Why V8 Supercars has hit the skids in Australia
By Adrian Musolino, 15 Feb 2011
Adrian Musolino is a Roar Expert
- Abu Dhabi, Craig Lowndes, Ford, Holden, james courtney, Jamie Whincup, Mark Winterbottom, Motorsport, peter brock, Tony Cochrane, V8 Supercar, V8 Supercars, Will Davison
The 2011 V8 Supercars season kicked off at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi over the weekend, in front of a paltry crowd and televised live into Australia in the early hours of the morning. As V8 Supercars assesses why crowds are on the decline and television ratings have plunged by as much as 23 per cent, perhaps they should start with the location of their season opener in the search for answers.
But the international expansion is set to continue. V8 Supercars has been awarded international status by motorsport’s world governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), paving the way for up to six overseas races.
‘Australia’ has since been removed from the category’s name, replaced by ‘International’, with Singapore the next overseas destination in 2012.
Starting the championship in Abu Dhabi and expanding into Asia may have its financial rewards and long-term strategic importance, but it comes at the inevitable cost of losing traction in the sport’s Australian heartland.
Take the season opener just past, which barely caused a ripple back home on a weekend light on sporting action. How could it when the season started at 1:30am Australian Eastern Time?
Crowds have been noticeably down across the calendar with ratings falling, V8 Supercar merchandise sales reportedly down by 40 per cent in 2010, and little in the way of mainstream media attention.
This comes at a critical juncture for the category, when a majority stake in the series is up for grabs for a forecast price of around $240 million; its television deal with Seven ends at the end of 2012; and the ‘Car of the Future’ (CotF) regulations come into place for 2013, designed to entice other manufacturers in to end the Ford-Holden duopoly.
With the new television deal unlikely to yield the same figure as the last, especially with the highly sought after AFL and NRL deals up for grabs around the same time, the series’ stature remains a mystery.
You can’t directly compare V8 crowd figures to the footy codes because of the infrequency of events and the inflated numbers who attend the marquee street circuit events, which are accompanied by high-profile music concerts (known as the ‘Rock ‘N’ Race’ concept).
Yet chairman Tony Cochrane has gone on the record claiming V8 Supercars will be in a position to overtake the NRL as the biggest sport behind the AFL – a belief that seems quite exaggerated.
It’s important to remember here that a motorsport category will never be able to compete with the most popular footy codes in Australia because of the infrequency of rounds and the resultant lack of media coverage; the fact many don’t consider motorsport a sport; the fact the personalities of the sport are hidden behind helmets and machinery; and the lack of state/city teams and the absence of the tribalism they create.
V8 Supercars has sold itself based on the Ford versus Holden tribalism, but it is a dying rivalry in a country that has moved on from that duopoly; it’s no longer relevant to Australia’s automotive industry, which has embraced international manufacturers to the point where Japan’s Toyota long ago passed Holden and Ford at the top of the selling charts.
More to the point, the Ford-Holden rivalry may be important to V8 Supercars’ hardcore audience, but it simply doesn’t matter to generations who have grown up and been exposed to more than two manufacturers.
Unless you have been instilled with a Ford or Holden allegiance, there’s no real reason to profess an undying bond to one over the other.
Also, the rivalry has eroded further as drivers and teams increasingly swap between the two.
Take for example the sport’s biggest team, TeamVodafone, and reigning champion James Courtney’s switch from Ford to Holden over the last two seasons. Allegiances have been tested and the “red versus blue” demarcation is now wearing thin.
‘Car of the Future’ will “open the shopfront” to new manufacturers, not only to move the sport away from Ford versus Holden but to bring in a whole other industry remarkably locked out of V8 Supercars.
Think of other manufacturers and how they have invested in other sports: Skoda sponsoring Greater Western Sydney in the AFL, Hyundai naming rights sponsor of the A-League, Toyota naming rights sponsor of the AFL, Kia the major sponsors of the Australian Open tennis, etc, etc.
That money and investment could have been redirected into V8 Supercars had they not stuck with Ford versus Holden so rigorously when the rivalry began to fade away.
But CotF will come at a cost; with the use of a generic shape, like NASCAR, and standardised parts further distancing V8 Supercars from road cars.
Touring car racing was able to engage and resonate with Australian society in its golden era as there was a direct connection between the cars raced at Bathurst and the cars owned by the public watching.
That will no longer be the case under CotF and V8 fans have made their feelings clear, forcing V8 Supercars to defend the exercise. But it highlights one key point in V8 Supercars’ battle to gain wider acceptance – the difficulty in satisfying the conflicting demands of an ambivalent Australia to the hardcores.
In the noughties, V8 Supercars made a concerted effort to satisfy the hardcores, so in came more grid girls, the Four X Angels, more burnouts and stunts, and a renewed push on the Ford versus Holden V8 rivalry.
With the likes of Jack Daniels, Jim Beam and Bunderburg Rum entering the sport, it became, as a friend put it, “a bogan’s paradise.”
But this wasn’t really a family-friendly environment, no matter what V8 Supercars said. While other Australian sports did their best to move away from a male chauvinistic appearance, growing their female and family supporter bases as a result, V8 Supercars was left in a time warp.
V8 Supercars is now trying to widen its reach. The recent marketing campaign with popstar P!nk and partnership with Disney Pixar points to a push to entice new demographics to the sport, while the ‘Rock ‘N’ Race’ concept is a strategic move to bring in a wider audience who will hopefully be enticed by the racing.
But critical to this new marketing strategy is a move away from promoting the Ford versus Holden rivalry to the actual personalities of the sport.
Australian Touring Car racing had one golden era that, due to the longevity of racing drivers’ career in those days, extended over the course of a few decades with legends such as Peter Brock, Dick Johnson, Larry Perkins and Allan Moffat, which tailed off with the careers of Mark Skaife and Craig Lowndes.
But, as the marketing of the sport became more focused on Ford versus Holden and as the golden era ended, the new stars such as James Courtney, Jamie Whincup, Mark Winterbottom, Will Davison and co struggled to fill the void.
Lowndes, for example, remains the overwhelming public favourite – one of the last links to the sport’s golden era.
Perhaps it’s the falling profile of the sport, the lack of driver-specific marketing, or an inability to reach the lofty public profile of Brock and Johnson, but today’s V8 stars are failing to engage the public outside of their sport.
Courtney, for example, is as marketable as any Australian athlete. The series just needs to start selling he and his rivals as the focal point of the series.
Remember, these drivers don’t have a connection to one manufacturer, like Brock or Johnson (Courtney and co have switched camps regularly), making it difficult for them to stand out and become household names in a sport built on a tribalism constantly breached.
Perhaps V8 Supercars’ problem is it has punched well above its weight for so long now that it cannot be sustained.
It remains the most successful domestic motorsport category outside of NASCAR – impressive in a country with such a modest population – while its corporate backing and sponsorship portfolio remained stable throughout the global financial crisis. But with the AFL taking Australian sport to new levels of professionalism and growth, perhaps V8 Supercars is just feeling the squeeze like most other fringe sports.
Hopefully another dramatic championship battle ensues. If the opening round in Abu Dhabi was anything to go by (see highlights below), it has the potential to live up to last year’s high standards. But, as V8 Supercars prepares for its international expansion and other seismic changes, off track developments will be the thing to watch in 2011.
Follow Adrian on twitter @AdrianMusolino
Adrian Musolino is editor of V8X Magazine, and has written as an expert on The Roar since 2008, cementing himself as a key writer who can see the big picture in sport. He freelances on other forms of motorsport, football, cycling and more.