NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Nascar might just have an answer to the soft economy that's hurting TV ratings, live attendance, and sponsor recruitment: Danica Patrick.
Arguably one of the best-known drivers in the world -- despite having won just one race -- Ms. Patrick is allowed to begin negotiations this week on a new contract with IndyCar team owners, and the racing rumor mill is churning that she is seriously contemplating a switch from open-wheel to stock-car racing in Nascar.
What would it mean to Nascar to have Ms. Patrick line up each week with the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, current three-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and a host of other well-known drivers and personalities? Well, some sports pundits believe it could bring in $50 million in fresh sponsorship money, not to mention the ripple effect her popularity would have on TV ratings and at-track attendance.
"I guarantee this is what will happen if Danica Patrick jumps to Nascar," a sports marketing executive who does business with the racing league told AdAge.com. "One, every TV rating for every race will increase from the year before as new fans and old tune it to see if she wins, crashes or pitches a fit and gets into fights on pit road like she does now. Two, track attendance will go up. Three, even though Nascar has a pretty loyal and wide-open fan base now among women, it will skyrocket if she's driving every week. And four, I guarantee it will bring in $50 million in new sponsors annually of marketers looking to activate around her, whether it's [sponsorship] on the car or off the track."
Bill Sutton, principal of Orlando, Fla.-based Bill Sutton & Associates, a strategic marketing and revenue-enhancement firm, agreed that $50 million is easily achievable "if the economy comes back and sponsors know how to use her to tell their own stories."
Ms. Patrick could likely open new avenues of sponsorship for Nascar, either with female-oriented products (she has endorsed Procter & Gamble's Secret deodorant) or bring to Nascar her current agreements with such companies as GoDaddy.com and Boost Mobile.
Ms. Patrick's Indy Racing League deal with Andretti Green Racing expires later this year, and she has done little to quell the speculation that she will jump to Nascar. She could not be reached for comment, but prior to her most recent race June 6 at the Texas Motor Speedway she told reporters that as a "driver that drives in the top level of open-wheel racing here in the United States, or in North America, you want to jump from one top to another top. If that was the direction that ends up coming up and that we choose, I would prefer to do that, but I'm not so naive that I won't be open to other opportunities and other ideas."
High awareness levels
Torrey Galida, president-motor sports for the Charlotte, N.C.-based sports marketing firm Millsport, counts Ms. Patrick among only three race-car drivers with an awareness level above 50% among the general population, according to his firm's motor-sports-specific version of the Davie Brown Index. (The DBI is a celebrity index that uses consumer surveys to gather data on more than 2,200 celebrities.)
"Danica would undoubtedly be a big story for Nascar," Mr. Galida said. "I wouldn't necessarily classify her as a 'savior,' but she would certainly generate a huge amount of interest. She is a star. Danica's star power would be great for the sport. Over the last few years, in the interest of not offending sponsors, many of the Nascar drivers have begun to act and sound alike. Danica has a unique story people are going to be interested in, and she's a good interview."
Ms. Patrick's high profile has been built over the years in part not just by her moderate success -- she became the first woman to win an IndyCar race last year and finished third in last month's Indy 500 -- but also by careful and somewhat racy nurturing of her own brand. She has appeared in several sexually suggestive TV commercials for GoDaddy.com and has also made two appearances in the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
"Adding a Danica Patrick is a new story," Mr. Sutton said. "She would be a new reason to attend and a new reason to tune in."
Sports generally have suffered in this economy and Nascar is no exception. Attendance has been down slightly at the track this year compared to 2008 and TV ratings have been off considerably. According to Jayski.com, an ESPN-backed racing website, the 2009 season of Nascar on Fox ended with an average of a 5.1 rating and 11 share, down 11% compared to last year's 5.7 rating and 12 share. The site said that's a new low in the nine years that the network broadcast Nascar races.
"Ratings fluctuate for any sports property," said Andrew Giangola, Nascar's director-business communications. "While there has been some ratings softness this year, Nascar still out-rates 75% of prime-time programming. Nascar has been the No. 1- or No. 2-rated sport just about every week the series has run this year."
According to Jayski.com, Fox's 5.1/11 for Nascar more than doubles ABC's ratings for regular-season coverage of the National Basketball Association (2.4/6) and is 46% better than ABC's NBA playoff average (3.5/8).
'Big, brutish cars'
So what does Nascar say about the possibility of Ms. Patrick joining the league? "Danica certainly draws a lot of attention. Any sport benefits from an athlete who the press finds interesting and worthy of coverage," Mr. Giangola said. "Nascar is a sport open to the world's best drivers. Some highly talented drivers from other sports have come over without setting the series on fire. It's a different kind of racing -- big, brutish cars banging in traffic at 180 miles per hour. Whether Danica makes the move to Nascar, or is successful if she does so, is obviously the kind of crystal-ball question I'd be foolish to take on. We're all staying tuned."
Current Nascar drivers, including Mr. Johnson, have said they would welcome Ms. Patrick but that she should start out on Nascar's lower circuits before attempting to drive in the Sprint Cup Series. Other open-wheel racing stars, such as Dario Franchitti, have tried to make the jump to Nascar Sprint Cup and have failed miserably. But if she jumps, it will be all the way to the top.
"I think there is definitely a risk to her brand," Mr. Galida said. "Like all sports, Nascar is a performance-based sport. I think she'll have a fairly long honeymoon period, but, eventually, she'll have to perform. Even Dale Jr.'s legions of loyal fans eventually grow restless. Nascar represents a much larger stage, so despite the risks I think she will find the opportunity too compelling to pass up."