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NASCAR Team Pitches to Youth

Jenn Abelson,

The Boston Globe

September 13, 2008

LOUDON, N.H. - Boys and girls, start your engines!

Fenway Sports Group, the sports marketing firm of Red Sox principal owner John Henry, is taking an unprecedented approach to cultivating a new generation of racing buffs in New England - by aggressively marketing its NASCAR Racing team to children.

The group is stealing a page from the Olde Towne Team's playbook: It plans to create a NASCAR New England Kids Club by tapping into Red Sox Kid Nation, which has become the largest such club in Major League Baseball with more than 17,300 members.

Plans are underway to launch children's racing shows next year on New England Sports Network, sell licensed model racing toys and collectibles emblazoned with the Sox logo, and create educational curriculums. Fenway Sports Group also intends to host NASCAR fan festivals at Fenway Park to promote Roush Fenway Racing, a team the group bought a 50 percent stake in last year.

"Kids love speed," said Mike Dee, president of Fenway Sports Group and chief operating officer of the Red Sox. "We need to find the right way to tap into that and use the power of the Red Sox affinity to get a regional base around the team."

New Hampshire Motor Speedway had its first NASCAR race in 1993 and has held two such events annually since 1997, selling out many of its races and drawing crowds from across the country. Still, New England remains a place where it has been tough for racing to shed its reputation as a sport with a distinctly Southern accent, even though it gets the second-highest TV ratings for sports programming in the country. And converting some of Fenway's faithful into racing aficionados isn't easy in a market flush with successful pro sport franchises like the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics.

"To try and convert a 40-year-old adult to start to care about a sport they didn't grow up following is difficult," Dee said.

Fenway Sports Group says the numbers back the strategy of marketing to youths. In a NASCAR survey, about 46 percent of NASCAR fans in Boston have children under the age of 18, compared with just 36 percent of non-NASCAR fans. But analysts say that even if targeting children works, there's no guarantee parents with no taste for the sport will go along, and take the children to the track.

"Marketing to children is a long-term strategy," said Larry Degaris, a sports marketing professor at Indiana University. "Unless kids get their parents into the sport, it's going to take at least a decade to see revenue gains."

Degaris said the New England NASCAR market is worth about $150 million annually and could be worth double that with the right marketing and investments, such as building a track outside Boston or in Connecticut. About 16 percent of NASCAR's fans live in the Northeast, compared with 40 percent in the South and one-quarter in the Midwest.

To capture more New England fans, at this weekend's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Fenway Sports Group will rev up its children's campaign to potential sponsors, including Dunkin' Donuts and Velcro, and introduce former NASCAR executive Brian Corcoran, whose new job is to persuade New Englanders that NASCAR is no less their sport than Red Sox baseball.

Over the past year, Fenway Sports Group has capitalized on the Red Sox brand to help negotiate sponsor deals for the team, including UPS, which yesterday signed a multiyear deal with the team. At Fenway Park, the Roush Fenway drivers are featured on a sign once during each game and 1,000 free tickets (usually costing between $60 and $100) were given out to Red Sox Nation fans for the Sprint Cup Series at Loudon in June.

NASCAR coverage was also expanded on the cable channel New England Sports Network, which is owned by New England Sports Ventures, the parent company of the Red Sox and Fenway Sports Group. The New York Times Co., which owns The Boston Globe, holds a 17 percent stake in New England Sports Ventures.

It was the Roush Fenway Racing Day at Fenway Park, when white racing cars featuring Red Sox logos drove onto the field before a game that attracted he Bulens family of Hanover, Mass., to the Loudon track in June. Red Sox fanatic Pat Nee, 13, saw the cars on television and called up his friend Jay Bulens, who persuaded his dad to score tickets from a coworker.

About 100,000 fans from across the country descended that day on New Hampshire Motor Speedway, with some RVs lined up for a week in the parking lot. Families carried in heavy coolers filled with beer, water, and food. It was a flea market of sponsors, with signs plastered on every speck of space. A constant roar from the track with the cars whizzing by made it impossible to hear anything else during the nearly three-hour race.

Staring at the track with a huge grin, Nee had just three words: "It's pretty cool."

His friend's mom, Charlene Bulens, agreed. "I was really surprised that I enjoyed it. And the boys loved it," she said.

In the past, marketing NASCAR to youngsters has been difficult, with tobacco and beer sponsors' ads plastered all over the cars and track. But in recent years, those brands have largely been replaced with phone and insurance companies, making it less of an issue. Fans tend to come to NASCAR around the time they turn 21, later than the age they get attracted to sports they can play in their neighborhoods or at school. So kids clubs haven't been a big deal in NASCAR, Degaris said. But courting young baseball fans in New England who are new to NASCAR may make it easier.

"For Fenway Sports Group, this is an exploitable asset. They have the database of fans," Degaris said.

It's clear sports marketers still have their work cut out for them. The percentage of Fenway fans who attend three or more NASCAR events per year stayed flat - at 2 percent - during surveys in 2006 and 2008. Fans attending two or more NASCAR events a year doubled in that period, still just 4 percent. And while 7 percent of those surveyed in 2006 described themselves as "die-hard NASCAR fans," that declined to 6 percent in 2008.

Nonetheless, Fenway Sports Group says local powerhouse brands, such as Gillette and Stop & Shop, share the desire to make NASCAR a sport that more in the region embrace.

Gillette, which already backs Roush driver Carl Edwards, is in talks to get its logo on toys and collectibles and to create promotions around purchases of Gillette products.

From the pit at the Sprint Cup in Loudon this summer, Stop & Shop spokeswoman Faith Weiner said Fenway Sports Group is "helping to bring a mainstream awareness to Boston and New England."

 

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