2017 is upon us, and Unlimited Hydroplane Racing would like to offer H1 Unlimited our thoughts in the form of a suggested New Year’s Resolution – a resolution geared to bolstering a sport struggling with years of conflicts and needing an infusion of younger fans. Part 1 of 2.
I resolve to…
The 2017 H1 Unlimited Annual Meeting takes place January 13 and 14 at the Seattle Waterfront Marriott. There, agreements and decisions (resolutions, if you will) are made for the future of Unlimited Hydroplane Racing. We thought this would be a good opportunity to explore what we believe would be an excellent point of discussion – one point of many, of course.
A “Resolution Resolution”
In this thought exercise, we serve up one possible discussion point on which the Meeting could focus. We’ll go a little deep, but only on one point. Just as New Year’s Resolutions are made to start a year with improvement goals, we hope H1 will pass resolutions that will start their year on a positive trajectory.
“Full Circle” Not Just for the Race Course
The sport of Unlimited Hydroplane Racing is (once again) going full circle. The current governing structure of the sport grew out of a “revolt” by race sites in 2004. At the time, HydroProp owned the sport (from 2001 to 2004) and had previously increased the appearance cost of bringing boats to venues. (Insiders call this “Tow Money.”)
Additionally, team owners were frustrated with the steps taken to encourage parity on the racecourse under HydroProp’s tutelage. Their “managed competition” model meant winning teams were slapped with lower fuel consumption allowances. This resulted in very close, deck-to-deck action, but purists objected to these arbitrary assignments.
You can learn more about this very interesting segment of our Unlimited Hydroplane Racing history in an article by Fred Farley, posted on the Hydroplane And Raceboat Museum web site.
As you can imagine, when a relationship is pulled in two (nay, MANY!) directions, something has to give.
The result was a “partnership” between team owners and race sites, with representatives of each group serving on the Board of Directors of the American Boat Racing Association, formed in 2004. (This entity became H1 Unlimited in 2009.) “Partnership” may be a bit generous, but certainly this promoted increased collaboration.
The Madison Courier shared perspectives on the “revolt” while it was under way.
This Worked Well… For a While
This collaboration had a positive effect on the relationship between owners and race sites. However, in recent years, owners have become increasingly dissatisfied with stagnation of payments from race sites.
Glimmer of Hope
While no one expects substantial increases in Tow Money during times of low inflation, one could envision some growth over time. The reality is the amount paid to race teams for participating hadn’t really changed in well over 15 years. That changed in 2016, with Tow Money increasing for the first time since 2004!
Is Another “Revolt” Coming Full Circle?
In recent years, a growing number of owners have expressed willingness to “draw a line in the sand” unless the race sites pay more. In fact, one owner group has already stood their ground, with the Ellstrom team participating only at Tri-Cities and Seattle in 2016.
On the race site side of things, they argue their fan base and attendance has actually declined and they can’t afford to pay more.
Show Me Yours; I’ll Show You Mine
In any significant financial transaction, due diligence is practiced. The parties must know the others’ true picture to value or cost the scope of the agreement. However, in a much “looser” relationship, like that between the race sites and race teams, not much seems to be shared.
It is natural for businesses to keep financial details about their operations, let’s say, close to the (life) vest. This is proprietary information and simply not shared. Race sites don’t know a race team’s financial picture and of course, teams don’t know what it actually costs for any given venue to host an event.
Additionally, with financial challenges faced by some sites in recent years, owners have become increasingly skeptical of the accounting involved.
If you were going into business and your full partner refused to divulge their side of the balance sheet with you, what would you do? Better yet, if your business was swimming against the tide and you didn’t have full visibility, how would you change course? Let’s take a look at a different racing model as a comparison.
Finding the Root Cause
Stepping back for a second, let’s consider the reason for these tight financial times. Times where race sites are getting squeezed financially, and race teams needing to fully support a very expensive operation.
It’s simply a numbers game. The numbers in question? Fan base. Solid, long time, Damn Smart Fans continue to support the sport, but they aren’t making too many of them any more these days. It’s time to look at adding to their numbers.
