Steve Phelps, president of NASCAR, delivered a thoughtful and candid keynote on April 19 to a standing-room-only audience at the Turner Theatre, kicking off the fourth annual Sports Management Symposium.
As the head of one of the world’s most popular sports sanctioning and operations companies, Phelps initiated a conversation around the event’s theme of Sports Sponsorship and Branding in the Digital Age, discussing how sponsorship, marketing and branding have changed and will continue to evolve in today’s market.
Phelps offered his unique perspective to a crowd of more than 200 people — the majority from the sports management department — detailing NASCAR’s strengths and growth areas. In recent years, Phelps has been recognized for being at the forefront of revolutionizing motor racing, helping to introduce the Next Gen car, one of the sanctioning body’s most ambitious projects.
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“From 2019, we know nothing but growth,” Phelps said, delving into the organization’s success in sponsorships, revenue and viewership. And he called 2020 the “most important year” for NASCAR since its founding in 1948, as the company grappled with the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as its landmark decision to ban the Confederate flag from its events.
Banishing the flag, according to Phelps, was an unpopular choice among some parts of his fanbase. But it was a decision Phelps was extremely proud of, especially after considering the thoughts, feelings and insights of the minorities who work for the organization. These employees shared the startling truth that they often have to “defend why I have to work at a racist company,” Phelps recalled.
In the end, the Phelps administration’s decision was unanimous – abandon the Stars & Bars flag.
“We have to look like the rest of America,” he said. “For those who said, ‘We’re not the NASCAR they knew.’ No, we are.
“If they (those who support the flag) don’t want to participate in our sport where everyone is welcome, then don’t participate,” he added.
As part of his wide-ranging conversation with Assistant Professor Bill Squadron, Phelps touched on a number of topics facing his company as well as the auto racing industry. He pointed out that NASCAR has an inherent “advantage” over other sports, especially ball and stick sports, because NASCAR fans understand the value and returns of sponsorship.
“Our fans understand that sponsorships help (the teams) make the car faster,” he said. Perhaps an MLB or NFL fan might not see the connection between the sponsorship and the product on the field.
“Sponsorship is the lifeblood of our sport,” he added later.
Phelps addressed the ways NASCAR has successfully positioned itself in recent years, most notably with its Next Gen car, which has helped create “the best racing we’ve ever had in the sport,” he said.
NASCAR also used partnerships with sports betting firms, changed its racing schedule, adding its first road race, and sought to expand its reach through television programming.
“Motorsport was in a bad place in 2018,” Phelps admitted, but he is pleased with the growth his company has seen, as well as competitors such as Formula 1. He acknowledged that Netflix’s “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” has been a huge determining factor in the success of US international organization.
But Phelps also noted that NASCAR still controls 80 percent of all motorsports viewing in the United States.
Following Phelps’ keynote, the symposium moved into panel discussions, beginning with the panel “Technology and Social Media: New Pathways for Sports Sponsorship,” moderated by Assistant Professor Mark Cryan.
During the 45-minute conversation, four marketing professionals—three of whom are Elon alumni—examined the future of sponsorship and new paths and trends in the sports industry. Panelists included Chris Bailey ’08, founder of Winstate Sports & Entertainment, Jake Horowitz, senior account manager at 160over90, Lauren (Hoffmann) Street ’03, senior director of marketing and business operations for Richard Childress Racing, and Kara Wagner ’16, G ‘ 17, digital experience manager for the Baltimore Orioles.
Bayly leads Winstate, an independent consulting agency that bills itself as embracing a “challenger mindset” focused on innovation and solving clients’ problems. Each of the four panelists discussed the approaches they see as innovative and what excites them for the future – as well as which platforms are still important.
“Analytics drives our entire organization,” Wagner said, noting that email marketing is still a key driver of ticket sales for her MLB franchise.
Bailey mentioned that he is most excited about the potential he sees in streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, as well as podcasts.
Horowitz acknowledged that sponsorships aren’t just for fans and customers, noting that they can be an excuse to meet and network with other executives and businesses, which can lead to greater financial opportunities.
Finally, John Seaton ’23, a linebacker on the Phoenix football team, and Erika Link ’24, a member of the Elon volleyball team, were the featured panelists in a discussion titled “The New World of the NIL and College Athletes as Brands. ” The two student-athletes have successfully used their Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rights and are members of the WWE NIL “Next in Line” program. Assistant Professor Khirey Walker moderated the athlete talk.
With two million followers across his platforms, Seaton is a visible presence online, but he’s selective in his partnerships. He estimated that he received more than 300 offers of cooperation, but committed to only 18 partnership deals.
While there are certainly benefits to his popularity, Seaton pointed out that being a content creator can be a tough job. He has created between 1,300 and 1,400 pieces of content and admitted that his role can feel like a grind.
“No one sees the steady level of work,” he said.
When asked by a fellow student how they can establish a social media presence, Seaton reasoned that the content must be authentic.
“We all start with zero followers,” Seaton said. “It must be true for you. You enjoy creating the content and have fun with it.”