library: motorsport sponsorship - a view from the outside looking in

Note: The following article first appeared in serialized form in Ernie Saxton's

About the author: Paul Allen was Pocono Raceway's first Advertising and Publicity Manager. He began to make the transition into the non-racing business world following the completion of the facility and the running of its inaugural 500 mile races for Indy Cars and USAC Stock Cars. For the past twenty years or so, he has been building business software and business-oriented websites using the latest and greatest Microsoft technology. He is located in Mesquite, Texas and has been sighted on occasion at Devil's Bowl Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. 

Whenever you read anything, you have to consider the source. As for the following, the cautionary note is that the last time I was involved in the racing business in any significant way was a REALLY long time ago. Take the words for what they are - insights offered by someone who continues to follow the sport but whose vantage point is far enough removed from the day-to-day issues to provide a detached perspective.

To give the effort an air of authenticity, I tried to slip in all the threadbare marketing terms, buzzwords, and clichés I could think of on the theory that no article on marketing would be truly complete without them.  

We've got a lot going on here: Return On Investment; Unique Selling Proposition; Thinking Outside the Box; Creativity; Brainstorming; Cross-Promotion; Modeling; Demographics; and more.

That said, it has always seemed to me that the subject of racing sponsorships isn't really all that complicated even though there will always be an ample supply of so-called "experts" trying to convince us that it really is rocket science.

So, if it isn't all that complicated, what's the big deal?

The "big deal" is that finding sponsors and keeping them happy always has been and always will be hard work that, as  often as not, requires those who seek sponsors to step out of their comfort zones, do things they may not enjoy or believe they're good at, and persist in knocking on doors until one finally opens.

It involves doing things most of us would prefer to avoid including dealing with people on their turf and on their terms, asking for stuff, and exposing ourselves to rejection.

It can be a lot like being the class nerd trying to work up the courage to ask the drop-dead beautiful cheerleader to the Senior Prom while all the time remembering that he doesn't even know how to dance. Not exactly fun.

But what if those who needed to could convince themselves that it might be fun if they allowed it to be and reminded themselves that ultimately it's all just a game they could win if they chose to play?

Thinking of it all as something of a game is not to suggest that it shouldn't be taken seriously. After all, the people who to play the game to win are the ones having the real fun - and getting all the sponsors.

Been There, Done That

In racing, nothing ever seems to change all that much - except that the numbers keep getting bigger and bigger.

I was reminded of how little the whole sponsorship thing has changed when I went back and took a look at an article I'd written on the subject more than 30 years ago. With minor updating, it could easily pass for something written yesterday.

One part of the sport that hasn't changed even a little bit is the racers themselves. All they want to do is race.

The problem is that the more expensive it gets, the more the pressure mounts to get others to help foot the bill. That, of course, is where sponsorships come into play.

It's All About ROI

No doubt, you've heard it too many times before but it all comes down to that "ROI" thing - Return On Investment. What kind of return is the sponsor going to get for his investment in your race team?

Just painting a sponsor's name on the side of your car won't get the job done. The sponsor will never see the ROI he's looking for. You need to offer more.

The question becomes, more of what? And, how are you going to pull it off?

The easy answer to the first part of the question is - more exposure. Be aware, however, that it is a simplistic answer to what can be a complex question.

Sophisticated marketing plans, for instance, take into account far more than raw numbers. The real question might not be how many fans saw you race or how many people caught a glimpse of your hauler chugging down the highway, but could instead focus on the relevance of it all - the quality, not quantity of the exposure you generate - the demographics of your audience.

Modeling Success

A good starting point in looking for an answer to the "how are you going to pull it off" part of the question is to study the "big guys" to see what they do and then try to do the same thing yourself. It's called "Modeling Success". For the sake of brevity, we'll focus on the drivers while acknowledging that in the big leagues, it's car owners and what they do that matter most.

The top NASCAR guys as a group seem to make the best models. They always have lots of sponsors. The names of those sponsors always seem to find their way into every conversation and the right logos always find their way into every picture. The ROI factor for NASCAR sponsors, when you add up all the TV time, goes off the chart.

