WHERE'S WALDO: How "sponsorship" is killing RC racing from the inside
Wednesday, Feb 25, 2015 01:29pm
By Aaron Waldron
After having written a couple dozen columns since joining LiveRC halfway through 2014, I’m no more convinced that any of you actually take to heart anything I have to say - in fact, I’d bet just as many of you read this column only to find another topic with which to start an argument (and that’s half the fun). I won’t pretend that I get requests from readers to talk about anything specific, and even if I did I probably would ignore them - after all, this is the one story I write each week that’s purely formed out of subjective opinion. However, in the seven months since writing my first Where’s Waldo column for this website, there has been one topic about which multiple people have asked me to share my often-polarizing views: sponsorship.
It wasn’t long after the first organized RC car races of the 70s that manufacturers began trying to secure exposure by offering assistance to racers, with the understanding that winning would paint the brand’s products in a positive light. Companies were very selective about who they picked, and for decades one of the most popular sayings in RC racing was “if you have to ask how to get sponsored, you’re not ready.” Now, nearly all manufacturers, big and small, advertise that they’re looking for representatives. It’s time that we start identifying what the term “sponsorship” has truly become - the rush to acquire contractually obligated customers in a constant struggle to improve market share.
Back in October, nearly 60% of those who responded to a LiveRC poll indicated they had some form of sponsorship.
And it’s causing problems everywhere, from local club racing to the nation’s biggest events. Witnessing the saturation of sponsored drivers within even the most casual levels of RC racing is like running into an ex-girlfriend that somehow found an invitation to your friend’s party - the big fat elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. Everyone from those representing the biggest brands in RC, to those who frequent the local racetrack, are too scared to bring up just how dangerous the consequences of opening sponsorship opportunities up to so many drivers could be for the industry’s economy. Because so many companies do it, it’s impossible to begin the conversation without hurting someone’s feelings.
And when I do get someone to open up about it, from factory drivers who actually make A-Mains at major events to company owners and representatives, they’re all very careful about asking me to keep the conversation off the record. And nearly all of them agree with me that the current environment stinks.
Perhaps the hottest button to push on this topic is the determination of the effect of sponsorship on one’s ability to enter various classes at an event, a movement that has come along just after the proliferation of “sportsman” classes originally intended to give lower-level racers a chance to shine. At electric races, it’s difficult not to notice the t-shirts worn by those in the Stock/17.5 A-Main events and ignore the driver introductions that take 20 minutes. Look at today’s announcement for the Reedy Touring Car Race of Championships, which attempts to dictate which drivers will and won’t be allowed to race 13.5 and 17.5.
And last week’s Dirt Nitro Challenge marked one of the most bizarre anniversaries in RC, as two drivers were disqualified from the Sportsman-level class at last year’s race for being “too sponsored.” This year’s race offered a separate “Expert” class that was supposed to alleviate the problems but was no different at all, as I heard racers accusing each other of cheating and bending the rules during the first practice day!
Does that not seem absurd to anyone else?
Indeed, the separation between classes previously designated for skill levels at many races has come down to choosing what level of company compensation is allowable. Should drivers who have fuel, tire, engine, body, hardware, electronics, and radio equipment sponsorships be allowed to compete in “sportsman” divisions - but you draw the line at chassis manufacturers? Should those manufacturers be asked to provide the race organizer with a list of who receives a 50% discount, who gets their gear for free, and who has travel arrangements paid for? Do you REALLY expect them to be honest? What about racers who are “just friends” with a team’s racers or employees - he might be using totally free equipment, but where does he fit in? What about an engineer, who technically isn’t “sponsored” but likely was flown to the race for free and didn’t pay a dime for his gear?
The result is, of course, a significant overlap between the fastest drivers in Sportsman/Stock and the slowest in Pro/Modified, defended by saying "I'm sponsored to be a representative, not to win races!" Those racers on the edge are likely to be the most vocal opponents of getting rid of lower classes at all events, but it’s the true bill-paying privateers that stand to lose the most when race organizers don’t create and enforce clear guidelines, relegating them to the B-Mains and lower of a class created, at least originally, just for them.
The manufacturers, of course, see these classes as another chance to grab a win and market their products. This might come as a shock to those companies, and the small group of racers who think that this is a worthwhile business tactic, but no one gives a damn about Stock or Sportsman racing - RC media doesn’t cover those classes, and the manufacturers themselves often can’t remember whether or not their own drivers won. Your driver might get to write a blog about it, and post it on his Facebook page, but that “fifteen minutes” of fame will wear off in about 90 seconds.
