0912 Sullivan Path

SULLIVAN: What’s The Bottom Line?

What looked to be a simple Sunday night at home changed with an unexpected text. My much younger friend Ryan Kent wondered if I might be interested in catching the final NCAA basketball tournament game in downtown Indy.

It was an easy decision. Many of you have enjoyed Ryan’s public address work, beginning at Lawrenceburg Speedway and then with the MOWA series and elsewhere. Not only has his media work expanded within racing, but last year he was the voice of the Southern Illinois University women’s basketball team.

Given that there is a 40-year difference in our age, it is great for me to talk to Ryan and others in our field who see the world through a different lens. It may be a last-ditch effort to stay relevant, but so be it.

Because the game at hand turned into a rout, it was easy to drift into a discussion about racing and racing media. Over the course of my career much has changed. That’s the nature of things. In my first years as a college professor, I still used a blackboard and chalk in class, and I recorded scores in a separate gradebook. If I say that to some of my colleagues today, they nearly double over in laughter.

Racing is no different.

So, on this evening we discussed the state of the art as it stands, from social media to personalities, to relevant content, to live streaming. It’s probably not good to suffer from old coot’s disease, but sometimes old coots ask what would seem to be reasonable questions.

Here’s one I am struggling with right now. What’s the bottom line?

One of the new buzz words that I hear with increasing frequency is the term “influencer.” Near as I can tell, in the new media-saturated age, this is a person who can truly move the needle. Using my relatively modern computer, I did a search and came up with descriptions like “a person who is able to generate interest in something” and, similarly, “a person or group that has the ability to influence the behavior or opinions of others.”

While this new word sounds cool, the fact is this is hardly a new concept. Everyone from a carnival barker to a New York City advertising or marketing firm have been at this game for years. Still, when I hear this now it seems attached to platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and various streaming services.

My hunch is this is somehow connected (and someone savvier can correct me) to the total number of views or hits certain content or people generate. That’s easily measured. What I don’t know is how we measure how hits or views translate into the other essential parts of the definition.

To the point, do those we consider “influencers” in short track open-wheel racing truly change attitudes and, most importantly, behavior? And when it comes to behavior, what is the most important behavior we want to change?

Certainly the goal is to generate interest in your particular group but, again, what is the true bottom line we are striving to influence?

Let’s start with viewership. There is no question that in the past two years I have watched more racing on my television and computer than ever before. That would seem to be a good thing. In that regard, my behavior has changed. Still, I am a hardcore race fan.

A larger question is, has live streaming attracted new fans? My gut level reaction is that, if it has done so, it has done so fractionally.

There is intentionality involved in live streaming. I may surf the television and stumble onto an interesting item, but with streaming, as it stands now, I make a conscious decision to head to that place at that time. The truth is I don’t know the answer to my own question, but for fun let’s suppose I’m dead wrong.

Great. So now a new fan can’t wait to tune in to races at Bridgeport, Perris, or Terre Haute. Who is the beneficiary? We certainly know that research firms study how much exposure team sponsors get at each NASCAR or IndyCar event. Beyond that, the dollar value of this exposure is calculated predicated on how much one would normally pay for this in standard media outlets.

So, if the Acme Products car or the Cogswell Cogs entry gets a great deal of airtime it could suggest to these firms that their investment in racing was worthwhile – but only if that impacts the company’s bottom line.

Can teams capture such data in order to attract sponsors to their operation? They certainly try. To what degree is this happening at the short track level? Are we currently able to do sophisticated analysis to gather the information needed in order to translate all of this into dollars and cents? Sanctioning bodies must ask the same questions.

Does the presentation of this product in current streaming formats and packages entice additional sponsors to come onboard? From there the question drivers and teams must surely ask is does this result in bigger purses and increased point and contingency funds? One would hope so.

This leaves the final question. Does all of this result in more people actually climbing into the car and heading to the local race track? I’m sure this is a question nearly every promoter asks. Or, in the absence of an increased gate, do I either directly or indirectly benefit from this enterprise?

Former Kokomo Speedway owner Kent Evans wanted an ESPN date at his track so bad he could taste it. Kent was convinced that this would draw people to his facility in the long run. There is little doubt that at one point in time people from around the country wanted to experience Indianapolis Raceway Park and the Indianapolis Speedrome firsthand based on watching races from those locales in the comfort of their living room. Is that still true today? I don’t know.

I do know in today’s sports environment, for all intents and purposes, in many cases the operating slogan should be “Made for Television.” The bulk of America’s short tracks cannot survive that paradigm. They need participants signing in at the back gate, fans streaming through the front gate, and folks lined up at the concession stand.

When that stops, out comes the padlock on the front gate.

I don’t care how many views your TikTok video gets, or how many likes you get on your social media site, if you are a true influencer, you’re influencing behavior.

If this brave new world truly matters, teams will find new an interesting sponsors, racers will compete for more money, sanctioning bodies will have tracks begging for dates, and grandstands will be filled.

To me, that’s the bottom line.

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