Outside the NASCAR ranks, John Force's name immediately comes to mind as a master of the art of giving a sponsor his money's worth. The IRL people talk a good game, claiming they're always out doing something, somewhere. But, have you ever actually seen an real live IRL driver except for Danica anywhere other than at the track - and no, the IRL doesn't get bonus points because you watched Helio on Dancing With the Stars? That was a fluke.

Tony Stewart is a classic example of putting sound theory into practice. Imagine how difficult must be to get a picture of Stewart in Victory Lane or in a post-race interview on pit road without that Old Spice towel draped over his shoulder and a Coke in his hand, neither of which, of course, ever obscures his Home Depot logos. And, imagine what the odds are that you could turn on a NASCAR broadcast and not see an interview with Stewart.

Contrast that to what you see in Victory Lane at your local track or when you open up your track's weekly racing program or a regional racing paper. There's a good chance that if there is a sponsor's name on the car, it will be obscured by something, more often than not, the driver standing in front of the car. Little stuff, hardly worth mentioning? Not exactly.

Another slightly more subtle lesson to be learned from the so-called big guys is that whatever happens at the track is just a part of the equation and perhaps not the biggest part. During the week, they're out doing media events, taping commercials, working trade shows, attending store openings, and all that sort of thing. In other words, they're selling the sponsor's name seven days a week. Why? Because that's what it takes to pay the bills.

For the struggling weekly racer pressed for time, treating the selling process as a something approaching a full time job can be somewhat overwhelming. Working a real full time job, spending endless hours in the race shop, and then squeezing in the time to actually race on the weekends doesn't leave a whole lot of hours for other things.

The journey can begin with a something as basic as wardrobe selection.

Making sure you're wearing a clean team T-shirt (or better yet, a real grown-up team shirt with a collar) when you go to the local mall or show up at the track is at least a small step in the right direction - assuming, of course, that your shirt doesn't look like it was designed by someone who went to art school but dropped out on the second day (Be honest. Don't you think that most T-shirts with race cars painted on them really suck?). It's all about increasing your visibility and projecting the kind of professional image that would appeal to a company that might have a few sponsorship dollars to spend.

Sometimes, turning yourself into a walking billboard has unexpected consequences. Ask me about the day I wore the Dale Jr. T-shirt my wife gave me to Tom Thumb and some guy pushing a cart connected the dots, concluded that I must be interested in racing, cornered me, and talked my ear off for nearly half an hour. If only I'd had something to sell the guy that day. I was just a shopping cart's length away from getting a fancy custom paint job for my nonexistent race car - for free.

The problem faced by drivers who need sponsors is first to find them, and then find a way to give them value for the dollars they spend.

Observing what those who actually have happy sponsors do and learning from them, reading publications like this one, and listening to what the sports marketing professionals who contribute to it have to say can teach you everything you need to know about the process.

OK, maybe not everything.

In the final analysis, every situation is unique and the only thing that matters is what works for you. It's probably not going to be exactly what worked for the other guy.

A Few Universal Truths

Within the category of universal truths you need to deal with, one is that the odds are you won't be able to do it alone. You're going to need lots of help. You need a team.

The difficulty is that most drivers aren't team players by nature. They tend to be Type A personalities with big egos who thrive on the kind of one-to-one combat racing offers. That isn't a criticism, just an observation. It's why drivers become drivers, not fly fishermen. For such people, assuming the role of a true team player or manager tends to be something of an acquired skill.

Once you're willing to admit you might need some help, recruiting team members who can bring something to the party is the next step. Make no mistake about it, this isn't an audition for the amateur hour. Just like in any other business, you need people who have demonstrated knowledge and skills in specific areas.

The kid next door might be great at building websites. The local college might have advertising and marketing students aching to add to their resumes by creating a real marketing plan for a real business. There are lots of retired guys floating around with all kinds of valuable skills and too much time on their hands.

