MICHAEL KNIGHT: ANYONE HAVE A PLAN TO GROW THE SPORT?

Written by Michael Knight.

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Good news: The sanctioning organization has a comprehensive plan to grow the sport well into the future.

Bad news: That sanctioning organization is NASCAR, not NHRA.

I know. I KNOW! You’re not surprised.

But the length and width and height and depth of the difference between these two businesses -- and their management teams -- when it comes to dealing with next week and next month and next year and next decade is Grand Canyon-esque in dimension.

The stock car company has been flat-out on-the-gas in recent months. NASCAR restructured its communications, media and marketing operations and added lots of staff. This as a result of what it learned from a major (and expensive) research project that included demographically and geographically diverse consumer focus groups, fan interviews and candid conversations with top industry stakeholders. Key areas explored: Public relations/marketing; social and digital media; attracting the next generation of fans; improving the at-track experience; building the star-power of drivers.

A Big Time player, Ogilvy & Mather, was recently selected as the Agency of Record, and according to the announcement it “will help NASCAR and the industry to execute a Five-Year Industry Action Plan to engage and excite existing fans, while creating new ones . . . to help NASCAR grow its audience in Youth, Gen Y and Hispanic.”

Kim Brink, NASCAR managing director of brand, consumer and series marketing, said: “Significant changes in our eco-system impacted how we deliver our message and position our brand to existing fans while increasing the appeal of NASCAR to new audiences.”

C’mon guys! It’s high time NHRA’s leaders get off their comfy leather office chairs and get going. It’s past due for the outside directors to ask the tough-but-necessary questions in the boardroom. It’s essential for all involved to heed the Marisa Miller rule -- appearances can mean everything. Because, the way things look from this vantage point, Kenny Bernstein will be the first to 400 mph before you read a press release like that one above datelined Glendora, Calif.

While NASCAR has mapped-out the road to be traveled, NHRA’s most noteworthy move (aside from one recent PR hire) was a backwards one -- the ill-considered, penny-pinching decision to discontinue the print edition of its media guide. While everyone within the series complains drag racing doesn’t receive enough national press coverage (proof: the historic yet lightly-noticed double female wins by Courtney Force and Erica Enders at Seattle), NHRA decided to make the job of journalists more difficult. With thinking like that, why would anyone be confident Compton & Co. has the answers to the vital and looming issues flashing them in the face like a one-million watt Christmas Tree?

NASCAR is rebuilding itself to be primarily a marketing company. All marketing and public relations functions have been placed in what is called the Integrated Marketing Communications department. This approach proves NASCAR understands its task is to SELL. Not just as in selling sponsorships and tickets, but in selling people to become fans in the first place, and selling media to cover the races. A new Chief Communications Officer is part of NASCAR’s executive management team.

As detailed in this space last month, NHRA doesn’t even pick up the telephone to try to sell its message. And, for the benefit of the many who have asked, NHRA’s official response to that July column as offered by the vice president of public relations and communications was --you guessed it! -- an E-mail!!!

Just to provide you with some always-important perspective, here are summary highlights of what NASCAR is doing:

* While staying committed to its existing fan base, the drive will be to attract youth, the 18-34 year-old demo sponsors lust after, and multicultural groups. Specific outreach programs for each of these groups are in development.

* The survey showed NASCAR needs to do a better job of explaining the sport’s basics to interested-but-confused new spectators.

* There’s a significant investment coming to more fully-exploit social and digital media. NASCAR-generated content is part of that and so is making it easier for fans to use their mobile devices at the track. International Speedway Corp.’s facilities (Daytona, Talladega, Phoenix, California, Martinsville, Kansas, Richmond, Darlington, Michigan, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland, Homestead-Miami) are installing fiber optic cable networks to improve connectivity. “Our customers want greater ability to communicate using their wireless devices when they attend our events,” explained Craig Neeb, ISC chief information officer. “We too want the ability to connect with these customers as they enter our facilities with timely information to enhance their event day experience.”  

* Other facility amenity upgrades -- sometimes as simple as more signs to direct people to parking lots.

* NASCAR bought-back its interactive, digital and social media rights from Turner, effective January 2013.

* A Fan and Media Engagement Center is being developed, described as a “platform that facilitates near real-time response to traditional, digital and social media.” This will provide NASCAR with the ability to “monitor, analyze and better understand the current media landscape more clearly in order to respond more rapidly to national, local and global media.”

* Expand the celebrity of its drivers as personalities to better engage the casual fan. NBC’s coverage of the Summer Olympic Games provided a template for how good story-telling can make virtually anonymous athletes not only famous, but compelling figures -- the kind people are willing to spend money to see compete in person.


* Creation of an interactive fan event, called “NASCAR Contenders Live,” sponsored by Toyota and Sprint, allowing direct interaction with the 12 Chase-eligible drivers. That’s scheduled for Sept. 12 at Chicago’s House of Blues.


Now, understand, I’m not saying NASCAR = Utopia. A quick tour of the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series’ garage areas reveals the economic challenges. On the speedways, the much-hyped Car of Tomorrow has proven to be a safety success, a competition disappointment, and a marketing failure. Again, however, change is coming, in the form of new Sprint Cup bodystyles for 2013 that more closely resemble what the automakers showcase in their show rooms.

I can safely predict the Glendora excuse-makers will complain this isn’t a fair comparison because NASCAR’s multi-billion dollar TV contracts provide the money fuel which NHRA lacks. The scale of what is doable aside, though, I have these bottom-line questions:

What is NHRA’s plan?

Is there one?

If not, why not?

If there is one, why the silence?

What financial and planning commitments has NHRA made toward the future, specifically, in identifying and recruiting the next generation of fan? (This year’s “Nitro Generation” theme is a good idea that hasn’t been funded to accomplish anything meaningful.)

What, if anything, has NHRA negotiated with series sponsor Full Throttle to utilize the Coca-Cola Co.’s considerable advertising, promotional and marketing resources to expand drag racing’s public footprint?

The same with NHRA’s other official sponsors?

When’s the last time we heard anything from NHRA about its alliance with IMG? It was even said the sports marketing giant was going to embed one of its own in NHRA’s offices to help sell sponsorships -- money that could be used for forward-thinking marketing and media initiatives the series desperately requires. What happened with that? How many, and what’s the most recent, deal IMG has cashed for NHRA?
 
It’s a media-driven world today where perception often equals reality. In the case of NASCAR and NHRA, the situation as communicated -- or not -- by the sanctions themselves seems very, VERY clear:

NASCAR is on it, accelerating toward its goal of a bigger and more successful future. NHRA is spinning its wheels, apparently content to exist in the present and talk about the past, and let tomorrow take care of itself.

As a fan who cares about the straight-line sport, that should have you torqued off.

I know I am.

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