It’s all change as the second-most popular racing series in America gears up for another three country, 26-track, 35-race marathon. One of the biggest adjustments this season is the change in title sponsor. After 26 years, the Busch brand is bowing out, with Nationwide Insurance signing on the dotted line for the next seven years. The incoming insurance giant will pony up a reported $70 million with their deal set to run concurrently with the TV package through 2013. That sort of money isn’t exactly chump change and you can be certain Nationwide will be seeking a substantial return on their investment, if not in the immediate future then certainly as the sponsorship plays out across the next seven years.
How Nationwide activates the deal will be fascinating to watch. To date, we’ve seen a couple of big announcements: the “largest sponsor contribution to the points fund in series history” and the launch of a Nationwide Fantasy League that carries a $100,000 prize. In addition, Nationwide will commit to an annual ad buy on ESPN that sources report will be in the $4-5 million range. Just as with the change from cigarettes to cellphones at the Cup level in 2004, the change from beer to insurance affords Nationwide the opportunity to explore different markets and innovative tactics not previously accessible with an alcohol brand. In some senses, it’s still a tough choice because there are many bad ways to spend marketing dollars.
Far be it from me to tell a company with $157 billion in assets how to do things, but here’s my sponsorship activation suggestion. At every Nationwide race this year and for every season of the deal, give away 1,000 free tickets to local school kids (and requisite parents). Make it part of a competition or a prize if you want. Throw in half-price ticket coupons for their friends, free at-track food and drinks and money off on Series merchandise as part of the deal. Make it a real grassroots community effort that could even include stuff like lesson plans for teachers. Add super prizes for the 10,000th, 20,000th (etc.) fan to get a ticket. The halo effect of the promotion should also give local ticket sales a boost. Regardless, the ticket giveaway would bring a whole new generation of fans to the track – many for the first time and that can only be good for the long-term future of the series (not to mention that all important brand recognition, .)
Speaking of which, Nationwide’s approach to branding the series seems pretty clear from their opening release “the best of both worlds – today’s stars and the next generation of great NASCAR drivers.” Given Cup regulars have won 66 of the last 70 races, to some extent this approach is a reflection of reality. The big stars fill the stands, but ultimately it is the second half of the statement that is the most important part. Cup driver moonlighting aside, the Nationwide Series is and should always be about development – a series where young drivers can hone their skills before making the jump to Cup. Increasingly this is becoming less and less the case.
Two prime cases in point are Stephen Leicht and Danny O’Quinn. Leicht finished seventh in points in 2007 (third among Busch-only drivers) and ended up with three top fives, seven top 10s and of course that big win in Kentucky. When his Yates team was shut down he was picked up by RCR and will run at least two races. O’Quinn was the 2006 Rookie of the Year but only ran 10 races in 2007. At the time of this writing he’s looking for a Nationwide or Truck ride. Much of the problem for the younger drivers is just that; their youth and their inexperience. Sponsors are reluctant to commit to an unproven or unknown driver when they can have the pre-packaged Cup superstar (albeit for far fewer races). In uncertain economic times, advertising dollars are always the first to be cut. More than ever before sponsors are picking and choosing and they’re being very selective.
A knock-on effect of the practice formerly known as “Buschwhacking” and this sponsor recalcitrance is that there are fewer and fewer full-season Nationwide-only teams. At the time of writing, only 13 drivers are inked in for all 35 races. Five Cup drivers will run a complete slate and another 15 cars will run full seasons with multiple drivers. At least another 15-20 cars will run partial schedules. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to say a few Nationwide Series fields might be a couple of drivers short of the full complement.
Painted in this light you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all doom and gloom, but 2.7 million fans attended races last year, and that’s a big number however you want to look at it. With Cup regulars again swelling the fields across the 10-month season the same sort of at-track attendance can be reasonably assumed in 2008. ESPN will once again televise all 35 races and Dale Jarrett will be a welcome addition in the booth alongside his old high school buddies Dr. Jerry Punch and Andy Petree (once he finishes up his driving duties). With new cars in 2009, the possibility of full-time Cup drivers being unable to earn points toward the championship and a slew of other mooted modifications, change is most assuredly afoot. The Series is going nowhere regardless of the issues and criticism swirling around.
As we’ll see next week in part two of my Nationwide Series preview there are still plenty of young guns and promising rookies to get excited about – this season perhaps more than ever. I’ll also make some fearless (and massively rookie) predictions for the upcoming campaign, so check back next Friday for a second installment.