Behind the scenes, US motorcycling racing series American Flat Track (AFT) has been revolutionising its sponsorship strategy. Within the last five years, the business has dramatically changed, making the series a more attractive proposition to potential partners.
What ignited this change was the series’ first major broadcasting contract with NBC Sports, which lasted until the channel closed down at the end of 2021. With that came the opportunity to connect with the broadcaster’s millions of viewers across the US, and while AFT has since moved its programming to Fox Sports for the 2022 and 2023 seasons, the exposure offered by broad television coverage continues to prove transformative.
“Five years ago, we rebranded our series,” explains Michael Lock, AFT’s chief executive. “It was more than putting a new set of clothes on it, a new brand and a new logo - it was really about changing how we did business.
“I think a lot of motorsports, particularly the middle to smaller ones, have based their whole economic model on you do X number of races, and you have an expectation of selling this number of tickets and VIP packages. And you have sponsors who help you with the prize money.
“The economic model traditionally was not that complicated. But things changed substantially when we got our TV contract, and we had our first major national TV contract in 2017. It put us on NBC Sports, which meant we could reach America.
“It became an opportunity to dramatically increase our viewership and fan numbers, but the costs surrounding TV broadcasts are not insubstantial, because you can't do it on the cheap. You may be a small sport, but you can't look small on TV. There's a minimum standard of production and editing and all of that, that you have to do. So this really changed our world.”
American Flat Track is America's premier dirt track motorcycling championship
Securing expansive TV coverage flipped AFT’s entire business model, ensuring the series was no longer so reliant on ticket sales, but it also carried a whole new level of cost and infrastructure. This meant that the championship had to seek to bolster its sponsorship offering, relying more on these opportunities as the series grew.
Then, in early 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Nevertheless, AFT pressed ahead with its title sponsor search, examining sectors related to the motorsport industry but which had greater relevance for wider society. Ultimately it settled on the insurance sector, striking a multi-year title sponsorship deal with Progressive Insurance in September 2020.
“The goal was to get a blue-chip partner to the series, because we realised that in the absence of having Nascar viewer numbers or NFL numbers, which we may never get, we had to establish credibility in a different way,” explains Lock.
“The lucky break was the pandemic, believe it or not. We picked the insurance sector because we felt that they understood motorsport already. We managed to secure sponsorship from Progressive Insurance, who are one of the largest automotive insurance companies in the US.”
The timing worked out perfectly for American Flat Track. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the majority of people stayed at home, reducing the chance of them needing to make an automotive insurance claim, yet they still paid for this insurance. Therefore, Progressive Insurance, as well as other firms, adapted their business model, and were able to enter an agreement with American Flat Track. This represented an alternative way for them to get in front of their customer base.
Since the deal was signed, the newly titled Progressive AFT has been able to leverage the partnership to secure additional sponsorship agreements. What followed was a deal with Mexican food brand Mission Foods, whose arrival bolstered a commercial portfolio comprising a host of endemic and non-endemic sponsors.
Things changed substantially when we got our TV contract, and we had our first major national TV contract in 2017. It put us on NBC Sports, which meant we could reach America.
Michael Lock, Chief Executive, American Flat Track
“They saw what we were doing with the growth of the business, expanding through the medium of TV and streaming and getting Progressive Insurance on board,” says Lock. “So, they partnered with the series as well. Now we had an insurance company, and we had a consumer food company.
“What we've found is that as long as we're able to deliver the kind of sophistication of feedback to them as to how their dollars are working within the sport, they are happy to keep increasing and keep supporting.”
To provide additional value to sponsors, AFT has simultaneously bolstered its streaming and social media offering. Now, the series can more accurately keep track of how many people watch and engage with the championship, generating data that can be fed back to its partners.
The series is streaming every race on Facebook throughout the 2022 season, with practice and qualifying available at no cost, while the semi-finals and main events will be available for US$3.99.
“Being able to capture data is much easier on streaming than it is on regular broadcast,” notes Lock. “A parallel project for us has been to really develop our streaming and our presence on social media, partly because it's a quick way to reach people. But, more importantly, you can tell the sponsors how many people you reached. Whereas with conventional TV or cable, there are ratings, but the ratings are estimates based on the rating agencies’ extrapolations.”
Content integration helps deliver additional value to AFT's sponsors
AFT is also able to provide value to sponsors due to its unique structure. The series promotes two thirds of the events on its calendar, which allows it to adjust its schedule and run other promotions throughout the year that benefit partners.
Adds Lock: “It's quite common that the larger more blue-chip sponsors will say to us, ‘we have a huge push next year to develop our market share in New England, what can you do in New England to bring our brand to town?’ Being the sanctioning body and the promoter means that we could say, ‘hey, let's run two races’.”
Sponsors also play a critical role in driving awareness of AFT races through promotional activities in local markets. Mission Foods, for example, created an AFT-branded point-of-sale campaign featuring full-sized rider cardboard cut-outs in supermarkets close to where races were being held and produced limited edition motorcycle-shaped tortilla chips. “That's a huge resource, a degree of brand reach that we could never dream to achieve ourselves,” says Lock.
For the 2022 season and beyond, AFT is working with its new domestic broadcaster Fox, whose nationwide broadcast deal began this year, to deliver viewership numbers and audiences that will deliver for its range of sponsors. Live coverage of all 18 races this season are airing in one-hour broadcasts on cable network FS1, with the telecasts scheduled directly before or after other motorsports programming in a bid to maximise eyeballs.
Sponsor exhibitions help keep fans engaged and entertained during AFT events
“We need to be delivering good viewership numbers from the beginning,” explains Lock. “Front-of-mind for us is reinforcement promotion, reminding people that we're right there at the moment.
“We will be watching the viewership numbers like a hawk for the first couple of months to see whether there's anything we need to do, or whether we have any risk, so that's a major focus.
“Whoever wins the race doesn't matter to them. Really what matters to them is how many people watched it and a real demonstration of growth.”
This article is taken from the BlackBook Motorsport Sponsorship Report. To download and read the report yourself, click here.