This is the heart of why we are pursuing this thought exercise.
NASCAR Both Good and Bad Comparison
First, let’s get something out of the way. While NASCAR and Unlimited Hydroplane Racing are both “motorsports,” the strong similarities end there. Millions of NASCAR fans drive cars, but dozens of boat racing fans might drive Hydroplanes. A NASCAR race takes place conveniently in an afternoon, while boats run all weekend. NASCAR might have a rain delay, but flooding in Madison cancelled the race and cost us the entire ESPN3 coverage. The list is quite long, but let’s save this comparison for another day.
Where it is instructive to look at NASCAR’s efforts is in their new corporate sponsorship. A lot can and should be learned from their focus on a younger fan base through their Monster Energy Drink partnership. Announced December 1, it appears to be a mutually-beneficial relationship.
This Monster (no pun intended) agreement notwithstanding, motorsports corporate sponsorship has been declining in recent years. There’s no secret there. NASCAR has experienced a decline both in attendance and “traditional” media ratings in the recent past. (“Traditional” will play a role in this exercise in a moment.)
By The Numbers
To frame the numbers discussion, let’s look at it through the lenses of “attracting a younger audience.”
Although NASCAR’s TV ratings are down 6% this year, their social media engagements have grown by 87% from 2015 to 2016, not to mention substantial increases in video content views.
Moral to the story? A younger, more mobile-device-friendly audience is stepping up… in big numbers! This new fan base is watching NASCAR action on phones, tablets, and laptops. Monster saw the numbers and associated the numbers with the audience they wanted to reach.
An infusion of younger fans – in any sport – is a healthy characteristic for the future. More fans, yes. But more fans who can stick around for many years, that’s a BIG YES!
Early Dog Paddling (Baby Steps)
The sport of Unlimited Hydroplane Racing, while struggling to grow its fan base, has been showing nascent steps in the right direction over the last few years.
In 2014, UnlimitedHydroplaneRacing.com took the first “micro-step” by successfully live streaming races through UnlimitedHydroplaneRacing.TV. With any effort to pilot something new, there were significant challenges, but they were overcome and a modicum of successful viewing took place.
While KIRO and KNDO/KNDU in Seattle and Tri-Cities respectively, have done a great job of streaming coverage in years past, it was part of their professional programming. Very classy exposure? Of course. Part of a cohesive streaming strategy for the sport of Unlimited Hydroplane Racing? Not so much.
Then in 2015, H1 Unlimited contracted with GoLive to carry two races. Although fewer races were streamed, a more established partner upped the game a bit. However, Mother Nature threw a curve at the ESPN3 coverage due to the weather when high water debris caused a course and race format change. H1 did stream a compact version, but ESPN3 had already aborted their coverage due to the delays.
It’s time we take another run at envisioning a “media-coverage-friendly” future to appeal to a younger (read that: broader) audience.
H1’s New Year’s Resolution
These steps combined made for movement in the right direction – a direction that gets closer to a destination where a younger, more mobile audience will have an opportunity to enjoy really fast boats. However the sport needs to up its game in that area. Teams and sites need to cooperate to make for the best possible experience for all fans – especially the younger ones.
Here at Unlimited Hydroplane Racing, we’re fans just like you. Our commentary and perspectives are all meant to be positive cogs in a wheel that turns towards a more healthy and expansive sport.
We believe a central discussion topic for the 2017 H1 Unlimited Annual Meeting in January should be to explore all options for rejuvenating the sport. A key element to the rejuvenation is an influx of newer, younger, more “mobile” fans.
Continue to push forward on the three baby steps trail already blazed, and explore what would be considered the next logical step. There are affordable media coverage options available if we give up the notion of streaming “traditional” multi-camera coverage with behind-the-desk anchors, and all the expensive trappings that accompany this outdated mode of coverage.
Many of the pieces are there – we just need to get them connected.
Just One Opinion
This is just one perspective. We want to hear from you on what you believe H1 should focus in their meetings. Give us your feedback in the comments below. Comment on the comments. Let’s get a conversation started – and momentum built – before January 13.
Happy New Year to all you Damn Smart Fans!