As it stands this Tuesday, October 14, the Verizon IndyCar Series 2015 date at the Milwaukee Mile has not been set.
The series will return, but it’s just a question of when. After being on Father’s Day weekend in 2012 and 2013, the race shifted to August this past year, post the Wisconsin State Fair.
However, the anticipated massive bump in attendance didn’t come, despite a high level of promotion in the market and additional foot traffic that saw the ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers advertised at State Fair.
An August return is possible; the Labor Day weekend has also been mooted and it’s even been suggested the race could run in July. Race general manager Kevin Healy of Andretti Sports Marketing joked, “I can tell you it will be between March and September.”
As Milwaukee seeks to find its home on the calendar, Andretti Sports Marketing president John Lopes said the mantra of date equity isn’t as important as some would make it seem.
“I don’t know if it matters so much anymore,” Lopes told MotorSportsTalk in an interview at Andretti Sports Marketing’s offices in Indianapolis.
“Date equity is a mantra for every promoter, but I don’t think date equity is an issue for Milwaukee yet because we haven’t found the right date yet. This is one market where it walks and talks and acts differently than others.”
How so, you ask? Adverse circumstances affected the two June years, and while Lopes was happy with the promotion, he was surprised by the August date not producing the desired number of sold tickets.
“Every time we think we’re smart on a date, we learn that maybe we’re not as smart as we thought we were,” he explained. “We really thought Father’s Day would work, so we went with this whole Father’s Day promotion, and ‘generations.’ What we learned is we were hurt by a couple things: we were hurt by June Sprints, the fact it was Father’s Day, and by rain, and that happened two years in a row.
“So we moved off of that, and thought, ‘OK, let’s see how we do without those three things going against us.’ It didn’t change the needle. So that was a head scratcher for us.
“Now we don’t have so much of a choice. Our date, which will come pretty quickly from IndyCar, will be where can they fit us. So maybe, funny enough, we might not get a date we want, and watch, we’ll have more than with our other dates.”
Lopes explained the three-year growth model for IndyCar at IndyFest, and how Andretti Sports Marketing has helped to save the event from going away.
“We took Milwaukee initially as a one year at a time type thing,” he said. “The first year, we came in to help IndyCar do it. For those of us who are close to the sport, it’s one of those things we didn’t want to see fail. It’s our version of Wrigley Field.
“A lot of promoters had had issues over the years. I honestly don’t know what the common thread was. We felt we could come in, and so long as we contained costs, we could slowly build it up over three years. It’s occurred that way. We’ve built it up from a sponsorship standpoint.”
The additions of ABC Supply Co. as a title sponsor and Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers as a presenting sponsor, Lopes said, really boosted the event. The company’s national sponsors – DHL, Dr Pepper Snapple and on down the line – also helped grow and support the race. Where the company needs to increase is by growing the base of Milwaukee sponsors.
“In terms of expectations, that’s been good. In terms of a point of pride for the company, that’s been good. But, we need to put more butts in seats. That’s the singular issue,” Lopes admitted. “It’s a bit of a head scratcher, and we don’t yet know the answer.”
Lopes said the event has grown from less than 10,000 fans in 2011 to north of 25,000 over three years. While an optimistic goal, Lopes said if they could attract 45,000 fans, it would be huge for the race.
Some have attested the attendance issue is an “oval problem,” where it appears IndyCar draws lower on ovals than on road and street courses, that’s a bit of a misnomer. Most oval grandstands IndyCar races on were built during a period of grandstand expansion, and that perception has hurt ovals.
“This isn’t unique to Milwaukee, or unique to racing,” Lopes explained. “Somebody showed all the empty seats at the 49ers game last week. It’s symptomatic of events in general; it’s harder to sell tickets to events now than ever.
“It’s attributable to a changing culture in entertainment, because 20-30 years ago it was the only thing. Now you have so many different options of entertainment, sports, festivals.
“It looks to me like they overbuilt. Because of that, we’re wrestling with a perception of it’s not a big event. But there’s several thousand in the infield alone, and ten of thousands in grandstands.
“It might be hard to compare us to the L.A. market, but I can tell you there were less there than Milwaukee. I think we do a good job in the market, and we are trying to bring in more.”
Lopes said the zip code analysis revealed a wide number of potential attendees from Northern Illinois, but because of the challenge and cost of media buys in that market, they haven’t been able to attract the number of fans from that area.
Overall though, Lopes said the event’s future is secure, and the goal now is to grow the event rather than simply save it.
“We’re refining it. We’re not saving the world or the event. The event is saved. Now it’s how do we put more butts in seats.”