By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
November 26, 2010: The final race in the 2010 Nascar Sprint Chase for the Cup on Nov. 20 (from Homestead-Miami race track) on ESPN was the second most-watched cable show for the prior week, scoring 5.6 million viewers. It ranked only behind the Philadelphia Eagles-Washington Redskins Monday Night Football game on ESPN on Nov. 15 in which Michael Vick passed for four touchdowns and ran for two more).
However, motor sport executives, drivers and marketing partners are lamenting ratings that were down this season, between 4-6%, according to TV analysts, on Fox, TNT and Speed. Ratings for the first four Chase races in 2010 were down 27% compared with last year (one on ABC, three on ESPN) and didn't show signs of life until the closer-than ever points chase that ultimately saw Jimmie Johnson win his fifth consecutive Cup.
Among the solutions being addressed by motor sports officials is finding ways to attract younger fans, which ties in directly with the move to Nascar in 2009 action sports star Ricky Carmichael and the recent announcement that X Games icon Travis Pastrana is headed to Nascar as a team co-owner and driver as part of the newly formed Pastrana-Waltrip Racing. The youth movement is not only essential for Nascar but across all motor sports divisions in the U.S.
"We're seeing the average age of our fans increase and that scares me. We have to do something," Randy Bernard, CEO of Indy Race League," said during a panel discussion on "The State of Motor Sports" that was conducted as part of the Ivy Sports Symposium on Nov. 19 at Princeton (NJ) University.
"We're seeing the average age of our fans increase and that scares me. We have to do something." — Randy Bernard, IRL CEO
According to Bernard, "One of the most positive things that IndyCar saw this year was a 40% increase in the 18-34-year-old male, which is a great sign." However, he stressed, "The bottom line is that we need to drive our average age down. It's very important that racing as a whole must collectively work better at reaching youth, whether it's Nascar, F1 or IndyCar."
Surveys conducted on behalf of various motor sports governing bodies indicate that the highest concentration of racing fans is between 44-55, followed by 24-44, 18-24 and then 55+.
During the panel discussion, Joseph Mattioli III, a prominent race track owner and entrerpeneur whose family owns and operates Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, PA., also expressed the urgency to not only attract a younger demographic, but turn them into long-time fans and consumers. "How do we make our events more of an event? The 50-year-old fan will come, but I want the seven-year olds excited," said Mattioli. "They have the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, but how do we get them into racing?"
One option: "Racing must get more into the schools and get the youth following racing at a young age," said Mattioli. "I'd [also] start by racing cars that the kids [who have driver's licenses] actually drive."
Mattioli related that inroads to a younger audience are being made through drivers such as his 21-year-old son, Chase Mattioli, who drives in the Nascar Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, and also is a student at Fordham University in New York. "What do they like? Parties, the opposite sex, exciting events. Make it relevant to them."
Among Chase Mattioli's sponsors are CollegeComplete.com, Big Machine Records and recycling firm GreenTree Environmental Consultants. "Through [Chase and drivers like] him we are opening up deals with new sponsorship opportunities, reaching a new and younger demographic," said the senior Mattioli.
Although IRL's most marketable driver arguably is Danica Patrick, the roster of top drivers also includes Marco Andretti, Dan Wheldon and Helio Castroneves. Among other marketing initiatives planned for next year is the 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500 (scheduled for May 29, 2011). But putting these drivers and its most iconic event front and center is only part of the strategy to attract new and/or younger fans.
Bernard, who has been CEO of IRL since February 2010, concurred that the right type of sponsorship deals can lead to younger fans finding their way to race tracks nationwide. "We could not ask for a better title sponsor than Izod," he said regarding the division of Phillips-Van Heusen that signed a multi-year deal with the racing organization in November 2009. The layered alliance includes both on- and off-track multi-media and experiential activation. "Izod is all about image and fashion, and they're targeting that 18-34-year-old male, which is very important to us."
"We need to reach out and go into the garage area," said Bernard. "This is the best place where we can create fans for life."
For various reasons, including insurance liabilities, the age allowed for access "[has] always been 18 and over in the IndyCar garage," said Bernard. "Next year will be the firs time that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and all IndyCar events will make lower it to nine years of age and older. The garage is where things are happening. It's exciting there. These kids will have a whole new understanding and appreciation for what IndyCar is. We're going to make it an entertaining, educational process for young kids in our garage area.
"This is very important," Bernard emphasized. "This is where we can create loyalty for life. We're going to reach out and do a lot of different things next year to make sure that we are continuing to work on our age being a younger age every year."
Bernard, Mattioli and other panel members also agreed that the way motor sports communicates with a younger demographic is vital. "We have to look at social media to reach younger fans, whether it's Facebook or YouTube," said Bernard. "We've got to do a better job of utilizing the social media to reach the youth of this world."
However, Bernard admitted that while advances in technology have opened up a plethora of cooommunication venues, "Technology has become so good that a fan can today enjoy a race better from home than from the grandstands. Our challenge is to make the experience at the track so good that fans will want to attend in person."
"The 50-year-old fan will come, but I want the seven-year olds excited. How do we get them into racing?" — Joseph Mattioli, chairman/CEO, Pocono Raceway
Bernard also conceded that the IRL's overall image needs to be somewhat overhauled. "The IRL is perceived, wrongly, as a champagne audience while Nascar is a beer audience," he said. "But if you come to our events and look at our fans, there are a lot of fans who are beer drinkers. We have the champagne drinkers and we don't want to alienate them because they bring in a lot of money. But our audience is beer drinkers. So we have to change that perception."
Bernard said he views Nascar as a direct competitor for IRL fan and marketing dollars. But he quickly added, "Entertainment and sports [options] are all competitors. We want to see all the racing organizations do well. But how do we differentiate ourselves from Nascar? We are the fastest cars in the world. That gives us our niche, our point of differentiation."
Action Sports Icon Travis Pastrana Flying To Nascar