all things which Verizon can help amplify as they get the partnership moving.
Will the partnership breathe new life into Indy Car? There are dollars, marketing, and a series of best practices with a brand that “gets it” in the mix, along with a hope that this is not a fast fix in the world’s fastest sport. Hopefully it pulls in casual fans, catches that speed in a bottle and then gets other brands into the mix to create a successful run for all involved. It won’t be a quick fix, it will be more of a marathon, but it will be one hopefully worth watching, even at 200 miles per hour.