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IMG confident Circuit of Americas investment will help World Rallycross to go global

  • Agency funds ‘multi-million pound’ circuit at Austin facility to bring series to United States
  • New potential sponsors already in discussions to partner with World RX following move
  • Cross-promotion with Endeavor properties during weekend ‘opens event to new audience’

The IMG agency, which promotes the FIA World Rallycross Championship (World RX), is confident its multi-million pound  investment in bringing the motorsport series to the United States will lead to multiple new commercial partnerships.

World RX made its US debut in September after IMG Motorsport – a division of IMG – signed a five-year deal with Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, which included constructing a permanent rallycross circuit at the facility.  

IMG has organised World RX since its creation in 2014, after taking over the commercial rights from the FIA, the world motorsport governing body, in a 20-year deal that involves some revenue sharing. As part of the arrangement, IMG is responsible for all TV, commercial and promotional rights for the series.  

Though still predominantly based in Europe, the series – one of five fully-fledged FIA world championships – has since expanded to Canada, South Africa and the US. From next year, it will also be held in the United Arab Emirates.   

Since 2014, IMG has looked to bring the series to the  US to  showcase the series to American audiences and potential commercial partners and car manufacturers. After a long, fruitless search for a suitable facility, IMG parent company Endeavor decided to fund the construction of a rallycross circuit at COTA.  

“One of the big territories we’ve never really conquered – or got into – was the USA. It had been an ambition for a  while  but we couldn’t find the right partner and the right facility,” Paul Bellamy, senior vice-president and managing director at IMG Motorsports, tells  SportBusiness.   

“There are no permanent rallycross facilities in America. Unlike in Formula One or MotoGP, we cannot just go to an existing facility and do a normal commercial deal on a rental or a joint venture. That was always the biggest stumbling block on how we did it.    

“Over a three-year  period  we visited numerous sites and numerous potential partners but nobody had a rallycross track, and the cost of building it was prohibitive. We were going  round  in circles really.  But under the new Endeavor umbrella and in line with its entrepreneurial spirit and looking to do things that are perhaps a bit risky but with a long-term future, my bosses said, ‘If you had to go to a track in America and build a circuit, where would you do it?’   

“We talked about a number of options and it was quite clear that [we should choose] the Circuit of the Americas: because of Formula One, because it’s quite new and because Austin as a city ticked a lot of boxes. Endeavor put their money where their mouth is and built it. It was a multi-million-pound  investment for us.”  

Bellamy says IMG will aim to make its money back through investment from car manufacturers and new sponsorship and broadcast partnerships. World RX currently has eight official commercial partners, including Monster Energy as the ‘Presenting Partner’.    

“The American market is a big market for car manufacturers, so to be in a market where they can showcase their products and their cars was really important,” he adds. “For car manufacturers which were speaking about coming into the series, America is really important market for them.   

“We’re in discussions with a number of new sponsors in America – brands we wouldn’t have ordinarily spoken to that are now talking to us at an advanced stage as we go forward. Not just in America but globally, and COTA has opened up those conversations that we wouldn’t have previously had.”  

In recent weeks, both Audi and Peugeot announced they will leave World RX at the end of the 2018 season. Peugeot cited market pressures – new European legislation on CO2 emissions which affects the company’s car manufacturing process as a whole and the “uncertainty” surrounding the series’ proposed move to electric cars, which was pushed back a year to 2021 – as its reasons for leaving the championship. Audi said it has decided to focus on Formula E and touring cars instead.  

It is believed that the FIA and IMG had failed to secure a minimum commitment from four manufacturers to green-light an electric series for 2020, with only Peugeot and Volkswagen understood to have been firmly on board initially. Manufacturers have now been given until March 2019 to commit to a 2021 season with electric cars.  

“We are disappointed that Peugeot and Audi have withdrawn from the series, but respect their decision. Manufacturers inevitably come and go in motorsports and this is no different,” says Bellamy. “We are in active planning stages with a number of manufacturers as we move towards an electric series in 2021.” 

Next year’s competition will have 11 rounds, after being held over 12 events in recent years, with Portugal’s Montalegre circuit being dropped. IMG has also signed new multi-year hosting contracts with the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain and Sweden’s Höljes track. The number of manufacturers for next season will be announced in the new year.  

