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Sports Business

IndyCar boss optimistic he can land big-name sponsors

February 4, 2014
KEYWORDS Sports Business

Beyond the debate over whether the IndyCar Series and its teams need to take a more active role in developing young, American drivers, there are several interesting nuggets in IBJ’s recent story about the open-wheel circuit.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles is very confident he can land a title sponsor by the series’ first race March 30. Miles recently told IBJ he’s “having serious conversations” with several big-name companies about being title sponsor or some other type of official series sponsor.

“Any of the organizations we’re talking to would be instantly recognizable and have substantial advertising budgets,” Miles said.

More than one motorsports source has told IBJ that Verizon is taking a serious look at stepping up its IndyCar sponsorship, and perhaps considering becoming title sponsor. Miles isn’t ready to reveal who he’s talking to.

While many consider cash to be king, Miles is tapping the brakes on that theory—at least when it comes to IndyCar Series sponsors.

“[Sponsors’] ability to help us grow the sport, project the brand and enhance our fan experience is the highest priority,” he said. “The rights fee is secondary to that.”

Miles has taken some heat for not doing enough not only to develop new stars, but also failing to promote the drivers the series has. He insists that’s about to change.

The series, which hasn’t turned a profit since its 1996 inception, plans to work with teams and drivers to formulate a “brand plan for each driver” that maps out how a driver should “be put forward by broadcasters, sponsors and other stakeholders,” Miles said.

Miles has recently taken arrows from the likes of Mario Andretti and Derek Daly, who think Miles needs to re-examine his priorities. Miles and his lieutenants are pleading for a little patience.

The results the series is seeking could take up to three years, said C.J. O’Donnell, who worked in marketing for Ford Motor Co. for 20 years before joining Miles’ staff in November as IndyCar’s chief marketing officer.

Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day. But at the same time, it’s easy to understand the impatience. IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials have been spinning their wheels in terms of improving live attendance and television ratings for years.

O’Donnell admitted the Speedway and IndyCar Series have been hurt by “an inconsistent strategy in bringing our drivers forward.” Constant turnover in the marketing department, O’Donnell said, has added to the problem.

“In good time, I’m very confident we can make some good strides in attendance and TV ratings,” O’Donnell said. “It all starts with a consistent, long-term approach.”

Daly doesn't think any approach will work unless it has the mission of developing "American stars" as a centerpiece. Miles says he's largely happy with the current stable of IndyCar drivers. Daly contends that even successful foreign drivers like Scott Dixon and Will Power won't draw the attention of the masses the way a stable of American hot shots would. And Daly knocks team owners, especially the riches ones, for not doing enough to help develop potential American stars.

The best news for Miles is that after a little more than a year on the job, he hasn’t gotten too sideways—at least publicly—with any of the team owners.

It looks like Miles and team owners are on the same page. That’s a great step in the right direction. Either that or they’re all headed in the wrong direction together.

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