Even in tight times, sponsors driven to back motor sports


June 28, 1992|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

A million dollars doesn't buy much anymore. Not in the worlds of advertising and big business. Not in an economy that is shaking under a $4 trillion national debt.

But, in the world of motor sports, you still can get a lot of mileage out of a million-dollar investment.

Even in a recessionary economy, even with U.S. auto companies losing $7.7 billion in one year, the business of motor sports is going strong.

How strong? So strong that everyone from coffee producers to )) toy manufacturers are climbing on board the auto racing money train.

It is a fact that has not been missed by advertisers.

"When Domino's Pizza built its 1,000th store, it decided to expand the public's awareness of the product," recalled Joyce Julius Cotman, who was vice president of marketing for Domino's. "We had $1 million to work with, and what that would buy wasn't very much. We had an awareness of motor sports, and a man named Doug Shierson walked through the door with a proposal to sponsor his car in Indianapolis-style racing. It became apparent to us that we could get a lot more television exposure through racing than we could by buying television time."

The public awareness of Domino's across the country at the time was about 7 percent, said Cotman, now president of her own sports marketing firm, Joyce Julius and Associates.

"Less than three years later, that awareness had risen to 87 percent, and we could definitely track the growth to our involvement in racing," she said.

That was 1985. Since 1986, live or taped television coverage of motor sports has gone from 92 races a year to 248 races this season.

On Madison Avenue, motor sports are a very good buy.

When NASCAR held its Winston Cup Awards Dinner in New York last December, 50 corporate chairmen, CEOs and/or presidents, from such diverse companies as Gillette, General Motors, ESPN and Maxwell House were in the room, alongside mechanics, tire changers, drivers and car owners.

Not everything is full speed ahead, however, because of the economy. At USA Today, plans for a motor sports weekly, similar to the company's Baseball Weekly, are on hold.

But companies such as RJR-Nabisco and Goodyear have not touched their substantial racing budgets despite cutting their work forces.

Overall, attendance is up. Sponsorships are up. Television exposure is up. And advertiser satisfaction is up.

"It has the best numbers in sports, in terms of television audiences and attendees," said Bob Leffler of the Leffler Agency in Baltimore. "Attendance figures are incredible, signage is all over the place and when a competitor is on camera, the first thing he does is name his sponsor. Harry Gant isn't Harry Gant. He's the Skoal Bandit.

"You have to have a lot of money to be a sponsor, and it is also considered to still be a regional sport in some national markets. ,, But the overall advantages are so great -- the exposure, the touchy-feely nature of a business in which the drivers are so approachable and down-to-earth, compared to pro baseball and football players -- they override the few negatives."

Included in the numbers Leffler referred to is the brand loyalty race fans have demonstrated to sponsors' products. An independent study showed that, when given the choice between two products of equal quality and price, 80 percent of race fans will buy a race sponsor's product. Attendance is also continually rising. Last season in 15 professional racing series, overall attendance was up by nearly 500,000 spectators, 3.7 percent from the year before, according to an annual independent study produced by Goodyear.

"This is our third year in Winston Cup racing," said Maxwell House spokesman Darin Wolf. "But this is our first year as the [major] sponsor. We decided to get fully involved because we saw share growth in the NASCAR market areas. The exposure we get from this is incredible."

The Sponsors Report is a monthly publication that tracks the amount of television exposure each sponsor receives and estimates what that exposure would cost in 30-second commercials.

The publication's 1991 year-end report says, during the 29-race Winston Cup stock car season, 588 sponsors amassed 171 hours, 19 minutes, 25 seconds of clear television exposure time and 15,945 name mentions, which translated into $161,092,470 worth of commercial time. For IndyCars, the exposure was worth $211,556,860.

Wolf said motor sports are the only ones in which a sponsor is really able to compete.

"You can't have the Maxwell House Celtics," he said. "But, in auto racing, you are the team. It's the Maxwell House Ford, and that's really a major advantage. It works even if your car doesn't ++ win."

Ten years ago, motor sports were the butt of jokes because of commercialism. Drivers' uniforms and race cars were covered with the brand names of advertisers. But most other professional sports have gotten into the act.

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