IndyCar Series packed four major commercial announcements into one night at Monday’s annual State of the Series address.
The deals with Firestone, Discover, Lids and Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka are indicators the open-wheel race series is gaining speed, sports marketers said.
“I don’t think they’re huge financial agreements, but these deals show that they’re moving the needle,” said Zak Brown, CEO of Just Marketing International, a Zionsville-based firm that pairs sponsors with motorsports properties worldwide. “The series has shown it’s building momentum. Now it has to do it year after year.”
Despite a devastating crash at last year’s finale in Las Vegas that killed two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, several things have the series pointed in the right direction, Brown said.
“With the new car and engine package and with new manufacturers coming into the series, you have some compelling story lines,” Brown said. “When you have good story lines, that builds interest. They still need to improve their attendance and especially their TV ratings, but this series is starting to gain the attention from a variety of sponsors.”
While IndyCar Series officials touted television ratings that went up 28 percent from 2010 to 2011, Brown said the series is still struggling to attract 1 million viewers to each of its telecasts.
The sponsors at Monday’s gala at the Hilbert Circle Theatre said they like what they see from the series and its teams and leaders.
Tire maker Firestone has done an about-face from where it was a year ago. In the weeks leading up to the 2011 season, the company was threatening to leave the series. At Monday’s 2012 kick-off event, Firestone officials said they have agreed to remain a sponsor and the series’ sole tire supplier through 2014.
IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard is being widely lauded for persuading Firestone to stay during a critical period as the series rolls out a new chassis and engine package for the first time in eight years.
“Our company has actively supported IndyCar with more than just race tires,” said Al Speyer, Firestone Racing’s executive director. “And we'll continue to remain highly visible through our promotional activities and marketing initiatives around the series.”
While the Firestone agreement is key to keep the series rolling, no deals had fans at Monday’s State of the Series buzzing more than the partnerships with Lids and Discover.
IndyCar entered into a multiyear agreement with Indianapolis-based Lids Sports Group, in which Lids will manage online and track-side merchandising efforts for the IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights beginning with the 2012 season. Indianapolis-based MainGate Inc. had the deal previously.
The partnership will increase IndyCar’s retail presence at the tracks where the series races, giving fans more opportunities and easier access to IndyCar merchandise each race weekend, Bernard said.
Bernard promised that Lids’ in-house production capabilities will help ensure inventory levels are maintained and that products accurately reflect the current landscape of team rosters and driver sponsors.
Lids also will carry IndyCar merchandise at many of its 975 mall, airport, street-level and factory-outlet locations in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Lids officials have promised to have special promotions and fan meet-and-greets involving IndyCar drivers.
IndyCar officials also announced they entered into multiyear agreements with credit card issuers Discover and First Bankcard, a division of the First National Bank of Omaha, to offer a credit card program designed to provide rewards to fans of the sport.
IndyCar Discover credit card holders can redeem accumulated reward points for exclusive experiences, including VIP access to Victory Lane at the Indianapolis 500 and breakfast with legends of the sport, series officials said. Other rewards include race tickets, driver meet and greets, suite passes, and IndyCar merchandise.
It’s the most extensive credit card rewards program the series has ever launched, IndyCar officials said.
There will be two card designs for cardholders to choose from: a vintage look highlighting the start of the 1960 Indianapolis 500, or a modern look featuring the sleek 2012 IndyCar Series car.
“The IndyCar Discover credit card is designed to help drive cardholder loyalty by offering tailored card benefits and exclusive access to events that card members care about most,” said Kevin O'Donnell, vice president of credit issuance at Discover.
IndyCar officials said they are working with its corporate partner lineup to provide exclusive discounts on products and services for cardholders.
“From a brand association and merchandise distribution standpoint, these are very good deals,” Brown said.
IndyCar also said Monday that Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka will be the official vodka of the IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights, its top feeder circuit. Fuzzy's will promote the series in all domestic race markets in 2012 and will develop the series' signature cocktail, to be featured at all IndyCar events.
“This new partnership with Fuzzy’s is a great cross-promotional opportunity to introduce our sport to a new demographic,” Bernard said.
From a promotional standpoint, Just Marketing’s Brown said the Fuzzy’s deal might be the most significant.
“I think they’ll pour a substantial amount of money into marketing and promoting this series,” Brown said. “Aside from money, there’s nothing more important you can ask from your sponsors.”