Perhaps the most important part of understanding why this wildly-expanding umbrella of “sponsorship” is more about guaranteeing profits and less about maximizing advertising budgets is because manufacturers still profit on drivers paying 50% of retail. From what I know about the business by working behind the scenes, retailers typically seek to make an average of near 30% on their mark-up over the price they pay to purchase products from a distributor. The distributor makes a similar margin buying from the manufacturer and selling to the retailer. Of course, the actual cost of production is much less than the wholesale price, so when the manufacturer cuts out the middle men, they not only still profit - but they can get those customers to sign on a dotted line that promises they’ll only buy from one source.
Sponsoring local drivers with a small discount used to be a way of rewarding long-time consumers that became influential in their local areas, taking them under the company wing rather than risk them moving on for a new opportunity. Now it’s all about stealing business. RC racers have a tendency to not only stick to the products they like best, but defend them as though they were children - for better or for worse. How does Brand Y get a driver who has been running Brand X products for five years to switch? Offer him a deal.
If you’ve ever heard, “I can’t afford to switch over to my new sponsors’ gear yet,” you know there’s a problem.
Local tracks and hobby shops love to place the blame on Internet retailers for stealing the purchasing business of their regular racers, but the manufacturers should shoulder just as much blame. Can you imagine being a track owner who helps nurture a new Novice class racer, giving him setup advice and driving tips, watching him advance to the Stock class, and then suddenly losing him as a paying customer because he got sponsored by the company whose products he has been purchasing from your store? Or worse - brands you don’t even sell! And you might as well forget that driver coming to club race once or twice a week anymore, because now he feels like he needs to travel to series races and “big” events in order to find competition and represent his sponsors.
And when that driver does club race, there’s a good chance he might be alienating drivers and not even know it. You might be the only one person in the room, but I’d like anyone that has made it this far into the article to raise their hands if they’ve ever heard someone at their local track say, “yeah, but he’s sponsored!” Incoming racers automatically equate “sponsorship” with “running stuff that I can’t buy,” and that means those drivers are instantly discouraged from trying to win. Even if the manufacturer is willing to admit that their discount team driver is worth more behind a keyboard on social media than he is on the racetrack, that doesn’t mean he’s not turning potential customers away with average (or lower) driving and what comes across as an unapproachable attitude.
If nothing else, sponsorship needs an age limit. There’s no faster way to twist a child’s perception of reality than to offer him relative stardom among his peers (including the adults are actually paying for their stuff). It’s alarming how many racers between the ages of 11-20 see RC racing has a potential career goal - unless your name is Ryan or Jared, it’s probably not going to happen. When I was offered a 50% sponsorship my senior year in high school I had to submit my grades - how many manufacturers require that these days? Judging by the horribly-spelled and unpunctuated drivel flooding Facebook and our press release inbox every week, not many.
If you need further proof that manufacturers are less worried about efficiency of its team’s marketing efforts and more about obtaining direct sales, take a quick survey of the number of sponsored drivers at your local track and then answer these following questions:
- Is there someone that swears by their sponsor’s cars/motors/tires/batteries, despite virtually all local paying customers choosing a different alternative?
- Are there any sponsored drivers at your local track that don’t often win, nor exhibit behavior that earns favor with regular visitors?
- Do you notice anyone sponsored by a company whose products are not regularly available at the track (or even large online retailers)?
- Did any of the sponsored racers in your local area run entirely different products before getting sponsored?
- Aside from the handful of those who’ve made the switch under the promise of hands-on help (and especially those who’ve switched back), has your local sponsored driver failed to convert the local track’s clientele to his sponsors’ products?
- Is the circle of friends with whom your local racers associate, both at the track and on Facebook, made up entirely of those “sponsored” by companies too?
Unlike many of my other columns, this sponsorship issue isn’t a culture problem - it is a business problem. An activity that was “just for fun” has become a shortcut down the alley to “becoming somebody” - a larger-than-average fish in the glass of water we call a hobby. Handing out discount sponsorships like surprises in Cracker Jack boxes has birthed a generation of racers who think that a discount deal from a manufacturer is something you “deserve” after practicing and racing your way to local relevancy - then get burnt out and leave for a new hobby when they don’t really hit the big time.
Unfortunately, this might be the most dangerous problem in the current RC racing environment. Manufacturers are poaching customers from the very tracks where their products are used, and giving racers a fast lane from “this is fun!” to “this feels like a job, I’m over it.” But no one wants to be the first company to let their drivers go and watch them latch onto whatever brand swoops up what were once devoted customers. Unless the major brands can all agree to go back to earning business the old-fashioned way, this problem will likely only get worse - at least until our industry's own form of an ecomomic collapse forces a hard reset.