After seven years of searching, the IndyCar Series finally has a legitimate title sponsor. IZOD, one of several clothing brands under the Phillips-Van Heusen umbrella, on Thursday announced its six-year, $10m per-year agreement to become the lead logo for the series, rechristened the IZOD IndyCar Series.
The deal brings a much-needed injection of cash and marketing to a series that lost its prime source of financial support when Tony George was forced out of his positions as head of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League earlier this year. The series also lost a large chunk of its viewing audience when a majority of its races were placed on Versus, a third-tier cable network that offers only a fraction of the audience of the series' other broadcast partner, ABC/ESPN.
IZOD officials vowed to aggressively activate the sponsorship to elevate the visibility of IndyCar racing, long an issue in this form of motorsport. “There are great stories in these athletes that haven't been told,” said Mike Kelly, marketing boss for Phillips-Van Heusen. “We're looking to market the cars and stars. We expect to be very aggressive in our spending.”
Perhaps most significant is IZOD's promise to contribute to the series' TEAM program, which provides cash to full-time teams. That should be a significant boost to smaller operators on the margin, while helping mid-level teams compete with the series' strongest teams.
“There is no better proof of the value in this type of partnership than when the sponsor commits to growing with the brand,” said Keith Wiggins, owner of HVM Racing. “IZOD is a great brand and a great partner, and the activation and business opportunities they bring will clearly be a benefit to the series and all the teams involved.”
As a sidebar to the deal, IZOD pitchman Ryan Hunter-Reay is expected to join Michael Andretti's team in an IZOD-backed car in 2010, although it has yet to be officially announced.
“This is what we've been waiting for; this is it,” Hunter-Reay said of the title sponsorship. “This is a fresh start for the IndyCar Series. They're more a marketing company than anything else. The sky's the limit right now. It sounds cliché, but this is a great start.”
Once propped by George's money, the IRL is under orders to begin turning a profit. The TV contract with Versus – a ratings disaster but a moderate business success – is the first step down that path, and the IZOD deal is a second, more significant step. The key element, aside from money, is IZOD's ability to market and advertise IndyCar racing beyond its relatively small audience.
“They bring a marketing expertise that we've never had,” said Brian Barnhart, the IRL's president of operations and competition.
Owners and drivers reiterated the angle that IZOD is outside the automotive realm, with the hope that it can sell open-wheel racing to a younger, fashion-conscious, affluent market.
“Whoever our series sponsor is, it needs to be somebody that has relevance in our business,” Panther Racing's John Barnes said. “I think that IZOD is a perfect fit because in a lot of ways our customers come from the same demographic, and this partnership really fits open-wheel racing and the type of people we represent. It also shows strength in the IndyCar Series because they were able to accomplish this in such tough economic times.”
The economy continues to be IndyCar's anchor, but most see the IZOD announcement as a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak time.
“First we had unification of the two open-wheel series, and now a title sponsor in IZOD,” said 2009 IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti. “I think you're seeing the IndyCar Series continue to head in the right direction.”