The IZOD IndyCar Series returns to the track for the start of the 2013 season this weekend in St. Petersburg, and Frontstretch is here to get you up to speed on your favorite open-wheelers. As part of our season preview coverage, IndyCar Editor Toni Montgomery recently had the chance to speak with Mark Sibla, Vice President of Partner Strategy for INDYCAR, about the state of the sport. Find out how INDYCAR copes with a challenging economy, offers exceptional value to their partners, and who Sibla thinks might be the breakout driver of the year.
Toni Montgomery, Frontstretch.com: Please tell us about your background. How and when did you start in INDYCAR? Did you grow up around racing or did you come from outside and if so, how did you end up in motorsports?
Mark Sibla: It’s kind of a long story, but I will tell you, I did grow up around the automotive world. I come from a fairly blue-collar background and so we went to a number of events whether it would be hot rod festivals, the NHRA Spring Nationals in East Columbus, or different stock car events. When I was growing up, I was always fascinated with automobiles. I think the passion was probably around the fact that somebody could build something that would go so fast. I was always around it but I never thought I would end up in motorsports.
When I went to college, I was more focused on the business side of film. I went to school in Wilmington, NC, where they filmed Dawson’s Creek, and everybody knew Wilmington from that show. When I was in grad school, an internship came up for Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and I thought, great opportunity to see if I want to be involved in something like motorsports or if I want to head back to film. I did the internship and absolutely loved it. I got involved mostly on the marketing and event management side initially and then moved over to sponsorship. It just seemed to be the perfect blend of passion for the sport and the business side. From Mid-Oho I then came over to INDYCAR.
Montgomery: Tell us about your job at INDYCAR. What particular aspects of the sport are you primarily responsible for and what do you do on a day to day basis?
Sibla: Partner strategy within INDYCAR is almost like an agency unto itself. We oversee the partners that are signed and involved with the sport. It’s a step above just fulfillment, providing tickets, hospitality and things like that. What we try to do is focus on a couple of things. One, the return on objectives and return on investment that’s been set forth by the partner, so whether that’s Verizon talking about application downloads or Avis talking about more rentals, we sit down the client and try to understand that, and then how can we use their asset allocation with the series, as well as other assets we may have available to meet that objective. The big thing for us, and I think we recognize this, is working with partners to activate in and around the sport. I think if you look at motorsports overall, I think NASCAR’s done a really nice job of having partners activated that have told that story on behalf of their sport and that’s really what our group is focused on doing as it applies to INDYCAR.
Montgomery: 2012 was a very positive year for INDYCAR in a lot of ways. What do you think was maybe the biggest thing that was a positive in getting INDYCAR headed in the right direction?
Sibla: I think it was the introduction of multiple OEM’s on the engine side. With Honda continuing to bring their support and Chevy joining that fold, and they’ve both continued on into this year as well. It’s created more interest for the fans. You have fans of both makes and so they love following that. It’s also brought that activation. Honda’s done a fantastic job with their “Fastest Seat in Sports” and that promotion, and Chevy’s done an excellent job with the at-track events that they have. They have a great display that they bring in to the IndyCar races. Bringing those multiple engine manufacturers I think was the most exciting thing for our sport in 2012.
Montgomery: How do you turn positive gains with fans into positive interest from potential corporate partners?
Sibla: Corporate partners are going to want to go where the fans are, and I think when you have a property that’s on the rise and has that growth potential, you’re going to get corporate partners that are going to flock there. Whether it’s the opportunity to market to those fans, if it’s a consumer facing brand that wants to interact with those fans, or it’s just to create great events like Long Beach, where companies that maybe do business to business want to bring people to the event, so it’s a sought after event and they’re able to offer that to their customers. I think it’s a fairly easy tie-over because those partners are looking to be involved with things that frankly are popular. For us it’s good because we’ve got that forward growth and I think people take notice of that.
Montgomery: How do you get the right balance between corporate partners pairing up with your teams or supporting INDYCAR itself and becoming the official product of INDYCAR?
Sibla: My first role here at INDYCAR was focused on driving partners to the teams. It was a position that was staffed by INDYCAR but very much focused on the teams. We’ve continued that. We have another gentleman in that role where he literally goes out and seeks partners and then drives those to the teams. I think that it doesn’t have to be an either/or. I think in many cases we find that it’s both. You look at Verizon. They’re involved with a team as well as the series. Novo Nordisk, same situation. Many of those groups actually came over first on the team side and they said “Hey, we want to open up to additional assets that the league offers.” So we’ve worked with them and I think we’ve worked with them in a manner to complement the programs they have with the teams and I think that’s worked out very well. I think you also look at Century 21 just signed, both with the series and with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. That was one that the series was able to drive to a team, but the combination made sense. They were looking for some key events, Indianapolis 500 being the focus, and that’s where you’ll see the paint scheme on Josef Newgarden’s car, but then they also wanted the longevity of the season itself from some assets the league has. I think it very much can be paired together, it doesn’t always have to be one or the other.
