IndyCar-Verizon pact should be viewed with cautious optimism

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Sponsor activation is a beautiful thing in motorsports.

NASCAR fans see it every single day. When they’re printing up documents at Kinko’s, they see Denny Hamlin’s race car.

When they walk into a convenience store, they step on a floor sticker with a smiling, Skittles-hawking Kyle Busch.

When they’re pulling into a parking lot for a sports bar, they see signs with Kevin Harvick pushing $2.50 pints of Budweiser for Happy Hour.

And of course, when they’re in a Sprint shop to upgrade their phone, they see signs promoting the company’s title sponsorship of America’s most popular motorsport.

IndyCar fans on the other hand don’t see major sponsors beckoning to them. Beyond the Racing Capitol of the World (and NBCSN broadcasts, of course), these instances get scarce: A wall sign in a Target here, a stray Ryan Hunter-Reay/Sun Drop sticker there.

Your eyes are all you need to recognize the gap between the two series in the public consciousness.

Enter Verizon, which got into NASCAR in 2009 via its acquisition of Alltel but had a challenging time promoting itself in the sport thanks to its aforementioned association with Sprint.

In 2010, Verizon got involved full-time with IndyCar through a primary sponsorship deal with Team Penske and at the end of that year, it shifted its entire motorsports attention from NASCAR to North America’s top open-wheel series.

The telecommunications giant has become one of IndyCar’s biggest partners, both in sponsorship and technology aspects. Now they’re stepping up to the plate as IndyCar’s new title sponsor.

“I think of this day as a game-changer for IndyCar, for the series, for our fans, for the teams, for the drivers,” Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles said this morning in a teleconference.

“In a real sense, I think it represents a kind of confirmation of strategies that we’ve put in place and where we intend to take the sport. It is the beginning of the next phase of IndyCar’s growth.”

Obviously, optimism is rather high about this partnership and you can’t blame IndyCar for that.

IZOD may have made some nice apparel for us race fans who didn’t dare to pull out a shirt two-thirds covered by a driver’s face for a barbecue. But Verizon is close to ubiquitous in our society these days.

Millions of people use their phones and services. They clearly know how to promote their products. But most important of all, the company’s been in the series for a while now.

They’re not going into this blind or with some faint idea of what to expect. They haven’t been scared off by its assorted issues of TV ratings, live attendance, and occasional bouts of political infighting.

They actually seem interested in building the sport.

“We’ve had a great relationship as a partner and with [Team Penske], so when we looked at this, it just became the right time for Verizon to step up in this position,” said Verizon vice president of marketing Brian Angiolet.

“We have been evolving our brand from a mobile and wireless-centric company into more of a technology company. When you think about the role that technology plays in IndyCar, it just seemed like a great match…It’s a perfect match at a perfect time.”

But didn’t we think IZOD was interested too?

To be fair, the apparel brand was doing its part to activate its IndyCar sponsorship during the early stages of its deal with the series, which started in 2010.

But a management change at IZOD’s parent company that occurred midway through the deal resulted in a noticeable pullback of promotion for IndyCar, both on TV and elsewhere.

Last fall, IZOD left a year early, joining a list of ultimately ineffective title sponsors for the series that includes defunct search engine Northern Light and auto parts retailer Pep Boys.

Time will tell if Verizon can be IndyCar’s answer to what R.J. Reynolds and its Winston cigarettes brand did for NASCAR, or if it too winds up on that unenviable list.

For his part, Miles is keeping his eyes on the road ahead.

“I don’t think much about the past, to be frank,” he said. “I’m thinking about how we’re going to take the sport forward. I’ve never spent a second thinking about comparing this situation to prior ones, because I’m so completely convinced about how this partnership will make sense.

“They see the sport the way that we do: It is a compelling, exciting sport that is perfect as the sport to apply technology to make it more compelling to fans…We have complete confidence that this is going to be a home run for IndyCar.”

