OPINION: How to energize and expand motorsport’s audience

Ken Ungar is the president and founder of sports marketing agency CHARGE, which has served clients including Honda, Acura, NASCAR, the Los Angeles Dodgers, NBA Players Association, the SCCA and over 50 professional athletes in the NFL, NASCAR and IndyCar. Find out more here.

In my recent RACER opinion piece, readers challenged me to get specific about the reasons supporting my view on motorsports’ future. That article also promoted some disagreement with my thoughts. As I rarely avoid a good argument, I wanted to go deeper into issues surrounding the fan experience and the challenges in growing and energizing a fan audience.

Many of us remember a simpler time in the motorsports business. Specific figures dominated the world of racing promotion: Bill France, Jr., Tony Hulman, Jr., Bruton Smith, Wally Parks, and Humpy Wheeler come to mind. There was no talk of brands, demographics, or audience surveys. These promoters simply knew how to fill grandstands because they were intuitive, savvy, and aggressive businesspersons.

Today, we sometimes have to do things differently because the world has changed. Audiences have too many choices with too little time to spend on things like motorsports. Millennials and Gen Z simply don’t spend their time and money like Gen X and Boomers did. Sanctioning bodies and race tracks market differently because they operate in a different world than France, Hulman, and Smith.

Nevertheless, even though we may market differently in 2021 versus 2001, motorsports must be mindful of the most important rule of audience growth: the best way to build an audience is through addition, not substitution. Auto racing has an older and more male audience than other sports. The industry must build on this base, and not abandon it. In the pursuit of a younger and diverse fan base, the sport should honor those who support it today and welcome all others in the future.

The Four Key Questions

Every form of entertainment and sport would love to put a wheel into motorsports. A dollar spent to attend a sports car race could be spent on golf, tennis, football, Netflix, vacations, etc. Motorsports has a valuable audience, but that audience has eroded over the past decade or so. In light of this challenge, the motorsports industry must address the following four questions to grow and energize its audience in this era of intense competition.

Does the product fit the fan’s lifestyle?

Professional sports must appeal to a fan’s lifestyle. The fan chooses what sports format, timing, and location appeal to them. American short-track racing remains popular because it delivers the right entertainment on a good night for the right price point for its fan base. However, three-hour races, a long drive to a superspeedway, and a lack of event entertainment options may be less appealing to younger audiences. Each form of auto racing has different issues to consider. However, as we’ve seen little change in racing over the last 25 years, it doesn’t seem that the sport is adapting well to changing lifestyles.

IndyCar drivers are strong at engaging with fans on a one-to-one basis, but all forms of the sport need to make it easier to incorporate themselves into their audience’s lifestyle. Motorsport Images

To determine if the product fits the fan lifestyle, the following factors can be considered:

  1. A realistic appraisal of the on-track product. In my last RACER op-ed, I referenced that “Paddock Think” will prevent us from honestly assessing if the racing product is as good as we think it is. In reality, the industry’s opinion does not matter. It’s all about the person that buys the ticket or watches a race broadcast.
  2. An experience superior to competitive alternatives. I’ll offer a quick example from baseball. Baseball stadiums are being redesigned to encourage fans to watch games from entertainment areas other than their seats. Attendees want to hang out with friends and family as a group rather than sit in a single line of seats. While I recognize the value of engine sound to the fan experience, it’s often difficult to have a conversation with anyone in the grandstands at most races. Racing purists can argue with me all they want about the true nature of motorsports. However, I’ll simply note that motorsport is probably losing out to sports like baseball, football, or basketball.
  3. Consistency of a great experience leads to repeat business. It’s expensive to attract new fans. However, it’s even more costly when a new fan tries the product and doesn’t return. To grow a sport, new fans must become regular fans. Privately, promoters have told me they experience high ‘churn’ because ticketholders don’t renew their seats for the coming year. Churn occurs for lots of reasons: a lackluster race, long concession lines, or inconvenient parking. No matter the reason, the motorsports industry must analyze this churn and find ways to retain customers.

Can the sport become enmeshed in the fans’ lives?

The NFL owns Sunday. It feels like we dedicate an entire day each week to watching the game on TV, tailgating at a game, or going to the game. We may watch it with family at home, or friends at a sports bar. Every sport should want to become that intertwined in its fans’ lives. This level of attachment drives fan engagement at every level and promotes sport growth.

I don’t contend that a similar level of engagement doesn’t exist in motorsports. Just spend a weekend in a NASCAR campground, and you’ll see it. There’s just not enough of it in the sport as a whole. It involves following the sport’s and athletes’ social media, compelling stories (like the content found on RACER), engaging in fantasy leagues or legal wagering, and watching/attending events.

Sports usually engage the following strategies to increase fan connections:

  1. Increase knowledge of the competition. Racing is filled with exciting action and technologies. However, to enjoy and appreciate the sport, promoters should consider ‘Racing 101’ events, trivia competitions, or other ways to make the sport more accessible to new and casual fans.
  2. Enhance opportunities to socialize. A hospitality suite or chalet should not be the only place for fans to gather with family, friends, and colleagues. Tracks should find ways to build social spaces into spectator areas, similar to their stick-and-ball counterparts.
  3. Demonstrate strong connections to the community. Historically, motorsports has been diligent in connecting with charities, social groups, and local economic initiatives. Actually, NFL teams and others have ripped a page from racing’s playbook. However, I have seen these connections wane at racing events over the past decade. Fans recognize when a racing organization supports their community, and reciprocate with event ticket purchase and attendance.