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The Shrinking Motorsports Puddle: Three ideas to bring new sponsors to motorsports

If you're reading this blog, you most likely have an interest in motorsports. You have also most likely attended some type of motorsports event, such as a local or national race series, a tradeshow, or some other event where sponsors are present.

When we think of motorsports sponsors, we often think of the obvious brands and products related to the sport; high-performance petroleum products, including oil and fuel, race gas, and additives come to mind. So does tires, exhaust, and internal engine components; all the hard shiny bits that make the engine roar and the wheels turn faster.

The reason for all the motorsport specific sponsors is simple: we use certain products, therefore the makers of those products market to us. It's the most basic form of advertising; find your audience, then put your product and logo in front of them. If they see it enough times, or on a winning team's livery, maybe they'll buy.

Unfortunately, this strategy only works in a growing market.

If the market isn't growing, companies don't have new entrants and buyers to advertise too. At some point, brand loyalty kicks in, and all the racers and enthusiasts that have already seen your product are either already customers of yours or customers of a competitor. Getting them to switch from a competitor is much harder than gaining new market entrants with no product experience. I hate to be a wet blanket, but the motorsports market isn't exactly growing at the moment. That leaves a lot of sponsors spending their marketing budget on existing customers, or market participants who will likely never be customers.

For all the brilliant engineers and technicians in motorsports, very few of them are savvy marketers. So when it comes time to put together the up-coming season's program and find sponsors, it's much easier to return to the usual suspects. Why? Because racing teams need money and products to go racing. Most of them don't have the time to develop a full external sponsorship campaign. It's not their fault. Budgets are designed for racing, not consultants and marketing professionals.

The point being, the whole sponsor culture in motorsports is like a puddle full of tadpoles that continues to shrink.

It's stagnant. We've gone without new water for too long and the water that does exist is rapidly disappearing or is already spoken for. If we look only as far as the puddle we're in, there just isn't enough to go around. Most traditional sponsors have their marketing budgets set in October or November prior to the race season. Most of the agreements are done over email or a quick phone call:

"Hey Brad, are you guys in for next year's program?"

"Yup, count us in for the same package."

Done and done. The process doesn't leave much room for new ideas, new sponsors, or new athletes. But it's easy.

So the puddle just becomes a boys club of the same race teams using the same sponsors, marketing to the same customers. Then everybody starts chirping about how there's no money in motorsports, the audience is aging out, etc. The tadpoles at the top of the puddle's food chain have been comfortable for a while, but that seems to be changing. It's all drying up. Many companies aren't seeing the return on investment from their sponsorship. The reason: the market is tapped.

So what do we do? The answer: something different.

Here are three strategies to bring new sponsors and customers to a stagnant motorsports market:

1. Get stylish

What's the best way to liven up a boring party? Either invite more people or do something crazy. The latter is high risk but the former just requires a little creativity.

So how does the motorsports industry attract more party-goers? Gain new sponsors with audiences and customers outside of the industry! If teams are able to attract non-traditional motorsports sponsors and those sponsors align with the team's brand, vision, and values, they will naturally direct their existing customer base to the motorsports arena.

Clothing brands are a good example of an outside industry sponsor that can capitalize on the motorsports market. At the world-class level, Marc Marquez, among other MotoGP teams and riders, has partnered with Pull&Bear, a clothing retailer based in Spain. Does Marquez wear Pull&Bear's urban collection while racing around Jerez? No. But does using him as a model in ads attract new eyes to the sport? Yes! And young, trendy, fashion-conscious eyes. Eyes with wallets attached that haven't been opened to motorsports yet, possibly.

Not only does the right clothing brand bring new eyes to the sport, the very nature of the fashion retail industry, with its distribution channels, merchandising strategies, targeted demographics, aggressive advertising campaigns, and high-traffic locations, all add a high-powered marketing partner to whoever takes advantage.

