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Roar of the Engines, Smell of the Money
What's in a name? If it's the name of a product brand plastered across the hood, sides and trunk of the winning car on a NASCAR track, there's a lot in it—a name that fans are likely to know and a brand they are likely to buy.
By Charles Culbertson
"We've all heard about NASCAR fans' legendary loyalty, but that doesn't mean anything if they don't know who sponsors the drivers."—Larry DeGaris
The roar of engines, the clash of metal against metal, the thrill generated by sleek and low-slung race cars traveling at heart-pounding speeds. These are the images many people have of NASCAR racing. While it's not an incorrect image, it doesn't fully represent what this uniquely American sport has become in recent years.
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing not only boasts an extraordinary following—an estimated 30 million people are fans of the sport and follow it religiously—but it also claims a remarkable marketing phenomenon never seen before in our unabashedly capitalist, market-oriented society.
That phenomenon, said Larry DeGaris, director of James Madison University's Center for Sports Sponsorship, springs from NASCAR fans and their "extraordinary awareness" of the sport's corporate sponsors. What that means, said DeGaris in a new study, is that if a favorite driver bears a corporate logo on his car or his racing suit, a fan is likely to remember it and patronize the sponsor.
"We've all heard about NASCAR fans' legendary loyalty, but that doesn't mean anything if they don't know who sponsors the drivers," DeGaris said. "For example, 96 percent of self-described 'big' fans of NASCAR correctly identified Budweiser as a sponsor of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"I've conducted similar studies for every major sport in the U.S. and nothing else comes close."
DeGaris also noted that the top 30 NEXTEL Cup drivers averaged 36 percent unaided awareness for their primary sponsors, and that nine individual drivers topped the 50 percent awareness level for their major car sponsors.
Calling on JMU's 'NASCAR guy'
DeGaris' research into NASCAR sponsorship and the phenomenon of fans' recognition of it has gained national attention. Since the sport has grown to mammoth proportions and shows no signs of slowing up any time soon, media outlets constantly seek to get a handle on it. USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Los Angeles Times are just four of the major U.S. publications that have called on DeGaris for his knowledge of NASCAR and the one-of-a-kind marketing bonanza it provides. In July, the British publication, Financial Times, quoted DeGaris: "Nascar drivers have to win races, " says Laurence de Garis, director of the Centre for Sports Sponsorship at James Madison University in Virginia. "But they also understand that a big part of their job is to be good representatives of their sponsors."
Among the information DeGaris provides to news sources are these statistics, straight from his study:
Fans recognize and appreciate sponsors' contributions. Fully 93 percent of fans said corporate sponsors are "very important" to NASCAR; 78 percent agree that, without corporate sponsors, there would be no NASCAR.
Fans "like" corporate sponsorship of NASCAR. A whopping 83 percent of fans said they "like" corporate sponsorship of NASCAR; another 43 percent said they like it "a lot."
NASCAR fans feel empowered by purchasing sponsors' products. DeGaris' study showed that 51 percent of fans agreed that when they buy a NASCAR sponsor's product, they feel like they are contributing to the sport.
NASCAR sponsorship touches the soul. Forty-seven percent of fans agreed that they like a sponsor's brand more because it sponsors NASCAR.
DeGaris' study also found that NASCAR fans tend to be longtime followers of the sport and have a high regard for their drivers. On average, he said, fans reported having been NASCAR followers for 18.6 years.
Connect fans and driver sponsors
"NASCAR sponsorship is the best buy in marketing," he said. "The combination of awareness, favorability and effectiveness is unparalleled in the sports world or anywhere else."
While these results are very positive, said DeGaris, the JMU Center for Sports Sponsorship has issued a call to action for sponsors to put more behind activating their NASCAR sponsorships.
"While fans feel positive toward sponsors," said DeGaris, "we found room for sponsors to activate their relationships more effectively.
"For example, only 17 percent of fans agreed that they receive special benefits from NASCAR sponsors, such as promotions or discounts. There is clearly room for sponsors to connect even more with fans who embrace corporate support of NASCAR."
Interestingly, DeGaris himself is not a NASCAR fan. His lack of personal investment in the sport, however, aids his credibility as a researcher and sports marketing analyst—and, he hopes, will keep him from being thought of solely as "the NASCAR guy" at JMU (said even as he prepared for a trip to Australia to address a conference of sports-industry executives on NASCAR).
"Measuring sports sponsorship is part of what my job entails at JMU," he said. "While we'll continue to ride the NASCAR wave, I'm looking to perhaps zero in on the Olympics and analyze sports sponsorship as it relates to the Games."