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A Reasonable Solution To The Indy 500 Sponsorship Row

By Jim Andrews May 31, 2011

I have been holding my breath for a week now, but I think it’s time to let it out.

I was waiting to see if the primary sponsors of Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 car and driver Ryan Hunter-Reay would do the unexpected—some would say right—thing in response to the situation that had auto racing fans and observers all worked up last week.

For those who don’t follow INDYCAR racing closely, the story is this: Hunter-Reay and the No. 28 car did not qualify for last Sunday’s Indy 500. That was an unexpected development, giving the car and driver’s respectable if unspectacular start to the season.

An additional surprise came six days before the race when Andretti struck a deal with A.J. Foyt Racing to place Hunter-Reay as the Indy 500 driver of Foyt’s No. 41 car. What about the driver who qualified the No. 41 for the race, you say? His name is Bruno Junqueira and he got a check and a thank you for services rendered. He watched the race on TV.

The big reason for the switch: sponsorship. Foyt’s entry has a few companies on board, but Andretti and Hunter-Reay have bigger-bucks deals, especially with co-primary partners DHL and Dr Pepper Snapple Group, the latter for its Sun Drop soft drink brand. Needless to say, those two companies would not have been pleased with being shut out of the 500, INDYCAR’s biggest event by far.

So Andretti paid Foyt for the right to transfer Andretti’s driver and sponsors to the No. 41, a win-win from a business perspective. (The payment has been reported to be between $200,000 and $250,000.)

Furthermore, the switch is completely within INDYCAR’s rules and is not unprecedented. As team owner Michael Andretti said in defending the decision: “The rule is the fastest 33 cars make the race, not the 33 fastest drivers.”

But many fans who took to social media were upset that a deserving driver was sitting on his couch instead of in the cockpit at race time and are rightly blaming the situation on teams’ needs to meet sponsor obligations.

It is unrealistic to expect DHL, Dr Pepper or any sponsor in these circumstances to simply throw up their hands and say, “Oh well, bad break for us,” and walk away from a major event they expected to be part of (even though that is exactly what Junqueira did, and gracefully so).

But it seems to me there were a couple of options open to these sponsors that could have helped deflect some of the criticism of their role (and of undue corporate influence in sports and entertainment overall).

First, they could have said something. Since events unfolded a week ago, there has been plenty of conversation about the move, but DHL and Dr Pepper have broken the fundamental rule of social media and remained silent.

Second, in the spirit of maintaining the integrity of the sport, would it be out of the question for those brands to have made a deal to put their logos on the No. 41 for the 500 but forgo having their driver take Junqueira’s place? Both sponsors could have turned the situation into a positive by utilizing their sidelined driver for on-site and media activation he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do if he was involved in the race.

This wouldn’t have completely replicated having their driver in the race, but might have been an appropriate price to pay to be seen as supporting the sport instead of taking advantage of it and might have earned them additional credit and praise instead of scorn.

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Jim Andrews

About the Author

A 30-year sponsorship industry veteran, Jim is responsible for developing and sharing thought-leadership content based on ESP Properties’ groundbreaking work in the areas of sponsorship strategy, valuation, measurement, digital content, data-driven marketing and fan engagement.

In addition to identifying key trends and delivering his unique insights into the critical issues facing rightsholders and their commercial partners, Jim is the chairman of the Annual Sponsorship Conference, responsible for the program and speakers, as well as hosting and delivering the event’s opening address. He also is responsible for the company’s annual report and forecast of overall sponsorship spending, as well as its compilation of biggest spending companies and annual industry surveys.

A frequent media commentator and guest, Jim has been a featured speaker at hundreds of sports, entertainment and marketing conferences around the world.

 

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