Q20 Q20 Q20
Indy Racing League (IRL) Focuses on Integrated Marketing Communications
For the first 17 years of its existence, the Championship Auto Racing Teams (known as CART and, later, as Champ Car) dominated auto racing in the United States. Open-wheel racing, involving cars whose wheels are located outside the body of the car rather than underneath the body or fenders as found on street cars, enjoyed greater notoriety than other forms of racing-including stock-car racing like NASCAR. However, not everyone associated with open-wheel racing in the United States welcomed the success enjoyed by CART. One person with major concerns about the direction of CART was Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and founder of the Indianapolis 500.
In 1994, George announced that he was creating a new open-wheel league that would compete with CART, beginning in 1996. The Indy Racing League (IRL) was divisive to open-wheel racing in the United States, as team owners were forced to decide whether to remain with CART or move to the new IRL. Only IRL members would be allowed to race in the Indianapolis 500- the world's largest spectator sport and the premiere open-wheeled racing competition. CART teams responded by planning their own event on the same day as the Indianapolis 500. The real challenge for the new IRL was developing an integrated marketing communications program to ensure maximum informational and persuasive impact on potential fans (customers). The rift between CART and the IRL resulted in both parties being unable to use the terms "IndyCar" and "Indy car." Eventually, the IRL was able to reassume the Indy Car brand name, but the temporary loss of the brand name created a challenge for promoting the new league.
A 2001 ESPN Sports Poll survey found that 56 percent of American auto racing fans said stock car racing was their favorite type of racing, with open-wheel racing third at 9 percent. The diminished appeal of open-wheel racing contributed to additional problems with sponsor relationships. Three major partners left CART, including two partners (Honda and Toyota) that provided engines and technical support to CART and its teams. During the same time, the IRL struggled to find corporate partners as a weakened economy and a fragmented market for open-wheel racing made both the IRL and CART less attractive to sponsors.
The IRL experienced ups and downs in the years following the split. Interest in IRL as measured by television ratings took a noticeable dip between 2002 and 2004, with 25 percent fewer viewers tuning in during 2004 than just two years earlier. Some sponsors pulled out, including talk-show host David Letterman. Furthermore, Tony George resigned his top positions with the IRL and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) in July 2009. He was a proponent of using profits from IMS to support operations of the IRL, funneling an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars over the years to sustain the IRL.
In response to declining interest in IRL, marketing initiatives were taken to reverse the trend by recognizing the various promotional tools available. For instance, the league dedicated a marketing staff in 2001 to its operations. In 2005, the IRL launched a new ad campaign that targeted 18- to 34-yearold males. The campaign was part of a broader strategy to expand the association of IRL beyond a sport for middle-aged Midwestern males to a younger market. IRL has created profiles on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to further target this market.
In support of this effort, two developments can be noted. First, IRL has followed a trend observed in NASCAR and has involved several celebrities in the sport through team ownership. Among the celebrities involved with IRL teams are NBA star Carmelo Anthony, former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, and actor Patrick Dempsey. Another celebrity involved with the IRL is rock star Gene Simmons. He is a partner in Simmons Abramson Marketing, who was hired to help the IRL devise new marketing strategies. The firm's entertainment marketing savvy is being tapped to help the IRL connect with fans on an emotional level through its drivers, whom Simmons referred to as "rock stars in rocket ships."
Second, driver personalities began to give the IRL some visibility. The emergence of Danica Patrick as a star in the IRL broadened the appeal of the league and assists in efforts to reach young males. Patrick was a 23-yearold IRL rookie in 2005, who finished fourth in the Indianapolis 500. The combination of the novelty of a female driver, her captivating looks, provocative advertising (particularly her Go Daddy ads), and personality made her the darling of American sports in 2005. Before moving on to NASCAR in 2012, Patrick's effect on the IRL was very noticeable; the IRL reported gains in event attendance, merchandise sales, website traffic, and television ratings during Patrick's rookie season. Patrick has since drawn the interest of many companies that have hired her as a product endorser, including Motorola, Boost Mobile, and XM Radio. In addition, she has appeared in photo shoots in FHM and the 2008 and 2009 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues. Other drivers like Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Marco Andretti, who have gained notoriety in Indy racing, also increased awareness of the IRL.
Driver personalities are critical to the promotion and communication process. Most of the drivers endorse their respective sponsors and end up in television advertising promoting the product. This is often done while showing the driver in an Indy racing car, also promoting the league. Drivers to some extent engage in personal selling by interacting with fans, signing autographs, and making personal appearances. Public relations for the drivers is important in television talk show appearances and various other word-of- mouth communication that is created when spectators start discussing the drivers. It is even possible for drivers to appear in television programs as a type of product placement, promoting themselves, the Indy League, and the IRL.
In 2008, the IRL and Champ Car decided to reunify. Although reunification was a major step toward competing against its rival NASCAR, the organization knew it needed to engage in strong integrated marketing communications if it wanted to grow its market share.
One major development for the IndyCar Series was a new television broadcast partner. ABC had televised the Indianapolis 500 for 45 years. The IRL will continue that relationship, but most of the other races on the IndyCar Series schedule (at least 13 per season) are televised by the NBC Sports Network, a cable channel that replaced ESPN as IRL's broadcast partner. While the NBC Sports Network has a smaller audience than ESPN, it covers fewer sports and plans to give the Indy- Car Series more coverage than ESPN did when it owned the broadcast rights. In addition, the NBC Sports Network signed a 10-year contract with the IRL.
Perhaps the biggest development for the IRL in recent years is its acquisition of a title sponsorship. A title sponsorship is the use of a corporate brand name to be associated with all communication about the league. Due to the decline in its popularity, the IRL lacked a title sponsor for many years. In 2009, the clothing provider Izod decided to become the official title sponsor of the IRL for six years. This sponsorship is likely to be very beneficial for the IRL, particularly as it came at a time when many sponsors for NASCAR and the IRL were pulling out due to the recession.
Auto racing is the fastest-growing spectator sport in the United States. Unfortunately, the disagreement among top leadership in open-wheel racing divided the sport, leading to a period of decline in open-wheel racing, while other forms of auto racing have grown. Therefore, the new IRL must strengthen its standing in the American motorsports market. The support of major celebrities like Patrick Dempsey and the popularity of drivers like Danica Patrick have boosted the ratings of the IRL, but not enough to overtake NASCAR (and the loss of Danica Patrick as a full-time driver to NASCAR also creates a challenge). With the two major open-wheel leagues unified once more, the IRL must begin the task of reconnecting with former fans and building connections with a new audience.
What is the link between sponsorships of cars and drivers by corporations and promotion of the IRL?