By Earl Ma
with photos by the author
Skidding off the Runway
Analyzing how the Hawaiian Super Prix went awry
Part 2 of 6
At an impromptu press conference held at the HSP office making the race's demise official to the world, Heard admitted the late date of the formal announcement proved a fundamental - if not fatal - flaw. "Probably announcing during the season and partway through what I would call a sponsorship year wasn't very helpful. A number of things that happened weren't very helpful and didn't help us move things forward."
Bill Koenig is the motorsports business reporter for the Indianapolis Star, and he conducted several interviews with Heard over the summer. "I think the timing was really bad when all the sponsors and teams had their budgets in place. It was almost as though it got off on a bad start to begin with...there was just such bad vibes about the whole thing - bad karma from the very first announcement in February. Maybe they should've announced it for 2000. " That would have bought them additional time for raising capital and sound planning.
With most corporate sponsorships of any consequence usually budgeted about a year or so in advance, deviating from that plan by asking for more money proved a risky proposition. Thus, none of the major sponsors currently involved in CART - either at the driver, team, or series level - made any notable contributions to the bottom line. Nor did they have any presence other than those represented by the three showcars in town.
Koenig says, "If a major sponsor felt the Super Prix would've really helped it, I think somebody would have stepped up. The fact that no sponsor stepped up shows there was high skepticism among companies...I remember trying to talk to some sponsor people, and they said they're not in the loop, we weren't even told anything - from people who are normally very talkative."
As a result, HSP relied almost entirely on local-based sponsors such as AAA Hawaii, the Hawaii Newspaper Agency, and a host of radio stations. A handful of these were minor-league contracts in the $5,000 range, but most others consisted predominantly of for-trade deals instead of money, such as Sheraton Hawaii exchanging use of hotel rooms for advertising, or the Hawaii Chevrolet Dealers providing track safety vehicles for the same. The latter sponsorship, announced back on September 16, did not actually become finalized until the week of October 11. Prior to that, HSP employees shared three leased vehicles or otherwise used their personal cars and paid for gasoline out of their own pockets; the corporate gasoline credit cards were due in the week of the 25th.
"Asking (prospective sponsors) for $5 million to be the title sponsor - they don't have that sitting in a drawer somewhere," one insider commented. "And here (in Hawaii), asking for $5,000 to do the same thing - they couldn't even get people to do that, because they hadn't budgeted for it."
Todd Bradley is the Vice President of Sales for the Pacific Rim division of Simple Green, which signed a sponsorship deal in the $100,000 range back in April; being a privately-held company, juggling funds around for this purpose could take place. While the company had not yet written a check directly to HSP when the clock stopped, they had already spent a fair sum on marketing for the first year. "We really needed something to latch onto for our new automotive line and to give it an identity. With our cleaners being all natural and biodegradable, and with the importance of the environment in Hawaii, (the race) would be great for it.
"We were gonna do a quick promo for this year and really bring it up for the second and third years. We told them, ‘if you get your viewership on PPV and the attendance you project, I'll step up fully for the next year.'"
The PPV idea became perhaps the single most controversial aspect in selling the entire race. The majority of diehard racing fans rebuked the notion of paying $19.95 for an auto race, especially if they already did not have the proper cable descrambling box for Showtime. Numerous people wrote angry letters to racing magazines condemning HSP for the PPV strategy and CART for permitting it. With CART viewership not drawing a large enough audience for its regular races being broadcast for "free" on ABC and ESPN, this made Rutherford's expectation that they'd watch in inexplicably larger numbers for the Super Prix ridiculous to many.
"I was really curious how the whole thing was thought out," says Koenig. "You're talking about a somewhat limited audience to begin with. I'm not sure just how well researched it was. It seemed a stretch to pay for something they can see for free...then to try to expect people to pay $20 a house - it just seemed a mystery to me - a double whammy (from both PPV and the live audience)." CART races typically earn between a 1.4 to 1.8 Nielsen overnight rating, peaking with the Toronto race on ABC this July at 2.1 overnight and 1.9 overall (at 980,000 households per point, or 1% of the US audience). NASCAR races typically generate about twice the CART average.
"None of us could understand how that would work, given the poor ratings for CART in the US for the past few years," recalls noted motorsports journalist and author Gordon Kirby, who has followed CART since its inception in 1979. "We all said if this would work, why isn't everybody doing CART races on a Pay-Per-View basis?"
In the half hour HSP infomercial which aired regularly on a local cable channel, Rutherford stressed "one of the parameters behind the thing was that we had to do almost everything different from the normal race," with the unique aspects of the race itself and the one hour halftime show between race heats providing the incentive to tune in. But the planned concert acts, air show, swimsuit beauty contest, and $1 million prize giveaway promised to a lucky viewer did not lure many prospective customers at all, while the race's non-traditional, even convoluted structure - two heats, a combination of oval and road course qualifying procedures, and an aggregate points system for determining the overall winner - alienated some diehard fans.
Sponsors who routinely advertise during CART's regular TV broadcasts complained that PPV could not possibly give them their money's worth, since they could not run commercials. Even though they could still generate lots of advertising through co-naming of the event, having their logo appear in a corner of the screen, or just buying the air time (as Toyota did on ABC this April in permitting the Long Beach Grand Prix's closing laps to air commercial-free - an act which resulted in numerous kudos and praise for Toyota), they chose against it - perhaps because of the negative connotations surrounding PPV as much as because of budgetary concerns.