The secret to putting together a successful team, inside or outside the sport, is putting the right people in the right positions and making sure that the team members get rewarded for their efforts. Team members are just like sponsors. If somebody is willing to give you some help, you're obligated to offer that person something in return.

Another universal truth is that drivers who don't have sponsors rarely get sponsors - which triggers mention of a third universal truth: Racers are pathological copycats.

Modeling success can be a useful technique but it does have its limits.

If somebody does something that seems to work, the next week everybody else in the pits will be trying exactly the same thing.

When drivers want sponsors, they always seem to end up knocking on the same doors, using the same sales pitch.

The problem where sponsorships are concerned is that there's a limit to how many guys the local speed shop can sponsor.

Sponsorless, penniless, and the local speed shop already has nineteen guys who want a sponsor standing in line in front of you? Perhaps it's time to get creative. Perhaps it's time to "Think Outside the Box".

More Clichés and Threadbare Terms

If you study the subject in enough depth, you'll notice that every successful team has something that makes it different than the competition. In the marketing business, it's called a "Unique Selling Proposition" - yet another term marketing people really love.

It's not about completely reinventing the wheel but instead has more to do with improving it just enough to make your wheel stand out in a crowded marketplace.

What's your USP? 

Nothing Ever Changes - Except the Stuff that Changes 

While I'll stand by the claim that not much about the racing business every really changes, one of the things that has changed over time is what constitutes the definition of a prospective sponsor and how a sponsorship agreement might be structured.

In the current environment, you can use racing to sell almost anything to anybody. Everybody is a potential sponsor. A company that seems like the most unlikely candidate, might represent the best opportunity.

As for sponsorship agreements, they don't necessarily need to be a standard yearly contract and frequently aren't. With costs continuing to escalate at every level of the sport, there will undoubtedly be more "shared" sponsorships, not fewer, and more special promotions like Marco Andretti's Indiana Jones sponsorship at Indy.

Creativity 101:

Putting together a winning package starts with an idea. Let the brainstorming begin with the understanding that there are no truly bad ideas when it comes to brainstorming. Even an idea that seems stupid beyond belief just might the one that triggers a great idea.

It's worthwhile to keep in mind, however, that being creative and coming up with gimmicks aren't exactly the same thing. Creative people can be elevated to the status of genius. Guys who come up with nothing more than an endless stream of gimmicks always end up being regarded as hustlers.

It's not what you're looking at, it's what you see. You see a donut. Somebody else sees a caloric time bomb.

Have you ever noticed, for instance, that sponsors more often than not come in pairs or sets of three? Think Home Depot-Lowes-Menards; Subway-McDonalds; Bud-Miller-Coors; Geico-Nationwide-Allstate; Stanley-Chraftsman-Kobalt. It's not a coincidence. Company B is there because their competitor - company A - is there.

Everybody knows that the only reason quarter panels exist is so that there will be someplace on the car to paint the sponsor's name. Open wheel racers are forced to improvise by sticking big wings on top of their roll cages and building pontoon-like structures on the sides of their cars.The challenge lies in putting the space to good use. There's nothing worse than a naked quarter panel.

A late night brainstorming session could lead to the conclusion that it might not be such a bad idea to make your rear quarter panel an ever-changing billboard until you find a real sponsor.

In the absence of real sponsors, few teams would ever think of inventing weekly or monthly sponsors to populate their rolling billboard - businesses with interesting names and products that only exist in the car owner's mind. How about the Alaska Pineapple Growers Association?

Going for a laugh or at least a smile can be one approach but if you choose to do so, tread lightly. Comedy is serious business. Bet nobody's ever seen a car sponsored by the Carolina Institute for the Confused and Bewildered and hard to imagine what kind of sponsor would be interested in trying to follow that act.

Reverse Sponsorships

No imagination, no sense of humor, and no sponsor? Why not do something responsible with the space?

There's an endless list of charities and worthy causes to advertise. And, of course, there's always a local high school or college mascot to promote. The NASCAR guys seem to have written the book on those kinds of "sponsorships" - which are actually reverse sponsorships that make you the sponsor.

