In the eyes of many, 2015 was an incredible years for professional motorsports. NASCAR received record ratings for their season finale, which saw a thrilling finish in which a legend retired and a driver took the title after missing several races due to injury. IndyCar saw a tremendous battle to the finish at both the Indy 500 and season finale, and sportscar racing saw some amazing triumphs from Porsche, Corvette, and beyond. Outside of convention, Global Rallycross continued to show its steady rise as one of motorsports’ most prominent and increasingly relevant forms to grab a new audience, and Formula E’s electric approach continues to show a strong, if small, foundation in the landscape.
However, the sport continues to face increasing challenges as both the business and advertising dynamic changes, here are the five questions facing the business of motorsport in 2016:
- The role in OEM road-relevance vs. spectacle. While the “spectacle” of racing may be subjective and a constant source of debate among fans, there is a consistent argument for higher horsepower, more speed, and a return to the spirit of open competition that the sport was built on. Unfortunately, the current form of “spec” racing that exists in much of the sport, most notably Formula One and IndyCar, is a result of constant manufacturer push for tightly controlled specifications and the use of technologies most common in road cars. Unfortunately, in an era of fuel economy and hybrid technology, “road relevant” features and high horsepower aren’t always in favor of each other. As the sport continues to struggle with an increasingly discontent fan base, a long, hard look needs to be made at how these two causes can coexist.
- The Gentleman Driver, Lead or Follow? Within the realm of sportscar racing, driver ratings have been a constant source of contention ever since their widespread adoption dating back to 2009, but as the FIA, ACO, and IMSA continue to clarify and define a pro driver vs. non-pro, their efforts are only scrutinized heavier, with a widespread call to end the practice in recent months. From the business side, however, for both series and teams, the answer is not as clear. With sponsorship an increasing challenge in all forms of motorsport, the multi-driver nature of endurance sportscar racing puts a premium on self-funded drivers, and it was in the interest of preserving and attracting these drivers that the practice even began. The question for 2016, however, will be “at what cost?” The negative publicity and confusion certainly isn’t helping the series, but perhaps it is what is keeping cars on the grid. It’s a basic question of whether or not the sport sets the rules for these gentlemen, or is it the other way around?
- Why Has Livestreaming Not Taken Off? Between increasing bandwidths, mobile technologies and data rates, the once looked-down upon activity of livestreaming is becoming a much more acceptable and popular form of broadcasting. Yet, in motorsport, it’s still not at the level of popularity as one might suspect. The Pirelli World Challenge is currently the only major form of motorsport who uses livestreaming as their primary source of live broadcast (they do air races on CBS Sports a few weeks later), and it is by most accounts not a very successful stream. Other forms of motorsport may feature elements of livestreaming to enhance a weekend (qualifying broadcasts, etc.), but in the year 2015 it’s still not considered an acceptable “mainstream” form of broadcasting for motorsport, yet many other forms of entertainment have managed to successfully build it in to their platforms.
- Can Motorsport Provide Tangible Data? If you’ve ever looked at a traditional marketing deck from any of the major motorsport series, you’ll see an increasing trend of avoiding “real” numbers. Rather than discuss hard and true numbers on viewership, audience return, etc., you’ll see a focus on percentage growth, implied value and branding awareness. More and more decks also rely on number generated from a group like Joyce Julius, which while not completely irrelevant, presents a very flawed approach in value and tangible metrics. While a decreasing fanbase is not something that can be immediately fixed in 2016, the approach to data and metrics definitely needs a second look. There is a brand loyal and enthusiastic audience out there, and there’s a value in that, but until that data can be mined and packaged properly, all forms of motorsport will continue to struggle.
- Can the Millennial Car Culture Be Engaged? A broad, but fundamental question that still remains to be seen… and probably the most important one. While there is a clear line between fans of motorsport and the general car culture at-large, the crossover between the two is undeniable. With that being said, is today’s under-25 car culture interested in motorsport, and is that audience big enough to sustain the marketing requirements to justify the sport? With a car culture that increasingly moves toward non-sporting causes, all forms of motorsport have an increasingly difficult job, and 2016 will be critical to experiement with ways to engage.
It’s an exciting year ahead for all series. Formula One is preparing for a radical shake up in the rules, IMSA has a completely revamped category hitting the track, NASCAR continues on its strengths, Formula E is allowing more and more innovation in to the series, and Global Rallycross is only attracting more and more people. Daytona can’t come soon enough.