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Sports Business

Danica Patrick stock success raises more IRL questions

February 10, 2010
KEYWORDS Sports Business

Danica Patrick is a real enigma for the Indy Racing League.
I’ve long pondered her real affect on the open-wheel series.

And I must admit, I’ve vacillated on this one. Is she the savior that many say she is? Or is she just one of 20 or so regular IRL drivers that are having trouble inspiring race fans to watch on TV or actually show up at the track as a live spectator.

My answer: It’s really difficult to tell.

The results from the Feb. 6 ARCA race featuring the pint-sized Patrick only brings about more questions.
And I’m not talking about her 6th place finish. Yes, that was great. But remember, ARCA is like single A baseball. You’ll get a better measure of her ability to drive stocks this Saturday in Daytona’s Nationwide Series race. And at this early stage in her stock car career, I don’t even think that’s a fair measure.

But I’m not here to argue about Patrick’s ability to pilot a car.
What I would like to debate is her real vs. perceived drawing power.

The TV ratings of last Saturday’s ARCA race make her seem like a sensation.
According to Nielsen Media Research, 2.4 million viewers tuned in to SpeedTV to see the Saturday afternoon race, an 87-percent increase over last year’s audience of 1.3 million. It was the second most viewed Speed event ever, according to station officials.

I assume the Nationwide race airing Feb. 13 on ESPN2 also will see a significant increase—maybe bigger than the ARCA bump. Who wouldn’t want to see Patrick trade paint with NASCAR’s big boys?

That brings us back to the Indy Racing League. Let’s start with this; The TV rating for this year’s season-opening ARCA race was higher than any 2009 IRL race except the Indianapolis 500.
And you can’t cry about people not being able to find the Versus cable channel. Let’s face it, the only folks with SpeedTV on their preferred rotation of channels are gearheads and hard-core race fanatics.

So either Patrick is having a big impact on the IRL, and without her, almost no one would be watching. Or she’s having little impact on the numbers for the IRL, which has had static attendance the past couple years and TV viewership languishing below 1 million nationally.
So which is it? And more importantly, why?

I’m not sure I can tell you. But if I’m in the IRL’s hot seat (that’s soon to be Randy Bernard), I’m thinking a lot about this and I’m demanding some answers from my marketing team.

First things first; Why are more people (by a significant margin) watching Patrick drive in a rinky-dink stock car series than they are watching her drive open-wheelers capable of going 200 plus mph?

After all, the Indy Racing League is about speed, technology, cutting-edge, chic, etc., etc. Right? That's what series officials have been selling. ARCA, for crying out loud, is about being one step removed from racing at the county fairgrounds.

Second, how can the IRL utilize the public’s obvious fascination with Patrick more effectively and how can the IRL leverage her success (and by success I’m talking fan interest) in stock car circles to move the needle for the open-wheel series.

I don’t know. Maybe Patrick is nothing more than a circus side show people will come to watch do something new a few times then fade away.

But if she does have long-term drawing power, and the IRL fails to harness it—and another series does—it could be the chicane that sends the IRL into the wall—sans safer barrier.

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