NASCAR recently banned the Confederate flag at events in an effort to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for their fans, competitors and the broader sports industry. The auto-racing series has made significant progress in the areas of diversity and inclusion during the past few months, stepping up in social causes that will help to move their brand forward. Jill Gregory Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing and Content Officer at NASCAR talks about how the brand has kept their fans engaged through the pandemic while making a difference in society.
When we last spoke in 2018, the world looked significantly different. We’re seeing that brands are increasingly speaking up, leading in new ways, and acting like a future version of themselves. With that in mind, take us through the momentous decision to ban confederate flags from your races and events.
Looking back at May and early June, when the turmoil and unrest across the country was unfolding, there were very strong feelings across our company and our leadership that NASCAR needed to step up and play its part in driving positive change. It was a very honest moment where we as a sport publicly acknowledged that we needed to do more and do better – and that it had to start with a commitment to listening. As it relates to the flag, we took the step we needed to take to ensure that everyone feels welcome in NASCAR and at our events. Simply put, we are not going to tolerate symbols that divide us as human beings or that run contrary to where we’re headed as a country and as a sport.
Did your fans — particularly the NASCAR Fan Council — play a prominent role in making this decision? How has this move been received across your stakeholders?
The flag’s presence was a barrier to many people that wanted to enjoy our sport and attend our races but didn’t feel comfortable, and for that reason alone it needed to be eradicated. The response since announcing the ban has been very positive. There are fans that disagree with the decision, but ultimately this wasn’t about shutting out fans. It was about making sure that all fans knew they were welcome at our events. Overall, when you look at our strengthened position on these issues and emphasis on diversity and inclusion, we’re seeing the positive response from diverse audiences both anecdotally and across our metrics. So far this year, we’ve reached 21% more Hispanic households and 25% more Black households than we had at this point last season and those numbers outpaced the growth across other households.
One of themes that has clearly emerged in the last few years is the symbiotic relationship between NASCAR’s brand building exercises and your efforts to build the brands of your drivers. How have these efforts evolved in the last few months, through and beyond your resolute support for Bubba Wallace?
The marketing of our drivers is critically important because, after all, they are the stars and who the fans want to see and feel connected to. It’s why we remain in close communication with the drivers, invest the resources and provide support to help them build their brands. And it’s competitive out there – both on and off the track – whether it’s racing for wins or growing their individual fan bases. That said, over these last few months, it’s been much more about the drivers coming together and combining their voices to champion messages that they – and us as a sport – felt to be very important. So, it’s ranged from recognizing frontline healthcare workers that are keeping us safe during COVID-19 to uniting in the stand against racism and racial injustice. Lately it’s been less about brand-building and more about NASCAR and its drivers coming together around what we believe is right and more importantly, the actions we’re going to take.
When real NASCAR racing went on pause last spring due to COVID-19, you turned to virtual racing to keep the sport relevant and sports fans engaged. Where does NASCAR see the opportunity with growth initiatives like esports and also sports betting?
It’s really been about engagement and leveraging new avenues to reach and engage both our current fans and importantly, potential fans. After we introduced the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series in March and worked with FOX to broadcast the virtual races, the series became the most-watched esports program in television history. Many of those viewers were new to our sport and the momentum carried over to the NASCAR Cup Series’ return at Darlington. More than 30% of our audience for the first race back were new viewers in 2020. Sports betting is another entry point that’s gaining considerable momentum as more and more states legalize betting. Last week, we finalized a deal with our second authorized gaming operator in BetMGM and beginning next season they’re making live, in-race betting available across their platform. That’s huge for us. So, there are opportunities abound across both esports and sports betting and for NASCAR the real value is in the engagement.
With the benefit of a few months of hindsight, what advice would you go back and give to yourself and your team as COVID-19 started to reshape our world? What is one change in how you work that you will carry forward once we return to a new “normal”?
It’s a great question. When I look back, I’m really proud of the work we’ve done to bring live sports back to sports fans and also fans back to attending live events. My advice would center on the approach we took, which was to lead and go forward boldly and decisively versus waiting to follow others. As we were preparing for our return to racing in mid-May, we heard from so many across the sports industry and at other leagues who were cheering for us and hoping for a successful return. And we’ve been in action ever since, adapting to challenges along the way and continuing to prioritize the safety of our competitors and everyone associated with putting on our events. It truly has been a remarkable undertaking and I think it’s leading from the front and having the confidence to venture into uncharted waters that I’ll look to take with me. There will still be difficult days ahead, no question. And we’ll continue to try and make the best out of a very difficult and challenging situation.