Super Bowl better value than IndyCar — or is it?

IndyCar commentary — By on February 7, 2011 11:23 am

Let me start with a disclaimer. Generally, when I have the good fortune of writing in this space, I feel like I am in a position to make a pretty decent argument. While I certainly don’t claim all of my writing is gospel, I feel like I present my opinions based in enough facts, knowledge, and history to make a pretty solid case. Such is not the case with this post. I admit right here that I am way out of my element when it comes to marketing and quantifying its value. I truly hope someone who is a professional in the marketing industry will come forward and either rebut or confirm my thoughts.

With that, let’s begin.

Last night, during the first quarter of Super Bowl XLV, I sent out a tweet that came off the cuff and wasn’t really meant to attract much discussion. It was as follows:

@Fieldof33: Half way through the 1st quarter and Bud Light could have already sponsored 3 competitive @IndyCar rides for 2011.

I didn’t give this statement much thought before sending it. I was merely pointing out a fact.

But within a few minutes, I was bombarded with replies and a handful of DMs telling me that while, yes, Bud Light could have sponsored a handful of cars with the $6 million worth of advertisements they bought in the first quarter, they likely got much more mileage (i.e., many more eyeballs) from those commercials than they would have by spending a similar amount on an IZOD IndyCar Series program.

Up front, I completely agreed with these arguments. For the most part, I still do. As much as I love IndyCar, it’s hard to argue that spending $3 million on a full season IICS program buys you nearly as much visibility as a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl that is seen by nearly 100 million people, many of whom are watching for no other reason than to see the latest and greatest ads.  There is a reason why FOX, CBS, and NBC can charge such exorbitant amounts of money for these commercial spots — industry research shows that companies receive a justifiable return on investment when they plunk down their many millions of dollars. In Indycar… well, let’s just say research doesn’t necessarily support the same ROI.

Nonetheless, I got to thinking about this topic again this morning as I was getting my ass handed to me on the treadmill while trying to rid myself of the horrendous amount of calories I consumed during the game. It occurred to me that while a sponsor is most definitely getting a better up-front return on investment for its Super Bowl money, perhaps the long-term outlook is a bit more cloudy. When a company spends money on an IICS program, it is not just buying a place on a team’s sidepod for three hours on Memorial Day weekend. For its $0.5 million, or $1 million, or $10 million, that company is buying a place in history.

Quickly (and without doing a Google search), tell me one good advertisement from the 1992 Super Bowl. How about from 1985, or 1978, or even the first one in 1967?  Exactly! For every Betty White commercial, or Budweiser frog, or Cindy Crawford, or Mean Joe Green ad, there are hundreds of commercials that most people forget within a week of the Super Bowl.

On the flip side, I don’t think I’m alone in being able to tell you that Rachel’s Potato Chips was the sponsor on Eddie Cheever’s winning car at the 1998 Indianapolis 500. Or that Pennzoil was the sponsor for victories in 1980, 1984, and 1988. Who won the 500 in 1983? Tom Sneva in the Texaco Star. What car won in 1992? Valvoline. Twenty-five years after Bobby Rahal took the checkered flag, people still remember his sponsor was Budweiser. Want to go back further? Ok, let’s talk Bowes Seal Fast, Dean Van Lines, Belonde, Leader Cards, etc., etc., etc.  While STP has been out of the game for many years now, the money it paid to sponsor one of the most iconic cars in racing history, the 1967 STP/Granatelli Turbine, is still paying dividends today. Likewise, Marlboro and Phillip Morris left IndyCar racing after 2009, but their image will live on through highlights of any of their nine Indianapolis victories and countless other wins.

Now, to head off another point, I do understand that not every sponsor that joins IndyCar is going to hit a home run and have the success of a Phillip Morris, or a Target, or even a 7-11. But even the sponsors that are not on winning cars are often rewarded for their involvement. Since 2005, how much mileage do you think Argent Mortgage and Pioneer have gotten from replays of Danica Patrick’s rookie run at Indianapolis in 2005?  What about K-Mart and Havoline from their years of sponsoring cars for Newman/Haas Racing?

In the end, it is still hard to argue that a potential sponsor would get the return on investment from a full-time IICS program that they would from a 30-second time buy during the Super Bowl, especially when considering only the number of real-time viewers. However, when looking at the issue from a long-range view, the difference may not be quite as clear-cut as one may initially think.