Charitable "sponsorships" are like any other in the sense that a little paint on the side of the car isn't going to have much of an impact. Working with your track promoter to turn a night at the track into a fund raising event with volunteers taking donations at the front gate can take it all to an entirely different level.

What does the effort buy you? The answer is; contacts and exposure. I don't know if you could score a charitable tax deduction along the way but the thought does raise an interesting question that may already have been answered within the pages of this publication.

It's all about taking some sort of action intended to make the right things happen: establish contacts; get noticed; and send the message that there's somebody out there on the track who knows how to play the game. It doesn't land you sponsors but it positions you to do so.

Let's take the whole contacts and exposure thing down to a personal level. Why would somebody like me who clearly has no horse in this race take the time to write a fairly lengthy article on the subject of sponsorships?

It could be for a combination of reasons. One possibility is that it might, in some round-about way, lead to a contact with a company interested in the kinds of business software and websites we build - nothing a typical short track racing team would be likely to need or could afford. But then again, if the guy running the team also owned a business other than his race team, he might want to at least visit our website to see what we do.

The point is and the point to be made to anyone looking for a sponsor is that while we never know where something might lead, we all we have a pretty darn good idea where doing nothing will take us.

Cross Promotion

Getting back to the "big guys" and modeling techniques that actually work: These days everybody's doing cross-promotions - tying their partners together in one way or another. Notice how many logos see you for different companies in any commercial featuring a driver. Notice that if there's a different name on Jimmy Johnson's quarter panel, it will be for a product you can buy at Lowe's.

Perhaps your career in cross-promotion could start with, of all people, your local track promoter. God forbid that you should ever do anything that would suggest that the two of you share some common interests.

If he's like most, he always has empty seats. Filling those seats with people who wouldn't otherwise be there can be a win-win proposition that will make his concession stand cash register ring loudly enough to make him think you're both geniuses. All you need is a plan and a convincing sales pitch. It goes without saying that the ultimate objective would be to make sure that any free tickets that fell out of the promoter's pocket landed in the laps of people who conceivably could do you some good.

The thing I've noticed about most ticket promotions is that the promoter is too stingy or has too little imagination.

Do ticket promotions that "paper the house" fall into the category of bad business? Not necessarily. There are rumors that some highly regarded promoters doing business at the highest levels of the sport have been known to give away a ticket or two if for no other reason than to make the grandstands look full when the TV cameras are turned on. Is your promoter going to push the edge of the free ticket envelope without a little encouragement? Perhaps not.

Devil's Bowl Speedway in Mesquite, Texas is within earshot of my house when the wind is blowing in the right direction. The guy who runs the place (the same guy who puts on the Chili Bowl every winter) advertises free admission to the residents of different Dallas suburbs (some of which have populations well in excess of 100,00 people) at most of his regular weekly shows. Giving away lots of tickets must work for him. He's been doing it for years.

We could cite examples of where a little creativity might lead and the value of modeling success endlessly. It takes very little effort for those of us sitting on the sidelines to offer an uninterrupted flood of suggestions. But you get the point.

The reality is that drivers who want to find somebody to help pay the bills (especially in a slowing economy) are probably going to get to the Promised Land only by becoming a bit more - to use that ugly word again - creative.

Boris Who?

Did I neglect to slip Boris Said's name into the conversation?

Said is a marketing guy who puts his own spin on the creativity thing and gives the impression that he just might be having his share of fun as part of the deal.

You can say what you want to about his goofy hairdo but you can't ignore the fact that he shows up at a major NASCAR event a few times a year with a real sponsor's name on the side of a pretty competitive racecar.

It's probably not a coincidence that when he's around, the TV cameras always seem to find him.

Not bad for a part-timer with a fan club made up of a bunch of oddballs who wear funny wigs and call themselves "Said Heads". And, not the worst thing in the world for a sport that sometimes takes itself a bit too seriously.

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