If IndyCar wants to be “on the rise,” every single aspect of IndyCar needs to really believe ... it's all about the fans.
I’m talking about tattoo-level commitment to finding and keeping more fans by everyone from the janitor at 16th and Georgetown to the drivers and team owners to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar board members.
I know I repeat myself (again and again), but survival is not about YOU (everyone who profits off IndyCar), it’s about THEM (fans).
Right about here everyone’s gonna jump in with an “it’s more of B-to-B (business to business) play.” In marketing talk, B-to-B is when one business tries to sell to other businesses, usually for goods and services consumers aren’t interested in. Like my day job, which is writing marketing copy. No consumer I know buys marketing copy, so I market to other businesses. So rather than advertise in mass media, I sent out mailers and stuff to a list of businesses that I suspect would need some marketing copy. Or bulldozers. Not a lot of people are in the market for a bulldozer, but a lot of construction companies buy them all the time. So Caterpillar does all B-to-B marketing. “B-to-C” is marketing shorthand business to customer. Think consumer goods like soda pop, sneakers, clothing etc.
I’ve heard the B-to-B theory repeatedly. It goes: IndyCar needs to be attractive to companies who are looking to sell to other companies. I’ve also heard the experiential value theory, which says IndyCar needs to appeal to companies that have lots of employees because then said company can give their employees passes to the races and keep said employees happy.
Nobody should exclude B-to-B or experiential appeal (companies often sponsor local races in order to give their employees or members special access, reduced or free tickets etc.) but fans still have to be Priority 1. For one thing, there's TV ratings. TV ratings are what drive the revenue bus in big-league sports, and fans are what drive TV ratings. There are not a lot of construction company owners out there, so if they ALL watch a Caterpillar-sponsored IndyCar that’s, what, 10,000? High-cost sports need viewership in the millions to make the return on investment (ROI) work for sponsors.
PLUS, racing needs happy track owners. Track owners are under no obligation to host IndyCar races. IndyCar can't just pull up and say "lucky you! We're putting you on our schedule!" Track owners are only happy when the either get A) a piece of the sport’s TV contract or B) butts in seats and ideally C) both. TV networks pay NASCAR zillions just for the rights to broadcast the races, and NASCAR cuts the tracks in on the largess, hence every track on the planet wants a NASCAR race because it’s almost guaranteed profit even if nobody shows up to watch.
Conversely, IndyCar doesn’t give tracks any TV money, plus they ask for a $1 million plus sanctioning fee, so the track has to either find a local sponsor who will kick out cash to have the race there or sell enough tickets to fans (not construction company owners) to drive revenue to at least break even. No track is going to stage a race event and lose money. IndyCar isn’t a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity, after all.
This whole long, rambling preamble, which I have been through many many times before, so often that many have probably stopped reading by now, was touched off by an article I read yesterday titled “On eve of the Indy 500, IndyCar inching its way back into the public eye” in the Fort Wayne News Sentinel. You can read it here.
The article was kind of a recap of IndyCar then and now, with some glimmers of hope that it’s gaining momentum. Ironically, the glimmers were based on some recently encouraging TV ratings which, again, are driven by fans.
The article quotes Eddie Cheever Jr. at length, and Eddie talks about IndyCar’s effort to reduce expenses. All well and good.
YES, reducing costs to teams is essential. Because it gets at the ROI equation. Reducing the required investment reduces the size of return to make it work. Sports that only require $500,000 a year to complete don’t need 3.0 TV ratings because the investment is low. Sports that only cost $50,000 a year to compete probably don’t need TV at all. But sports that cost $10 million a year to compete need TV eyeballs to make the return end of ROI work.
But the word “fan” does not appear even once in the above-referenced article. If Eddie said it, it wasn’t included in the article. You’d think that if fans were your oxygen (and they are in every high-cost pro sport), you’d maybe talk about how much we love fans, how much we need fans, how important fans are, what we plan to do for fans, how IndyCar has improved in attracting fans. Fans fans fans.
Nah. It’s all about cost reduction and leveling the playing field so different teams can win … without quite going the extra yard and saying WHY that is important, and that is to attract and retain more fans.
Now, the article itself probably wouldn’t have set me off because it was just another example of talking around the hard, multi-year, focused effort required to attracting fans. But then I see Tweets from drivers like Pippa Mann who is literally sticking her body in between the fencing to interact with a little fan (see photo above), and I think …
What if every single driver – all 33 of them – made Pippa-level effort to engage fans. Even if you’re not on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/pippamann and look through her twitter posts. You can do that even if you don’t have a twitter account. Look at all the stuff she does every single day to interact with fans. Check her site for photo galleries of her interactions.
Maybe some others do and I’m not aware of it. If so, bravo, bravo, bravo. You’re doing more than you know to advance the sport. Now consider all 33 drivers doing what Pippa does. That’s not going to move the needle on attracting and retaining fans? I think it moves it a lot. And if someone like Chip Ganassi starts schmoozing random paying-customer fans, well then either the apocalypse is upon us or IndyCar is actually all in on this fan thing. IndyCar offers unparalleled access to the garages and drivers -- much greater than NASCAR -- yet they don’t seem willing to capitalize on it.
So you’re saying “Well, lots of drivers have all kinds of sponsor things going on at Indy and don’t have time to do what Pippa does.” Rubbish. They (including the "stars") can’t take 30 minutes total out of their day to interact with fans? Seriously? I'm talking about going way above and beyond the organized autograph sessions. Maybe 15 minutes after every practice to stand out by their garages and meet and greet? I genuinely doubt that. If you own a business, and your employees or vendors or contractors say “I got no time to please customers” get ready to go out of business.
This fan interaction isn't always easy for drivers. It's a lot of work. At Indy it just adds to the big demands on your time. You have to do it when you maybe don't feel like it. You have to do it when your car shit and when you're on the pole. As an introvert, I get that there are times when you want to cave up. But there's really no excuse.
If you like having the opportunity to drive fast, you absolutely have to schmooze the fans.
Yes, of course, drivers have to schmooze the sponsors at Indy. I get that. But I seriously doubt every driver is so booked that he or she can’t squeeze out noticeable amounts of time in the day to interact with fans. And I know there's zero excuse at tracks outside Indy for not working the garage area and fan zone as a driver.
I am encouraged by the moves of IndyCar czar Mark Miles. He seems to get the fans thing. He gets that attracting and pleasing fans -- making them feel they get lots of value out of their ticket price -- is Priority 1 for the success of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the series as a whole. For now he’s focusing on driving fan value at IMS. I hope that attitude ripples out to all the other IndyCar races as well.
Fans fans fans. Say it. Live it. Breathe it. If everybody gets onboard the Fans are the Focus train, IndyCar can truly be on the rise.
Here are some more ideas for IndyCar, offered only to head off the "if you're so smart, what should IndyCar do to attract fans" retort.