Beyond Formula One: the motorsport business stories to watch in 2015

19 February 2015 | Posted in Notes & Insights | By David Cushnan | Contact the author

Beyond Formula One: the motorsport business stories to watch in 2015

John Raoux/AP/Press Association Images

There’s a world of motorsport outside Formula One and, ahead of this weekend’s Daytona 500, the start of the 36-race Nascar season, SportsPro picks out five business storylines from across the sport to watch for in 2015.

Nascar’s hunt for a Cup sponsor

Nascar has begun the search for a new title sponsor for its top-tier series, following Sprint's confirmation late last year that it will not renew its deal when it expires at the end of 2016. Sprint has been Nascar's Cup sponsor since 2008, when the company merged with Nextel. Nextel previously signed a decade-long deal with Nascar, worth US$950 million in total once a six per cent annual escalator is built in, in 2004.

Last year, Nascar unveiled a new title sponsor, Xfinity, for its second-tier championship, which was formerly known as the Nationwide Series, in a deal said to be worth up to US$200 million, a figure slightly below Nationwide’s investment. Like that deal, the hunt for a replacement for Sprint will be led by Nascar's chief sales officer Jim O'Connell, although the rights and activation fees involved are likely to be much higher. Indeed, the Cup title deal is one of world sport’s largest sponsorships.

Former president of IMG Sports and Entertainment George Pyne closed the Nextel deal during his decade at Nascar. He told SportsPro “it’s a very complicated, complex sponsorship and therefore needs to be sold that way”, adding: “It’s one where you have to be quite thoughtful because of the size of the sponsorship. Going at it and putting together the package in the most thoughtful way, so that they can demonstrate the kind of value they’re asking for, will be an important element of that process. That’s not easy to do. As I reflect back, we met with a lot of companies the last time and it took a fair amount of time to pull together.”

Elsewhere in Nascar, keep an eye on the farewell tour for four-time champion Jeff Gordon, one of the biggest names in the sport - and the man starting Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500 from the pole. The inevitable marketing programme which will be created around his final season behind the wheel will provide yet another salutary lesson for Formula One, which, despite the efforts of individual teams, continues to exist without a visible and effective central marketing department.

Rallycross on the rise

It’s arguably the most fun and best-packaged motorsport on the planet. The FIA World Rallycross Championship, promoted by IMG, recorded a year-on-year increase of over 550 per cent in dedicated coverage in 2014. IMG is working hard to raise the sport’s profile and the broadcast coverage, in particular, has become slick and well-paced. IMG’s annual report, with the market research carried out with Repucom, says 3,982 hours of World RX – for the uninitiated it is short, sharp races featuring four cars on a half-dirt, half-asphalt course – coverage was broadcast last year over 150 territories. Live attendance rose, too, by some 130 per cent, while merchandise sales at events increased by 190 per cent over the 12 events, held around the world.

“We’ve had to think outside the box over the past 24 months and mix coverage on our traditional broadcast partners as well as use other platforms such as Livestream, Facebook and YouTube to reach our fans in territories which don’t have dedicated World RX TV coverage,” explained Martin Anayi, the IMG motorsport executive who is WorldRX managing director. “These latest TV figures are a great start but we’ll continue to work on developing the Championship’s profile even further.” This year’s season begins in Portugal on 24th April and includes a first visit to the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, the host of Spain’s annual Formula One Grand Prix, in September.

Formula E: recharge required?

The first four Formula E events have revealed much promise and much that needs to be tweaked. Electric motorsport remains a work in progress – the cars are still too slow, despite some clever camera trickery, and the current need to change cars halfway through a relatively short race is hardly a glowing endorsement of battery power. This year’s season is, in most respects, a public test for a series helmed by an ambitious group led by Spanish entrepreneur Alejandro Agag. The racing, in general, has been good and the grid is peppered with talented drivers, albeit many who have simply found their path to Formula One blocked. But the calendar needs work: four races between 13th September and 10th January is simply not enough to retain any sort of momentum.

There were six weeks between races one and two, in China and Malaysia, enough to kill any of the excitement generated by a dramatic first race in Beijing that was decided by an aerial accident between the two leading cars at the final corner of the final lap. Similarly the gap between race four, in Argentina, on 10th January and the next event in Miami, on 14th March is far too big. Whilst each event has been entertaining in its own right, there is little sense of an easy-to-follow seasonal narrative; it is also noticeable that the agency and sponsorship executives loudly touting Formula E as a potential competitor to a troubled Formula One before that first race are now as quiet as the cars.

Nissan arrives - in style

Honda’s return to Formula One and confirmation that Toyota will return to the World Rally Championship in 2017 hint at a resurgence of Japanese manufacturer involvement in top-level motorsport, but it is Nissan which has the most interesting story to tell – and is telling it in the most interesting way.

The company is arriving in the World Endurance Championship this year with a bang. Its new LMP1 contender, designed to take on Le Mans winners Audi, world champions Toyota and Porsche, is not only distinctive – unlike its rivals the engine is in the front - but the natural next step in one of the most sophisticated and well-executed marketing programmes in all of sport. The Nissan GT Academy was launched, in association with Playstation manufacturer Sony, in 2008 and designed to identify driving talent and turn video gamers into professional racing drivers; by any measure the results have been astonishing and this year Jann Mardenborough and Lucas Ordóñez, two early graduates, will compete for Nissan in the top class at Le Mans.

"Jann and Lucas have proved their merit as professional racing drivers time and time again, not least with their Le Mans podium finishes," said Darren Cox, the global head of brand, marketing and sales for Nismo, Nissan’s motorsport arm, referring to the pair’s class podiums at Le Mans in the last two years.

"What looks like an overnight success is years of incredibly hard work by Jann, Lucas and the Nissan Nismo team that develop all of the winners of Nissan GT Academy. These guys are proof that if you want something badly enough and are prepared to give it everything you've got, you will succeed.  We have the same ethos with our LM P1 programme.”

Nissan’s involvement is another boon for the World Endurance Championship; it has four manufacturers in its top category for 2015 and an over-subscribed grid. Following Mark Webber’s debut in the series last year, Force India Formula One driver Nico Hulkenberg will step into a Porsche at two events, at Spa and Le Mans, in 2015, a move bound to generate more positive headlines for a championship clearly on the up.

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