Montgomery: The economy has been extremely challenging over the last few years. How has that affected what you do? Do you feel like it’s finally starting to improve and how will that affect what you do moving forward?
Sibla: It’s forced us to continue to be very rifled in our approach to insure what I talked about earlier. When you’re working with partners, and we made this switch to our department probably two years ago, even the title of the department was sponsor services and it was probably more focused on fulfillment. Here’s the contract deliverables, whether it’s PA announcements, tickets, or so forth. I think now what we’ve changed this department over to is this focus on return on objectives, return on investment and with that you build a stronger value proposition so it makes the renewals easier and I think it’s also something that our sales team when they go out and sell to folks, it’s something they can talk about. So someone says, hey, I’m investing, and there’s someone at the series who has my best interests in mind and wants to see it be successful. I think the economy has just made people be more focused. Is it more difficult? Yes. Are the dollars out there? Absolutely. You just have to be very educated and you have to go after the partners and show you can provide value and if you do that the money is there and the partnerships are there.
Montgomery: So really the challenging economy has created a whole new business model that’s probably better moving forward than what you were doing before?
Sibla: I think so. I think whenever you have a downturn like that, you have to adapt and you have to take a hard look at things and I think we did that here at INDYCAR and said let’s focus on providing value to our partners. Another big thing is the activation, working with them to activate around our sport. I think the days of somebody just coming in with money and whether it’s putting a logo on a car or just using a league marker, I think they want to see how can I use those assets to accomplish a set goal, whether that’s selling more widgets or increasing exposure, what are the other elements that go into that? I think if you can come and show them you have an all encompassing plan, you’re going to be effective and I don’t care if that’s motorsports or stick and ball or other things. I think one of the things we’ve seen is it’s not just sports you’re competing against, you’re competing against all entertainment anymore and you’re also probably competing a little bit and you’re starting to see some groups work together with non-profits because I think they’ve found there are some unique opportunities to work together. It has changed it a little bit but I think it’s worked out pretty well for us.
Montgomery: What kinds of things do you think INDYCAR could do to grow the audience further and maybe try to compete more with NASCAR?
Sibla: I think NASCAR has a very strong fan base and they’re doing a lot of things very well. I think that for INDYCAR, we need to focus on who we are. I think we’re doing a good job of that. I think again, and maybe this is because of the area I’m in, I think it’s working with our partners. You look at what Verizon is doing, here’s a group that just got done filming two commercials that look great that are not only going to promote the sport, but are going to promote an app that they’ve helped us develop that really is extremely fan friendly. It’s free, you can download it, it has the live timing and scoring on it, they’ve got different camera angles, you can get all kinds of news and information. I think NASCAR’s had some great partners that have helped grow that sport, and I think we’ve taken notice of that and we’re working with our partners to do the same. I think if we do that we’ll successful in our own right.
Montgomery: What do people have to look forward to from INDYCAR this year? Are there any ideas in the works that will keep that interest from fans and corporate partners growing?
Sibla: Absolutely. I think the big thing for us this year will be “Turbo,” a movie that’s coming out this July. It’s a film with Dreamworks that we partnered with them on. The concept is a neat one. It’s about a snail that aspires to race at the Indy 500 and through some interesting actions and scenarios actually gets that opportunity. I think it’s a huge film for us. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is very much integrated into it. Going back to what we talked about, activating with partners, this is the first time that you’re seeing brands integrated into an animated feature film of this sort. Verizon is involved, Hewlett Packard is involved, Target is involved, Chevy is involved, Sunoco, Firestone, are actually integrated authentically into the movie. I think that will be something that will be huge for our sport, huge for our partners, and gives us the ability to really speak to that younger audience and educate them about the Indy 500 and INDYCAR overall.
Montgomery: Let’s wrap it up talking about the on-track part of the sport. Who do you think is shaping up to be the biggest breakthrough driver this year?
Sibla: I’ll say that it’s going to be Simona de Silvestro. I think she certainly has the skill set and I think she has a great opportunity this year with her teammate Tony Kanaan. She looked great at the Barber open test. That will be my big breakthrough driver this year. It would be popular with the fans too. She is not only a great driver, she’s also one of the nicest people you’ll probably ever meet.
Montgomery: What one venue that INDYCAR does not visit this year do you think would be the most welcome addition to the schedule?
Sibla: A lot of folks have talked about Phoenix. I think that’s one that’s on a lot of individuals’ minds. I think when we look at the data in and around our sport, we find that we have a very strong fan base in the northwest so I think if I had to choose any I’d say we find an event that’s in the Seattle area, just because of some of the data we’ve seen, but if I have to go with a permanent venue I’d say Phoenix.
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