Back in February, Rutherford stated revenue "was the driving force in our decision to do Pay- Per-View. But also, the PPV people had to look at it and say, well, will this event bring what they call ‘tape read' - the people who purchase that in their homes. They ran a survey (conducted by OmniTrak of Honolulu), and in fact they ran two surveys, because they didn't believe the first survey, because it was larger than anything they had ever seen, and they said ‘this is what we need to do.' The $10 million purse had a lot to do with it."
But Showtime, citing its own research indicating minimal interest in viewership and higher than expected production costs, backed out of its contract in early September, leaving HSP suddenly without a TV broadcast. This dawned upon Showtime very late even though it had broadcast three PPV NASCAR Winston Cup races from Pocono, PA in 1986-87 - a scheme so universally rejected by fans that NASCAR has yet to attempt it again for complete race coverage, even at the peak of its present popularity. TBS did attempt a supplement package to its standard coverage of the 1998 fall Charlotte Winston Cup race, where for $9.95 viewers could pick up the raw feed from other cameras and play director. TBS viewed this experiment as a "break even" proposition, but whatever return it did generate, it did not attempt the same simulcast again this year.
Meanwhile, ABC and ESPN cited conflicts with college football telecasts and stayed away, while Heard successfully negotiated a last-minute (but never announced) deal with Speedvision. Even if this deal had come to fruition, the TV audience would remain very small compared even to ESPN2, and Speedvision would have enjoyed precious little time in promoting the telecast.
Those at HSP responsible for promoting the event made visible efforts at introducing the sport of auto racing to the local population, many of which had never seen a real Champ Car up close before. Through showcar appearances, tie-ins to the racing film "Super Speedway" showing at IMAX Waikiki, the first of two scheduled 8-page supplements in the Advertiser, TV and radio commercials, and the infomercial, HSP brought awareness of racing in Hawaii to new heights. But at the same time, they relied too heavily on local audiences footing the attendance bill, rather than on the loyal, already-knowledgable fans on the mainland and elsewhere who would theoretically fly in most of the $79-85 million of projected revenue for the state. This also contradicted estimates of only 30,000 fans coming from out-of-state out of 100,000 total initially projected. Advertising outside Hawaii consisted predominantly of a website, some print ads in industry magazines Champ Car and Championship Racing, and letter-sized flyers - nowhere near enough to generate any sort of buzz over the race, and nothing in keeping with its intended magnitude. One reason for the lack of publicity stemmed from HSP waiting endlessly for sponsor names to actually promote.
Kirby currently serves as Editor At Large for Champ Car. "I've never received any communication myself from HSP, other than a fax on what rooms would cost and what kind of airfare I could get. I probably received nothing special - everybody was treated in the same way...the teams themselves, as the deadline approached, they had so little dialogue with the organizers, and there was no detailed formal planning (on getting crews, cars, and equipment to and from Hawaii)."
Even locally, ticket sales limped along anemically, with the final estimate ranging from as high as around 14,000 seats sold (over the three day weekend) to as little as 7,000 out of the 50,000 seats ultimately projected for race day. No breakdown figures are available between local sales and out-of-state. In contrast, Surfers Paradise drew 102,000 people on race day and a series- leading 250,800 over three days.
In a predominantly stick-and-ball town, auto racing, even at the professional level, remained a rather hard sell to the general public. Koenig says, "from what I know, the Pro Bowl has to work to get something like 50,000 (capacity crowd) people." making a similar projection for the Super Prix even more bewildering. "I just don't see how you could come up with that many people. It would take a big effort to get people behind it, and I hadn't seen that materialize."
HSP confidently believed sales would pick up significantly closer to the event, in keeping with the established trend of locals not buying tickets for major events far in advance, and they accordingly began picking up the pace with more advertising in the weeks before cancellation. But this did not address the needs of those traveling from out-of-state and the additional time necessary for planning itineraries, vacation time, hotel reservations, and so forth.
The date chosen for the Super Prix - Saturday, November 13 - also worked against it both locally and nationally. While the race would run from 1 pm to 4 pm, the University of Hawaii football game against Fresno State would begin at 6 pm. HSP staffers negotiated with UH over a shuttle system that would permit ticket holders to park in the overflow lot at Aloha Stadium, ride a bus to Kalaeloa for the race, then return in plenty of time for the game. But while logistically not a problem, many prospective ticket buyers felt they could not financially afford to attend both. According to local sports media, the UH game would have been scheduled about a year in advance; thus HSP created the conflict. But of course, no one could have predicted the surge in success and popularity for the current UH football team; had the Super Prix taken place last year amid UH's humbling 0-18 record season, more people could well have skipped the game and attended the race instead.
The Evander Holyfield vs. Lennox Lewis PPV boxing match, rescheduled for the same evening following March 13's controversial draw, also kept both prospective ticket buyers and PPV subscribers away in droves. However, this match was not rescheduled until May 26, so the Holyfield-Lewis promoters in this case created the conflict at HSP's detriment. Showtime had produced and distributed the two highest grossing PPV events of all time (Tyson vs. Holyfield I and II), suggesting it should logically have known about and been able to prevent this conflict, even if HBO or another entity is handling the actual broadcast.
Click here for Part 3 of 6: There's a race in Hawaii?
©1999 Earl Ma and SpeedCenter