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Monday, December 6, 2010

Opinion: IZOD and Penske a Good Fit?

There's no question that IZOD is the biggest marketing power the IndyCar Series has ever seen. Since taking over title sponsorship of American open-wheel racing's top category in 2010, IZOD has done more to raise awareness of the sport than any other sponsor ever has, from driver meet-and-greets in big cities to the primary sponsorship of Ryan Hunter-Reay's ride at Andretti Autosport.

Today, however, we've seen a major, surprising shift in their strategy. IZOD will leave Hunter-Reay, their lead spokesman for the sport since 2008, and Andretti behind for a new, multi-year deal with Team Penske and driver Ryan Briscoe. The deal will involve primary sponsorship in a handful of races, including the Indianapolis 500, and is the second major IndyCar deal for Penske this week, following Shell's commitment to Helio Castroneves.

Now, it's no question that any alliance with Roger Penske is a significant upgrade in the ownership department. I'm simply concerned with two things: whether or not Briscoe is going to be an upgrade from Hunter-Reay, and how healthy it is for the sport when sponsors abandon the smaller teams for the big ones.

For the past two years, Hunter-Reay has been the undisputed face of IZOD in IndyCar. The series' best American driver (a key selling point) has done more than his share to promote the brand, looking just as good in commercials (including last year's "Race to the Party" campaign) as he has on the track (winning last year's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach). He developed as strong of a brand association as pairs like Tony Kanaan and 7-Eleven, Scott Dixon and Target, and Danica Patrick and GoDaddy.com, in a fraction of the time. He was undoubtedly one of the catalysts that got Philips Van Heusen marketing head Mike Kelly interested in primary sponsorship of the series in the first place.

Now, IZOD will put their money behind Briscoe, an Australian driver who's developed a bit of a reputation for choking since blowing the points lead at Motegi in 2009. Last year, he threw away what could have been easy wins at Sao Paulo and Indianapolis by overdriving the car into the wall, and there were even rumors that his seat was in question for 2011. Some sources suggest that Hunter-Reay would have been headed to Penske as part of the deal if Andretti hadn't exercised an option on his contract, but that's a moot point now.

The other issue is sponsorship consolidation. Undoubtedly, the companies that are interested in marketing through motorsports want to be with the best teams, usually utilizing a lesser team to get their feet wet before jumping up the ladder. They're completely within their rights to do so under a free market.

But how good is it for the sport when your top teams are simply poaching sponsors from the lesser ones, forcing them to be the ones to attract new money? This is the second ex-Andretti Autosport backer, Meijer being the first, to defect to the Captain's organization this year. That leaves Michael Andretti in a massive sponsorship hole, even though he has the third best team in the sport.

It's similar to the issues plaguing the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where sponsors almost invariably head to JR Motorsports after a year or two in order to work with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver. It's not important that Earnhardt Jr. only drives in one or two races for that given sponsor per season. The point is that these sponsors get to say they're endorsed by Earnhardt Jr., and it's the same way with Penske's new sponsorship coups.

Of course, at least we're not talking about a team like Dale Coyne Racing losing its sponsor. Were it a smaller team than Andretti, we might have seen one fewer car on the grid in 2011; at least we had already known for a while that Hunter-Reay was going to be back with Andretti, and the IZOD primary sponsorship deal on that car was going away. Their commitment had gone above and beyond the previous stated goal of six to eight races anyway, expanding all the way to 15 events. That won't have to happen at Penske, who can certainly bankroll all three of his cars for the full season if he so chooses.

It's a shame, though, that it will have to come at the cost of the brand's relationship with Hunter-Reay, who had the two most important characteristics necessary for marketing success in American racing: be American, and be able to win. One wonders what RHR would have been able to do in Penske equipment. One also wonders if the brand's campaign will be as successful with Briscoe in the driver's seat.

Only one thing is for certain: IZOD wants to be the best and classiest in motorsports sponsorship. And there may be no better way to do it than to ally with the one of the best and classiest teams in motorsports.

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