Forget Football

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Are you ready for some NASCAR? Auto racing debuts on network TV this month, bringing with it a loyal fan base for marketers.

It's February and football season is over. Baseball is months away. Basketball is just heating up. Hibernation period for sports, right? Not if you're one of the loyal followers of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, more popularly called NASCAR.

For those in the know, stock car racing has been a silent, but growing, phenomenon over the past few years. This year, it marks a milestone by entering the radar of mainstream media. For the first time in its 52-year history, the sport will be aired mostly on network TV, as FOX and NBC have negotiated a six-year deal to televise 28 of 36 races each season. From its inaugural race, the Daytona 500, on February 18, through June 24, FOX will air NASCAR's premier Winston Cup Series, where each race earns drivers points that will decide the champion. NBC will pick up the season's second half, which ends in November.

It's a move that both NASCAR officials and network executives hope will finally push auto racing into the mainstream, bringing in more viewers, and with them, more advertising, sponsorships, and licensing deals. "We're confident that with FOX showing the first half, and NBC showing the second, we can grow the sport because the fans will know where to go," says Kevin Sullivan, vice president of communications at NBC Sports.

TV viewing of sports, in general, is on the decline. But NASCAR has been able to hold its own so far - even without the wide support of mainstream media. Until this year, fans had to figure out where to tune in to watch the races. That's because previously the 23 independently-owned race tracks, not NASCAR, brokered the TV rights with various networks such as TNN, ESPN, or CBS.

The move to network will give NASCAR a chance to recover some lost fans. In 1999, 83.9 million people identified themselves as motor sports fans, down from 95.1 million in 1996. Even with this decline, however, NASCAR remains one of America's most popular sports. These days, 38 percent of the population over the age of 12 say they are NASCAR fans. Auto racing ranks as the nation's seventh most popular sport behind football (66.5 percent of Americans say they're football fans), baseball (60.8 percent), college football (54.4 percent), basketball (50.6 percent), figure skating (50 percent), and college basketball (47.7 percent), according to the ESPN Sports Poll.

Other sports may boast a bigger fan base, but racing enthusiasts may be the most loyal. Instead of just saying they are fans, NASCAR lovers actually watch many of the races, at home and from the stands. Nielsen data shows that in 1999 the auto racing series was the second most watched sport after NFL regular season games and ahead of NBA and MLB games (see chart). According to a study commissioned by NASCAR, that same year 6.5 million fans attended Winston Cup races, and 17 of the 20 best attended sporting events in the country were in that series.

NASCAR plans to grow its fan base from both of those pillars. Going network will expose the sport to 30 million additional households. NASCAR estimates that 16 percent of the population are possible converts, who know something about the sport. The organization will also try to bring more people into the stands, with two new races, one in Chicago and another in Kansas City.

NASCAR estimates that 12 percent of the nation are hard-core fans, like Russ Harris, a 61-year-old retired entrepreneur from Williams, Arizona, who has been following the sport since the 1950s. Of those, about 7 percent of the population consists of die-hards who spend at least 6.5 hours a week following the racing series in person, on TV, in print, and on the Internet. Harris, for example, spends much more, considering that he and his wife, Maureen, run the fan club of famed driver Jeff Gordon.

These so-called "true believers" shell out $683 a year, on average, in merchandise and 47 percent of them see the races live. Another 5 percent of the country are considered "believers." They spend 5.2 hours a week following stock car racing, buy $301 in merchandise, and 25 percent of them attend races.

NASCAR knows it has to keep these fans content, primarily by maintaining the "family feeling" between the drivers and their followers. "Growing the fan base without alienating the core, that's huge," says Steve Boguski, vice president of marketing for NASCAR. "For every true believer we lose going after the casual new fan, we'll need five to six casual fans to replace them."

NASCAR is essentially about regular folks, watching regular guys drive souped-up cars. And that's the appeal - fans feel that they too could be racing the Daytona 500 (if they really wanted to, and could get a few million dollars in sponsorships). "A fan might be 160 pounds, they can't play football, or they are 5 foot 9, they can't play basketball," explains Harris. "But they feel they can drive a race car."

