Adventure Race Primal Quest Returns to TV With ESPN2 Deal

Nissan, Gatorade Integrated Into Event, Scoring Valuable Airtime

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LOS ANGELES -- Nissan, Gatorade and a group of hard-core outdoorsy brands have made integration deals for an adventure competition that's part "Survivor" and part "Amazing Race," with elements of the down-and-dirty cult favorite "Eco-Challenge."
The new owners of Primal Quest wanted to integrate multiple marketers into the grueling race without turning it into a Nascar event.

Primal Quest, a grueling 412-mile trek across the Utah desert, brought out 360 athletes and weekend warriors from all over the world this summer hoping to win a $250,000 cash prize.

Their journey -- on horseback, mountain bikes, kayaks and their own aching feet -- was taped and will air Oct. 9-12 on Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN2. A one-hour finale is set for sibling ABC on Oct. 14. Depending on ratings, the main ESPN channel could pick up the series and rerun it. International airings are planned, giving sponsors worldwide exposure.

Expanding Gatorade's footprint

Gatorade, which is ubiquitous in major sports franchises such as the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, wanted the link with Primal Quest to expand its footprint in adventure racing. The marketer has done mostly regional contests that take place over 24 hours or so, but wanted to speak to the influencers in the days-long, highly competitive event that's billed as the world's longest adventure race.

"It's like the Super Bowl," said Tom Prochaska, sports-marketing manager at the Gatorade Co. "It's valuable to us for the global participants and the global stage."

Owners of the Primal Quest franchise hope to revive and grow it with this year's event, which has been scheduled like a dramatic miniseries by the sports cable network and will be promoted as such. The race, which had limited cable coverage on the Outdoor Life Network from 2002-04 and some coverage on CBS, is coming off a one-year hiatus as it went through a management change.

New owners wanted to integrate multiple marketers into the race without turning it into a Nascar event.

Keeping the integrations 'wholesome'

"We wanted to keep it as wholesome as possible," said Rich Brazeau, CEO of Primal Quest. "We didn't want to take the approach that some shows do -- abusing the viewer by having an infomercial within the programming and product placement that's way out of context."

The competing teams, many with their own sponsorships, were asked to keep brand logos to a minimum because "we didn't want to oversaturate the viewer," Mr. Brazeau said. Sponsors' banners will be present only at the finish line.

That said, various categories of advertisers made their way into the series.

The Primal Quest team sold integration packages along with some ad time they retained in the series. A few ad units remain.

In shopping for sponsorships, Mr. Brazeau and his team emphasized the need for rugged vehicles to trek through remote areas of southeast Utah, and sports drinks to quench the athletes' thirst during the 10-day contest, in which sleep was optional. They also worked with a number of endemic sponsors: Timberland supplied backpacks, Headsweats supplied hats and Be supplied energy bars.

The need for car sponsors

Automotive partners would not be easy to come by, given the state of the auto industry amid sky-high gas prices and lagging sales, especially for trucks and sports utility vehicles. Nevertheless, Nissan stepped up to link the show with several of its models, including the Xterra SUV, which is seen throughout the race ferrying contestants, producers and crew members. The marketer is the series' presenting sponsor.

In one challenge, participants use the vehicles as anchors for zip lines they needed to lower their bikes from the top of a mountain into a canyon below. They also used the SUVs to scout the best spot to start their eight-mile white-water swim.

PepsiCo's Gatorade supplied its 2-year-old Gatorade Endurance nutrition shakes and other drinks during the contest, which took place in 100-plus-degree weather. Not surprisingly, competitors swilled 3,885 gallons of Gatorade products, more than athletes drink at the Super Bowl, the World Series or any Bowl game the marketer sponsors.

As a strategy, Gatorade wants to target the heavy user, Mr. Prochaska said, and has established a relationship with Primal Quest competitors for a continuing dialogue about its products. The marketer thinks there will be benefits from that long-term association, as well as positive glow from the integration.

"Adventure racers who didn't compete here will tune in and see our products in the hands of people they look up to," Mr. Prochaska said. "That's meaningful to us."

A starring role for Utah

The state of Utah, which gave the producers a number of incentives to film there, shows off its eco-tourism through the series and is as much a star as the athletes, Mr. Brazeau said.

The race, in which athletes had only a compass for direction, included everything from rappelling and kayaking to horseback riding and mountain biking. The hard-core competitors in such races sleep only a few hours at a time and many report having hallucinations -- what they call "sleep monsters" -- because of exhaustion.

Mr. Brazeau's producers, along with ESPN Original Productions, focused much of their time on the battle for the lead, though they also zoned in on compelling teams with strong personal stories. Team Merrell/Wigwam, for instance, was made up of Australian and New Zealanders plus a female San Diego firefighter.

Producers said from the start that they intended to follow the team closely, and Merrell ended up becoming a sponsor, providing hiking shoes and other gear to the crew and hundreds of volunteers who worked along the route. The marketer also will be heavily promoting the show in its print ads, trade-show booths and retail outlets.
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