Endeavor properties utilised for cross-promotion 
Alongside the race at COTA, IMG put on a festival weekend to try to attract more fans and co-promote other Endeavor properties, just as the agency did for the UK round at Silverstone in May.   

These included marketing activations with Professional Bull Riders and UFC, as well as music provided by Ludacris and Jazzy Jeff. World RX manufacturers Subaru, Volkswagen and Audi also offered test drives of their models throughout the weekend on COTA’s F1 circuit.   

“We’ve built a festival around the World Rallycross Championship. The race is at the spine of it and there’s different elements that we’re able to tap into,” Bellamy tells us.  

“It’s opening up a motorsport championship to people who wouldn’t normally come. Some people may be coming for the music, food or gaming elements and they are introduced to a whole new sport. Bringing in a lot of different elements of what Endeavor has  opens  us up to a whole new audience. We can talk to that audience on a different level that we wouldn’t normally get to.”   

IMG conducts exit surveys with audiences at every event, though the research from COTA  has yet to  be  analyzed. At   Silverstone, the agency discovered that 54 per cent of attendees had never been to a motorsport event before and many had come for the music. “We put a lot of time and effort into the music element and it was clear that it drew a different audience in,” Bellamy says.  “From a motorsport perspective, the whole  ‘festivalisation’  of events means that fans can bring wives, husbands and children along.”  

While IMG took some of its learnings from Silverstone to COTA, Bellamy and his team ensured their activations catered to the local market. “What works in the UK may not work in the US,” he adds. “There are certain learnings that you start with and then you do local research to see what has worked in that market. You have to be respectful of what people in those markets are used to  with regards to  entertainment.”   

At COTA, IMG put on  a number of  activations between World RX and Professional Bull Riders, which was taken over by Endeavor (then WME-IMG) in 2015, for a reported $100m.  

This included PBR bringing a mechanical bull  for fans to ride at COTA, along with a display pen featuring live bulls; World RX drivers helping PBR athletes ‘pull the rope’ in the chutes prior to their rides at the Austin Invitational event that weekend; and World RX and PBR riders being given a VIP tour of the NASA facility in Houston, all of which was documented on multiple social media channels.   

“We looked into our lines of business and how we were promoting to identify crossover opportunities, to identify fanbase crossover to attract both events and  entities, and  came up with a number of media-driven and athlete-driven exposure opportunities to the folks in the Austin market,” Ellen Newberg, PBR’s senior vice-president of live event marketing, tells us.  

“When you boil it down, we’re both extreme sports than are a little bit on the dangerous side so we found some commonality there and really capitalised on it.”    

Newberg says the cross-promotion was not intended just to attract more fans to  the race. “Inherently, all of our events are incredible productions from an entertainment to a participation standpoint so I think the basis is there,” she says.   

Rather,  Newberg adds,  its aim is  also to  market and advertise different Endeavor properties to a captive audience. “To be able to do so through a live-event experience and not through traditional forms like a 30-second commercial while people are watching linear TV or hard-sell messages,”  she says, “we are  able to talk to people who are like-minded as well as those who might not fit the general  mould  and demographic or our attendees and participants.”   

Since the Endeavor takeover, PBR has risen from 65 million to 83 million fans in the US,  according to the annual ESPN Sports Poll, which is managed by analytics company Luker on Trends and interviews 1,500 Americans per month and tracks interest in 31 different sports. Newberg credits this rise in large part to the company’s  cross-promotional efforts.  

“As we pull more and more data, we are able to see our ability to hit mainstream has hands-on increased since Endeavor acquired us in 2015,” she says. “We know that we are garnering those fanbases and that attendance growth is attributable in part to some of those cross-collaborative efforts that we have had out there.   

“The number of resources that we are able to tap into is quite overwhelming at times. This is everything from content generation to celebrity access, influencers, technological advancements that we’ve been able to make. These were not viable resources for us prior to the acquisition.   

“Does it mean we have free access to the Endeavor client network list and celebrities and things like that? No. But it means it’s much easier to engage in a conversation to go about obtaining that.”  

For the final World RX race of the season, in Cape Town on Nov 24, IMG is planning a co-promotion with the current Miss  Universe, South Africa’s  Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters. Miss Universe is an Endeavor property while Nel-Peters has been signed to IMG Models Worldwide.   

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