TIP: Consider sponsors that overlap enough of the existing motorsports market so they benefit (in Pull&Bear's case, their young urban customers may ride motorcycles), but also have a large footprint outside of the market (Pull&Bear has plenty of customers who don't ride motorcycles). All it takes is one crack in the dam, then a torrent of new customers may come busting through.

2. Target brands important to Generation Z

If a potential middle-aged customer has forty years of buying power left in their life, then a twenty-year-old customer has at least twice that. Sure, their expendable income is less in the early years, but theoretically, it should increase as they age. It should also be said that "less" expendable income does not mean "no" expendable income.

A recent Neilsen report addresses the myth that Generation Z (16-24yo) does not have expendable income. On the contrary, Gen Z is more likely to live at home, not pay rent or a mortgage, and are a large segment of luxury accessory consumers (they are 25% more likely than the 25-69yo group to have bought a luxury accessory in the past few weeks).

Generation Z is less interested in traditional "adulting" sports sponsors, such as insurance, health care, financial services, etc. However, they are very interested in sponsors and brands that practice social responsibility and sustainability. According to Neilsen, "Generation Z is driving force behind new sponsorship categories, including rideshare services like Uber and Lyft, and online marketplaces for home sharing."

In addition, Gen Z is more likely to support and be loyal to individual athletes rather than teams--this should be a key point of interest for racers. This individual athlete focus also leads Gen Z to watch more extreme sports and skip traditional ball sports like baseball and football (with the exception of soccer; it remains the most popular sport globally). I'd say road racing is pretty extreme.

A sponsorship campaign designed to attract Gen Z will have more long term benefits, attract new customers, and leverage their expanding brand network. Go get 'em.

TIP: Look for companies that align with your team's vision and values. Your team doesn't have a set vision or set of values? Start there. (For more on 'vision and values' see my previous blog post here) Next, look at how your athlete can apply those values in a non-motorsports environment. Serve a community of some sort, preferably one with a young demographic.

3. Focus your efforts on cash sponsors rather than products

When reaching out to sponsors, it's not difficult to secure packages that include products instead of cash. Especially in the motorsports arena, brands are always happy to give you their product. But why is it so difficult to secure cash sponsorship? I thought cash was king.

Product sponsorship can be limiting for obvious reasons related to conflicts of interest. If you secure a Motul sponsorship, well, then you've just eliminated Lucas Oil, Motorex, AMSOIL, and all the others. If you go with Dunlop; forget Pirelli, Bridgestone, etc. And if you choose Dainese; you get what I'm saying.

Add to those product constraints the fact that you're not getting any cash in the deal and it becomes less appealing. You've just cornered your program. Yet, that describes the majority of the sponsorship agreements available... within the industry. If you go outside of the industry, to brands and companies that provide technology, clothing, or ancillary goods and services that touch the motorsports arena but are not limited to it, you increase your chances of finding cash support.

Unfortunately, within the industry, products have become the standard currency. The result is a low threshold for sponsorship and many companies that are going through the motions but not concerned with ROI. A cash sponsor will be very interested in ROI. To make a convincing pitch, you'll need to do your homework, have the data, and a fresh perspective. Not as easy as calling up Brad, but well worth the effort.

TIP: Think one to two years down the road with prospective cash sponsors. It often takes getting through gatekeepers, establishing genuine relationships, and understanding their goals. This doesn't happen in between the last race of one season and the first race of the next. Be patient. When you finally land that big sponsor, sign them to a multi-year deal. You've earned it.

I am not bashing industry sponsors. They absolutely have a place at the table--I'd even argue at the head of the table.

I understand the importance of testing and proving their products to remain a high-quality choice. However, when at the table only sits industry sponsors, the conversation gets boring. I love all my buddies I have beers with, but sometimes I want to reach outside my immediate social circle and hear new ideas and perspectives--plus, all those guys are tired of paying for my beer.

If nothing changes, the motorsports industry is going to starve. We can't keep feeding off our own digested waste in our shrinking puddle. We need some outside help. I hope the ideas above get you thinking about new ways to support your race program.

Let's go racing!

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