The new millennium doesn't officially begin for several more months. However, the foundation for the future is solidly in place. With the departure of Michael Jordan from the sporting life, who can carry the torch in the realm of sports marketing? Which athlete will become the 'showstopper'? It could be Jeff Gordon.
When sports marketing experts were asked to select the top four pitchmen in sports endorsements last year, they named Michael Jordan, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, and Jeff Gordon as the top four. Well, it might be safe to assume that by the end of 1999, Gordon will be taking steps up that list. Jordan is no longer an active participant in professional sports. He'll still get endorsement deals, but the days of equity along with a contract with a Fortune 500 company appear to be over for MJ. Number two on the list is Arnold Palmer. A pleasant elder statesman in the world of golf. He hasn't won a tournament since Ike was in the White House, but companies still clamor over him. After all, the now-aging baby boomers were "Arnie's Army." Third on the list is Tiger Woods. He won the Masters a few years back but what has he done lately? The answer is not much at all. Not to downgrade his accomplishments, but he's yet to put together a consistent year on the PGA tour. That leaves Jeff Gordon. The man that a fairly large segment of stock car fans love to hate. Regardless, he has become the darling of sports marketers over the past 24 months.
He wasn't raised on stock car racing and knew very little about NASCAR before joining the Busch series full time in 1991. Nevertheless, in just five years, he went from Winston Cup rookie of the year to become a three time champion. When he arrived "down south," NASCAR belonged to Dale Earnhardt. At most tracks, you could still get a decent seat on raceday. Not anymore. The popularity of NASCAR, with Gordon as its leading driver, has skyrocketed. Lucrative endorsement deals with Pepsi, Edy's Ice Cream, Close Up, and Ray-Ban, along with a share of licensing allow the NASCAR champion to rank on Forbes Magazine's annual list of wealthiest athletes in sports. He could take over the top spot in sports marketing in the new millenium. As for racing, there's another interesting situation developing that could raise the bar for Gordon even higher.
Formula One is the most popular form of motorsports in the world. NASCAR has a loyal following in North America, but F1 rules the world no matter what spin Brian France and the NASCAR marketing department put on it. Bernie Ecclestone, the President of the Formula One Administration, is the most dominant man in the world of auto racing. Bill who? Oh, Bill France. Who?
Next year, F1 returns to the United States after an extended absence. The last F1 race held on U.S. soil was in 1991. "I intended that we wouldn't go back to the United States until we had a home," Ecclestone said recently. Because of a general lack of interest and lack of capable venues, the series raced primarily in Europe and Asia. However, in the year 2000, F1 returns for the United States Grand Prix at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. IMS head Tony George has worked with Ecclestone over the past year to land an F1 race at the facility. "Tony's prepared to do what we want, build the sort of circuit we want, and I think give us a home," Ecclestone said when the event was announced. Of course, the race will not be run on the full 2.5 mile oval. The frontstretch and turn 1 and 2 area will be used but the road course located within the interior of the oval will be a part of the event. But, it's still the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Yes, the "Indianapolis Motor Speedway." The three words that will get Jeff Gordon's attention every time.
Gordon honed his racing skills in sprint cars in and around the Indianapolis area. His breakthrough victory in a stock car was winning the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. Though he was born in California and currently lives in Florida, he calls Pittsboro, Indiana his "hometown." In the past, he has talked with former F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve about the series and the cars. "(Formula One) intrigues me," Gordon said last year. Is it intiguing enough to go home again, if only for one race? By this time, even Robin Miller can see what I'm getting at. F1 needs fan interest in the event. "I would be a little disappointed if we didn't get 100,000. Having said that, probably Tony's going to be disappointed if we don't get 200,000," Ecclestone said. A marquee American star would create interest beyond expectations.
Obviously even if Gordon wanted to race in the F1 event at Indy, he's not going to skip a Winston Cup event to do so. Track officials have said that the event will likely be in late-September or early-October. A Winston Cup race will likely be held on the same weekend. Since this is an editorial, I can hypothesize a little now.
If the F1 event were scheduled for a Saturday (and I hope it is), it would be technically possible for Gordon to participate in the race and then fly to Martinsville, Charlotte, or Talladega for the Winston Cup race the next day. The basic fear in this scenario is that Gordon would be putting a run for the Winston Cup title in jeopardy in order to fulfill a dream. By that point, Gordon could very well be the top pitchman in sports. Participating in the F1 event would showcase his skills in front of a worldwide audience unfamiliar to the stock car circuit he usually competes on.
A fan might say, "I don't want to see him in F1. He could embarrass himself." Well, it's doubtful he'll have a "dud" of a car. Should he decide to compete, his car will be competitive and the stage will be in world view. Gordon has the opportunity to race Mika Hakkinen, Michael Shumacher, Jacques Villeneuve, Alex Zanardi, Damon Hill, and the best road racers in the world. The key word is "opportunity." However, the opportunity comes with risks as well as rewards. An injury in the F1 event would likely spell disaster for his Winston Cup title hopes that season. Will the F1 effort take too much away from his stock car effort the same weekend?
But the rewards of competing in the event are immense. A chance to race against the world's best; a chance to race on your hometown track in front of the hometown fans; a chance to represent your country in a star-studded international field. NASCAR is America's motorsports main event. But Formula One is the world's main event. Jeff Gordon can be center stage should he so choose to be. By 2000, he'll likely be there in sports marketing. But F1 at Indy is on the horizon. Should he choose to go home to Market Square as the hometown hero to race against "the world," he'll be on a worldwide stage. Chris Pook, the developer of the Long Beach Grand Prix, when asked about the draw of F1 in America said, "You've got to make the audience feel like they're seeing something very, very special." Jeff Gordon at the Brickyard in an F1 race. Yeah, that could be called special. And if he were to win the event? Well, he's been called lots of things... everything from 'Wonderboy,' to 'The Kid,' to a few less than flattering names by his detractors. But a victory in that event might earn him a new title... "icon."
When Gordon speaks about Formula One, he shows his interest in those type of cars. "They do some exciting things in F1. I get excited about their technology, their speed," he said last year. Adding, "I would rather be a part of something that's huge in America than be a part of (Formula One)." Well F1 is coming to America. The motorsports spotlight of the world is not only coming to America, but it's coming to his "old stomping grounds." He says that he's dreamed about competing in an F1 event. But, Gordon would not risk distractions to his NASCAR effort to do so. Nevertheless, the opportunity and a blank check from Bernie Ecclestone might knock only once. A one-time-only affair on a worldwide stage. For Jeff Gordon, 'Your life is now.'
If I had to guess whether Gordon would enter the F1 race at Indy, I'd say it would be very
doubtful. But you never know what might happen if Bernie Ecclestone hands him a blank check to compete in the event.
And that's what is starting to create interest in the event.
The new millennium is dawning. Jeff Gordon rules NASCAR at the moment.
Could he rule all of motorsports? You never know.
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