While NASCAR fans are 60 percent male and are less likely to live on the coasts, they are, on the whole, regular Americans. They are slightly more likely to be married (60 percent) than the national average (57 percent). But they have about the same likelihood of having children (40 percent), and being divorced (11 percent), as the general population, according to Simmons Market Research Bureau.

These fans also tend to be hard working, blue-collar, and make a good living. Sixty-two percent of fans have a full-time job, compared with 54 percent nationwide, and while 35 percent of the country is unemployed, only 30 percent of NASCAR fans are, according to Simmons. They are also 1.7 times more likely to work in crafts or precision production, and 1.5 times more likely to be machine operators than the general population. Sixty-two percent of NASCAR fans have household incomes higher than $40,000, while 51 percent have more than $50,000.

In its study, NASCAR found that the biggest factor that separated the casual fan from the hard-core one was how much he or she felt they were a part of the NASCAR family. "Our drivers are accessible," Boguski explains. "People think, `These are good role models for my children.'"

This feeling of belonging is one reason that NASCAR fans are so loyal to the sport and also to the brands that fund it. They realize the incredible costs of racing a stock car week after week - and that these costs are borne by the cars' sponsors. They are twice as likely as non-NASCAR fans to buy sponsors' products and services, and 72 percent of them actively do so. "The perception of fans, and it is accurate, is that, `My driver couldn't run without that sponsor,' that without Du Pont, Jeff Gordon couldn't run," explains Rob Fox, senior account manager, ESPN Sports Poll. "In other sports, fans don't make that connection."

This is a boon for the sponsors of the series overall, as well as sponsors of individual drivers, many of whom aren't just the typical automotive and sport sponsors such as Budweiser, Texaco, and Goodyear. A diverse group, offering various products and services - Coca-Cola, UPS, Visa, and McDonald's - pay to be associated with NASCAR.

Long-time supporter, Coca-Cola, the official soft drink of NASCAR, uses an associate sponsorship with nine drivers to reach new markets. For example, Coke has vending machines featuring Tony Stewart in Home Depot stores, the driver's primary sponsor. It's also good business for Home Depot, who can then reach Coke customers. "We've been able to grow our business and reach into markets where we didn't distribute our brand, or where our brand had limited distribution," says Scott Williamson, Coca-Cola spokesman.

Amtrak begins its first motor sport sponsorship this year by supporting driver Rusty Wallace. The railway company, which has sponsored football and baseball teams in the past, plans promotional tie-ins and travel discounts to the races, plus online sweepstakes to win a weekend with Wallace. "We are repositioning Amtrak to be more high-tech, and forward thinking," says Linda Park, director of customer segmentation marketing at Amtrak. "With NASCAR being on the edge, it works. Amtrak is an American tradition and NASCAR is growing into an American institution."

Before NASCAR gets to that point, though, it has to convert many traditional stick-and-ball fans. The half-hour pre-race shows planned by FOX and NBC may help. "A lot of people don't know a lot about NASCAR," Boguski says. "To the non-fan it's boring. They ask, `Why am I going to look at cars going around in a circle?' But it is technology, it is teamwork, and it is strategy. We have to educate people."

Getting the rest of America to discover NASCAR may be a challenge. But history has shown that once converted, they'll do almost anything for NASCAR, from buying miniature, die-cast car models, to traveling to races, to purchasing Pennzoil for their cars. "NASCAR is like the Grateful Dead," Fox says. "If you get it, you'll follow it wherever it goes." Perhaps NASCAR will soon find itself on The Golden Road too.

NASCAR fans spent $1.2 billion on licensed products in 1999. Among some of the characteristics they share:

* They are twice as likely than non-NASCAR fans to purchase NASCAR sponsors' products and services.

* Seventy-two percent actively buy the sponsors' products and services.

* Seventy percent are more likely than non-NASCAR fans to have positive feelings about NASCAR sponsors and their products and services.

Source: NASCAR

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