(by John Oreovicz espn.go.com 11-06-09)
"Let's get the party started!"
With those words from Indy Racing League vice president of public relations John Griffin, the IndyCar Series rolled out the red carpet for its first title sponsor since 2001. With the marketing muscle of Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. behind it, the Izod IndyCar Series may finally get noticed as "The Fastest Race in the World."
At first glance, the notion of an apparel brand and a racing series teaming together doesn't add up. But if you look at the initiatives taken (not to mention the promotional dollars spent) since Izod entered Indy car racing as a personal sponsor of American star Ryan Hunter-Reay 16 months ago, it starts to make sense.
"It obviously has been a long time since we've had a title sponsor, and to be honest with you, it's probably the first legitimate title sponsor we've ever had," said IRL competition president Brian Barnhart, without mentioning short-lived former partners Pep Boys (1998-99) and NorthernLight.com (2000-01).
"I think the best thing about it is going to be the activation aspect of it because they're going to spend a lot of money raising the awareness of the series and increasing the amount of eyeballs that are watching our sport. That's the first step in raising the value of participation in this series."
It certainly sounds like the way the six-year deal (with an option for Izod to extend) has been structured will benefit everyone involved with Indy car racing. Aside from the cash influx the Indy Racing League needed at a critical juncture for the company, Izod's money will be allocated to participants as part of the TEAM revenue-sharing program. It's a given that PVH will promote the sport through aggressive television, print and Internet media ad buys and driver appearances at Macy's stores.
Izod is likely to reserve plenty of track signage and work closely with promoters in local race markets.
"We expect to be very aggressive in our spending," said Mike Kelly, PVH executive vice president of marketing and creative.
The title backing, worth upward of $10 million annually, is part of PVH's strategy of building Izod's brand image through sports marketing, including securing naming rights for the Meadowlands arena that the New Jersey Nets call home.
The IndyCar Series also offers PVH the opportunity to cross-market its premium brands, including Calvin Klein, Timberland and Sean John, to the demographically upscale open-wheel audience.
Kelly was Hunter-Reay's guest at the 2008 Indianapolis 500 and said, "It took about four seconds before the needle was in my arm."
By the Watkins Glen race on July 4 weekend, RHR had earned a personal sponsorship contract from Izod. The driver arguably responsible for delivering the Izod title sponsorship to the IndyCar Series affirmed his enthusiasm for the partnership during the presentation at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Pagoda Pavilion on Thursday.
"This is a fresh start for the IndyCar Series," said Hunter-Reay, who is reportedly on the brink of clinching -- with Izod's support -- the open fourth seat with Michael Andretti's team. "This is what we've been waiting for. They're more a marketing company than anything else and the sky's the limit right now."
With the economy in a continued tailspin and Indy car racing's public profile at a low point, Izod couldn't have picked a better time to get on board with open-wheel racing and the chances of the sport making a comeback increased significantly with Thursday's title sponsorship announcement.
"As a corporation, if you see what we're doing across all of our brands, we have not pulled back in our marketing spend even though the environment became difficult," Kelly said. "We have grown, our brands have grown, we've grown in market share -- we believe in share of units, share of dollars, also share of voice and share of mind.
"While our competition has pulled back on their spending, we see it in the marketplace. We've been aggressive with the spend. We're fortunate to be able to do so as a healthy company. It's bearing fruit for us."
Kelly said he and PVH were captivated by the potential of using the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Centennial Celebration as a marketing platform and believe Indy car racing can regain the stature it enjoyed in the 1980s and '90s until the battle for control of the sport between the IRL and CART/Champ Car killed whatever momentum the formula carried.
"The assets are so rich," Kelly said. "If you think about the power of [Indy car racing] during the '80s and the '90s on the American racing landscape, now you've got a next generation that just doesn't realize how sexy and cool this sport is. I think we have a lot to offer the league, but the league has a lot of great assets to tell a story with.
"It's an opportunity, no question," he added. "If everything was rosy and the series was mature after the unification, I'm not sure we could afford it. I think it's right time, right place, and we do see upside. If you think of it as a toddler that's on its feet now, that's the kind of position we like. We want to be part of it, because we're not just committed for the short term."