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September 22, 2007  BY Jim Gann

Sports marketing is a huge field, accounting for billions of dollars in advertising and other promotional fees each year. And one of the most fascinating stories in the sports marketing industry is that of NASCAR, which, in only a few years, has graduated from a regional weekend pastime to a national phenomenon, creating personalities with rock-star popularity and causing those you’d least suspect to plant themselves in front of their televisions on weekends to watch their gear-head heroes compete in “the chase.”

Among those you’d least suspect: women. Of NASCAR’s 75 million fans, 40 percent are women. Women will spend $250 million this year on NASCAR-licensed products, and most experts believe this segment of the market will continue to grow in coming years. The interesting thing about those statistics is that NASCAR never set out to attract women to the sport; instead, the sports entity created something with infectious enthusiasm and “buzz,” and relied on its rabid fans to pull others into the fold. As a result, the entire line of NASCAR marketing products now includes pink shirts and stiletto heels because a portion of the fan base—affectionately referred to as the “race mommas”—demands them.

In a cover story on NASCAR in late 2005, Fortune magazine called it “the fastest-growing, best-run sports business in America—with the emphasis on business.” Many experts in sports marketing believe NASCAR can be a model case study for those wishing to enter the field.

NASCAR is the nation’s No. 1 spectator sport, and 17 of the top 20 most-attended sporting events in the country are NASCAR events. It is the second-most-watched sport in the United States, after the NFL. In addition to the huge number of female fans, more than 21 percent of fans are minorities, and more than 50 percent of the nation’s young people, ages 7 to 17, report they are NASCAR fans.

NASCAR fans are among the most loyal. They will switch brands to be supportive of their favorite drivers or to protest other drivers. Nearly two-thirds of them willingly spend more to buy a NASCAR sponsor’s product. They see it as a way to support the sport as well as the sponsor. Female fans report they would buy non-racing-related items, such as detergent, if they had NASCAR logos on the packaging.

The keys to NASCAR’s success are many, but one is the manner in which it has learned to manage the brand. Marketing executives realize that stock car racing is more than a sport; it’s a lifestyle. They share the life stories of drivers, crew chiefs and pit crew members as part of their promotional strategy. They have learned to capitalize on the “common man” down-to-earth personalities of the drivers, and they have combined that with the drama of a truly life-threatening activity that is clean, family friendly and patriotic. They leverage the fact that no NASCAR driver has been caught up in moral controversies, tested positive for steroids or been embroiled in public family disputes.

New technologies allow fans to follow the race intimately, from inside the car and via communication between drivers and their crews. NASCAR commentators are informed, seasoned professionals with long careers either following or participating in the industry. They are likable, approachable folks who can translate the technology of driving into something that nearly anyone can understand.

A key marketing strategy was NASCAR’s decision last year to partner with Harlequin romance novels to support the publication of three NASCAR-theme books, featuring NASCAR drivers on the covers. Even our local NASCAR hero, Carl Edwards, consulted with the author of those books to ensure she created a true-life representation of a driver for her steamy stories.

Driver Web sites are some of the most popular on the Internet. In recent months, many drivers have started blogs, resulting in tremendous fan response. For example, at one recent count, there were nearly 20,000 posts on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s blog, even though he had posted only a handful of times.

Another Web technology regularly trolls message boards, podcasts, social networking sites and blogs for sponsors to look for mentions of drivers. This gives sponsors an assessment of many factors, including how well a driver is connecting with fans. This “listening” technology is invaluable to sponsors, who often invest upward of $15 or $20 million per year in a racing team. The technique shrewdly capitalizes on a recent trend marketers are learning more about: the greater tendency than ever before for consumers to rely on the opinions of peers in making buying decisions. The Internet has become “word-of-mouth” marketing through a megaphone. And sports marketers, as well as their colleagues in other industries, are getting the message.

For example, marketing firms and potential sponsors have closely tracked the Internet traffic around Earnhardt’s departure from DEI and joining of Hendrick Motorsports to learn the implications of that transition from the fans’ perspective. Among other things, it has allowed them to gauge how many fans will follow Jr., regardless of sponsor or number.

The dollars wrapped up in this kind of market research are enormous.

But that’s nothing compared to $239 for stilettos sporting NASCAR logos.