A month ago I stated that Rally America had some serious issues with so many of last years’ champions or championship contenders not returning for 2014. I received many comments, some in support of my statements and some thinking I was nothing but a Rally America hater which couldn’t be farther from the truth. A few others said “just wait good things are coming,” and those were the people that were right. Maybe I should have been more patient. I will say that based on the information available at the time, my findings were completely accurate. Back then numerous entrants had dropped from the 2014 national championship entry list altogether, and some stated they would only do a few events or enter as regional competitors. The good news is that with the recent news of the TV deal with NBC Sports it appears the Rally America National Championship entry list is back on the rise and champions like David Sterckx have recommitted to defending their title. It would have been nice to know something like this was in the works much earlier, but I guess with news like a TV deal I can’t complain too much.
The sad thing about the national championship is that there isn’t a lack of drivers that are fully capable of competing at the national level. At many events you can find local drivers with stage times right up with the national teams. Okay, maybe not in the Open class, but definitely in Super Production and 2WD. The problem as I said in my previous article is the costs. We’ve said it on the podcast, if Rally America is going to charge more than 3 times the fees for a national entry, then the teams and their sponsors need to get something out of it. Last year they quite honestly got squat, and in addition had to pay through the nose if they wanted to add their own media coverage. This year however Rally America events will get national TV coverage and that means something. On that basis I will gladly rescind my statement that Rally America has serious problems, and will change that to Rally America has a serious opportunity.
Some say that bringing TV doesn’t change anything for local or regional teams as their major sponsors aren’t national. That may be true for some, however it is a pretty good selling point for a driver or team to tell a sponsor that their brand could be seen on a national network. I’m not sure what it’s like in the rest of the country but here in the Northwest local audiences are usually quite keen on tuning in to anything local that happens to be on a national broadcast. For me, I like the Northwest getting national attention for something that isn’t the Oregon Ducks football team or some story about meth labs. Aside from local or regional viewers, a driver doing well on the national stage could entice national sponsors that otherwise might not give them the time of day. So national TV could be the ticket for some of those drivers and teams who have the talent but not the funds to take that next step to challenge for a national title. It won’t happen right away though, and a lot of that will depend on the viewing numbers once the television coverage is aired.
The key to this golden opportunity that Rally America has will be growth in viewership over the year. With names like Travis Pastrana and to a lesser extent Ken Block doing stage rally, it should be easy to get a good chunk of viewers to watch. However, if the camera only focuses on Ken, Travis, Subaru, and Ford then the whole thing will be a bust. I’m sure Subaru and Ford are a big reason why this is happening, but they need this TV product to focus some time on the non-factory teams with their struggles and triumphs. The documentary “Easier Said Than Done” was a dynamite success and only touched on a few of the many amazing stories we know come out of every rally. If the film crew at Rage Productions can capture those stories along with the big names, then the casual viewers could easily get hooked. In the end it is the personalities that win over viewers, and Rage needs to exploit those personalities to the fullest. If the TV product is as successful as I truly hope it can be, then I think next year will be the year where stage rally in the USA starts to become very well known and more sponsors will be willing to jump in.
Rally America also gets a bonus opportunity with this NBC Sports deal. As I had hoped/predicted on our podcast a couple of weeks ago, the Red Bull Global Rallycross Championship announced that they inked a deal with NBC for the 2014 season as well. Granted GRC will be aired on the main NBC network and not on NBC Sports, however there is an obvious cross-promotion opportunity here. If you recall last year when NBC Sports took over F1 coverage from Speed and the Grand Prix of Monaco was televised on the main NBC network, they used that opportunity to advertise upcoming IndyCar races that were airing on the sister network. The same could happen with GRC and Rally America, especially since much of the GRC coverage will be live.
Live coverage makes a difference because live coverage is inherently unpredictable with event delays needing time filler which opens up cross-promotion opportunities. Also, Rally America and stage rally as a whole will benefit from Ken Block and Travis Pastrana who race in both disciplines. It should be easy enough for NBC to splice in some Rally America coverage here and there showing a big off or close victory that Ken or Travis had at a stage rally. Cross-promotion of these two racing disciplines is also very relevant for the fans. The cars are similar. The “extreme” nature of the sport is similar. And of course the Block and Pastrana tie-in (with hopefully more doing both in the not too distant future).
In closing I’d like to say that I wish nothing but success for Rally America and thank them and NBC for helping return stage rally to american households. As a fan, what I want more than anything is for the sport to have opportunities for drivers and teams at all levels to compete, have good racing on the stages, and easy access for spectators to watch from the stages and at home. My hope is that someday I can tell a person that stage rally is my favorite form of motorsport and not have them look at me questioningly because they’ve never heard of it. I’m passionate about this sport and whether it is Rally America, NASA, or some other sanctioning body that makes that happen, I don’t really care.