By Aaron Waldron
Merriam-Webster defines the phrase “silly season” as “a period (as late summer) when the mass media often focus on trivial or frivolous matters for lack of major news stories.” The first known use of the phrase was in an 1861 edition of London’s Saturday Review, describing the phenomenal lull in important events during Parliament’s summer recess, corresponding surge in family vacations during the school holiday, and a general slowing of business news.
In sports, from traditional stick-and-ball games to auto racing, “silly season” is synonymous with “offseason.” The months between one season and the next are occupied by fans and media speculating on player/driver, manager and team changes. Regardless of whether or not the rumors actually end up leading to anything, the sustaining buzz of attention and discussion builds interest in the industry - and the teams (and sponsors) benefit.
For RC racers, the fact that the drivers involved are the fans that both consume the news and drive the discussion often leads to “silly season” burnout.
The rift, of course, has been created by a monumental shift in how RC manufacturers market directly to consumers through sponsorship, unlocking a tangled web of social networks, then turning around and using those sponsored drivers to create a steady stream of company news.
Manufacturers in our industry literally send press releases about acquiring a new paying customer, and those customers accept a discount on products as payment for marketing to their (increasingly online) social circles. The brand gains a revenue stream and gets a bump in exposure, the driver gets cheaper consumable wear items like tires/motors/A-arms/stickers, and the media even gets clicks after we race to share these “news items,” no matter if the viewers came to congratulate a friend, welcome a new user of their favorite products, or complain about the impending doom of the industry’s financial bubble.
From January through September, during which the NFL goes dormant, networks like ESPN and sites like Pro Football Talk have 32 teams of 53 players - totaling 1,696 players - to cover.
Factor in team personnel, and you’re looking at roughly 2,000 names for over 100 million fans to discuss. And let’s be realistic - only the most diehard Fantasy Footballers will know names like Luke Joeckel or Mitch Morse. For as comparatively small as the world of RC car racing may be, there are still only about 40-50 universally known drivers racing for about a dozen major manufacturers. There are only so many truly newsworthy stories to go around.
From the end of January through about October, seemingly weekly “big races” in RC keep the industry’s media machine moving. Racing is slow during the holiday season, for obvious reasons, but that’s when many manufacturers and hobby shops count on profits to cover any slowdowns throughout the rest of the year. For those 2-3 months between the last IFMAR Worlds of the season and the Reedy Race of Champions/Snowbirds, the dynamics of the RC industry simply aren’t built to maintain a healthy silly season that won’t drive diehard racers to gouge their eyes out with a 2.0mm Allen wrench.
If you’re friends with any RC racers on Facebook, you’ve seen this cycle recently:
1) Driver announces new sponsor
2) Friends congratulate Driver
3) Someone who previously decided to purchase the brand’s products takes it upon himself to “welcome” the new user.
4) Someone whines about how often the previous events happen among their 5,000 RC “friends.”
(Bonus points if the person complaining is wearing their sponsor’s logos in their profile picture - even more bonus points if that person’s profile picture is the sponsor logo itself)
5) Repeat ad nauseam
I’ve definitely been a grumpy old curmudgeon about how I think this industry is dooming itself by employing such parasitic marketing tactics, but I accept that my job benefits from this atmosphere - even if it’s not forever sustainable. I try to focus LiveRC’s news more toward new products and notable stories by filtering out some of the worst offenders of today’s “our driver attended some race you’ve never heard of!” race reports, as I think combining that approach with original content helps set us apart from, well, every other site that relies on this house of cards to stay standing. At the end of the day, though, I get paid to deliver RC news to people interested in watching or reading it - even if that means posting something that I know will get our Facebook page riled up (spoiler: I think it’s funny).
What the discussion about the RC industry’s sponsorship conundrum fails to address is the pride factor that lies beneath so much of RC racing. “Getting sponsored” is more than just access to a discount, but a rite of passage. It’s difficult to explain to someone why they should care that you finished on the podium at some “Challenge” or “Shootout” or “Championship” race - but having a sponsor earns you “street cred” among other racers, especially those with less experience, and it makes the fish story you tell non-racer friends and family that much more impressive.
Case in point: earlier this morning, I told my dentist what I do for a living. She exclaimed, “oh my gosh, my brother-in-law does that! He’s a world champion!” The catch - I’ve known her brother-in-law for more than ten years, and while he’s a mid-pack Sportsman racer with a couple of “sponsors” I’m not aware of him ever winning anything locally, let alone globally.
If you’re paying to be a sponsored driver and today’s direct marketing climate bothers you enough that you feel the need to say something publicly, forcing other hobbyists to either hypocritically agree with you or feel guilty, shame on you. Either quit your “sponsors” and enjoy this hobby as a privateer, or put your t-shirt on, write your blogs, and enjoy the benefits of selling out. After all, unless your last name is Tessmann, Cavalieri, or Rivkin, that kid who just started getting half-off of his tires could be six months of hard practice away from “deserving” his sponsors more than you do.
If "undeserving" sponsored drivers really grinds your gears, go one step further and stop buying products from companies that have flooded your local racing scene with "sponsorships." After all, if brands see this sales technique as counter-productive, they might actually stop!
And if you’re working for a company that’s contributing to what you think is a “growing problem,” well, maybe you should spend some time looking in the mirror.