Fair enough. But Miles is talking about potential here. And while potential is one thing, results are another.

Again, IndyCar has a right to be optimistic. But for the rest of us, that optimism needs to be cautious.

IndyCar followers have been wanting results in regards to promotion for years now. They understood that reunification of the sport in 2008 wasn’t going to be the magic bullet, but seven years after, they’re tired of seeing a tremendous racing product get ignored.

IndyCar may be based in Indiana and Verizon may be based outside New York City. But both should consider making themselves believe that everybody waiting on their big push for the sport is living in Missouri.

Because those people are going to look at this announcement, remember the past failures, and then simply say, “Show me.”

F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on NBCSN, NBC Sports App this week

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After five years and 98 Grands Prix broadcast since 2013, NBC Sports Group’s coverage of Formula 1 concludes with the 2017 season finale from Abu Dhabi at the Yas Marina Circuit this week.

The lights come on for the day-into-night Grand Prix of the year as the sun sets on five years of broadcasts, original content and additional digital specific features such as Paddock Pass.

For Abu Dhabi this week, all of the race, qualifying and second free practice will be live on NBCSN with first and third free practice live on the NBC Sports App. The race returns is back in the usual morning a.m. time slots after three mid-day races in Austin, Mexico City and Sao Paulo, and a pair of overnight affairs in Kuala Lumpur and Suzuka. Formula 2 coverage of its season finale from Abu Dhabi also airs both on NBCSN and online.

With this the final race of the season before F1’s winter break, there’s still a handful of things to get sorted even though Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have wrapped their respective championships.

Sebastian Vettel (Brazil) and Max Verstappen (Mexico) have won the last two races, with Hamilton’s most recent win coming at Circuit of the Americas. Will it be any of these three that wrap the year on a high or could any of their teammates – Kimi Raikkonen, Daniel Ricciardo or Valtteri Bottas – upend the script?

Mercedes has won the last three races in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton winning in 2014 and 2016 with Nico Rosberg taking the 2015 crown.

Vettel and Hamilton have three wins apiece in Abu Dhabi, Vettel having taken all of his with Red Bull in 2009, 2010 and 2013, and Hamilton adding a 2011 McLaren triumph to his last two with Mercedes. Raikkonen (2012, Lotus) and Rosberg are the other Abu Dhabi winners, and while both Vettel and Raikkonen have won in Abu Dhabi, Ferrari never has in the first eight races here.

The last place up for grabs in the constructor’s battle is for sixth, with Toro Rosso (53 points), Renault (49) and Haas (47) separated by only six total points. Toro Rosso and Renault got into a nasty war of words in Brazil, and will part ways after the weekend.

Felipe Massa signs off his career in F1 for the second and expected final time at Williams, and with Toro Rosso having confirmed Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley last week, his seat is one of only three left to fill for 2018, and the most attractive.

McLaren and Honda also bring to an end their partnership after three troubled seasons, but on the bright side will look to score points for a third straight race together, which hasn’t happened since the Hungarian, German and Belgian Grands Prix of 2016.

As ever, and perhaps for the final time as a collective unit, Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call with Will Buxton reporting from the pits and paddock.

Here’s the F1 schedule, with stream links and TV network if applicable:

  • Practice 1: Friday, Nov. 24, 4 a.m.-5:30 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Practice 2: Friday, Nov. 24, 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 3: Saturday, Nov. 25, 5 a.m.-6 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Qualifying: Saturday, Nov. 25, 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Pre-Race: Sunday, Nov. 26, 7 a.m.-8 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race: Sunday, Nov. 26, 8 a.m.-10 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Post-Race: Sunday, Nov. 26, 10 a.m.-10:55 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race (Replay): Sunday, Nov. 26, 7 p.m.-9 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • F2 Race: Sunday, Nov. 26, 6 a.m.-7 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • F2 Race (Replay): Sunday, Nov. 26, 9 p.m.-10 p.m. ET (NBCSN)