Something was missing at the Milwaukee IndyFest this past weekend. It wasn’t the racing; that was excellent. There were passes throughout the field, and drivers were dirt-tracking the corners. It wasn’t the strategy. Pit strategy put A.J. Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato in front of the pack and allowed Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay to take advantage of a late yellow flag to move to the lead and victory. It wasn’t the show. The promoters (Andretti-Green Productions) made both Friday and Saturday a festival of, well, festivals. Bands played, amusement rides whirled, and the fans got close to the drivers. Still, one glaring omission cast a dark shadow over this otherwise sunny race. Sponsorship.
I know what you are going to say: there were RC Cola and Sun Drop banners everywhere! Agreed, but those are not the deep-pocketed sugar daddies that all events and series need. The name Milwaukee IndyFest say it all. The event had no title sponsor. A title sponsor buys the rights to the event, and the promoter uses the cash to do two things: promote the event and put cash in his pocket. Everybody has to eat, or the show will not go on.
The problem facing every promoter and venue in motorsports is that the big-time sugar daddies just aren’t very hungry right now. If you don’t count longtime series supporters Honda and Firestone and Roger Penske’s connections to Chevrolet, Shell, and Firestone, then the 19 race IndyCar schedule has four title sponsors for its races: Toyota, Iowa Corn, Go Pro, and Mav TV. Other than the Daytona 500, its crown jewel, NASCAR’s February to November schedule has exactly ONE race without a title sponsor: the New Hampshire 300. And with the TV money that flows to the promoters, that race will most certainly make money, just not as much as every other sponsored race. And since most of the tracks are owned by either Speedway Motorports, Inc. (SMI) or International Speedway Corporation (ISC), the competition for sponsorship dollars is decreased. One reason the IZOD IndyCar Series loves the street and road courses is because they are not owned by these two entities. The street courses in particular offer great opportunities for sponsorship.
What makes Subway, Bank of America, Sylvania, Geico, Coca-Cola, Fed-Ex, and other decidedly non-automotive sponsors plunk down millions of dollars to attach themselves to the mind-numbingly similar races put on by the stock cars? If you will pardon the vernacular, the answer is asses and eyes. Those races have people in the seats at the track and viewers sitting at home in front of the TV. Currently, IndyCar has neither.
The IZOD IndyCar Series does have a title sponsor in IZOD that not only wants out but also refuses to activate that sponsorship in any meaningful way from week to week. Does IndyCar need a new series sponsor? Absolutely it does. Are there any open wallets out there? The cellular giant Verizon is a name that keeps coming up, but who knows? It has to make sense from a business perspective. The value for Verizon is quite likely a business-to-business relationship. The people who inhabit those corporate chalets and suites are business partners for the sponsors. In other words, the sponsors make money off of these people. And while the corporate kingpins certainly want the hoi polloi in the stands and watching on TV to use their products, this sell is often secondary to the business-to-business connection.
IndyCar is at a crossroads. The product is scintillating. The venues are diverse. The drivers are engaging. But people are not attending the races or watching the broadcasts. You often hear about racing teams struggling to find the right set-up. They start down the wrong path and can never get back to normal. Every choice they make takes them farther from where they want to be, and they start flailing about, taking bigger risks in the hope that something will be right. That is the IZOD IndyCar Series right now. The races struggle to find sponsorship to stay afloat. The series struggles to create interest and fans. And the flailing begins. Double headers are offered as a way to save/make money and boost ratings. Green-white-checkered finishes are discussed as a way to entertain a jaded fan base. And so it begins.
The solutions are obvious, though. The series needs increased sponsorship, higher ratings, and bigger gates. The road map to get there is the problem. It is sad to watch a once-proud series lose its way like a race team that just can’t find the right set-up. The hope is that the series does not lose its way so badly that it can’t find its way home.