OUR INSIGHTS

When racers go rogue: why reputation matters in sponsorship

When racers go rogue: why reputation matters in sponsorship

Whatever your take on esports and sim racing, we can all agree that there are fundamental values associated with online competition, just as there are in real life, right? Determination to succeed, humility in defeat, support for an underdog, fair play. Sportsmanship, almost certainly.

When Simon Pagenaud caused Lando Norris to retire spectacularly from the IndyCar iRacing Challenge on Saturday, it caused repercussions that transcended the virtual Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We found ourselves waking up on Sunday to headlines (yes, actual headlines) that real races would be hard pushed to generate in 2020. Not for the right reasons, and definitely not the right messages. That’s without dissecting the furore on social and streaming channels.

Esports has played a vital role in satiating the appetites of motorsport fans around the world during the Coronavirus crisis. Those who have spent years developing esports’ credibility, suddenly found racers and celebrities battling it out in very public forums for online success.

The great thing about big name racers joining the esports elite has been the rare chance to see the human beings underneath the helmets. Gone is the PR gloss and the marketing sheen, to reveal the true personality and character. And, hasn’t Lando Norris’s star shone more brightly. Unfortunately, the thing about big name racers joining the esports elite is that is shows their true colours. Step forward Simon Pagenaud. 

For those not aware of how the events unfolded, here’s a brief synopsis.

Having been invited to take part in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, F1 superstar Lando was leading the race with two laps to go, when he collided with fellow competitor Pagenaud. Pagenaud admitted to Norris after the race that he had purposefully got in his way to ensure he didn’t win. This opened up the victory for Oliver Askew, but on the final lap whilst running towards the flag he, too, was taken out. This time is was Santino Ferrucci, who then also went on to admit that he purposefully collided with Askew to prevent him from winning.

On the face it, you’d perhaps wonder why there was a need to make these incidents into such big stories; after all it’s just pro drivers having a bit of fun on a computer game after all, right?

Wrong. Check out those shared values again: fair play, sportsmanship.

Sim racing has been flung into the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a number of global motorsport series embracing the virtual world to fill the real-life sporting void. Unlike other mainstream sports, motorsport has the benefit of a skills crossover from real-life to virtual, allowing for a high level of competition, entertainment and rivalries akin to the actual thing.

This has thrust motorsport back into the limelight, offering the sport the chance to gain new fans and become the go-to platform for sporting entertainment during these socially distant times. As the realism of this opportunity has become apparent, more and more professional drivers have become involved, and they are now dedicating more time and practice to ensure they are fully prepared for each race.

Beyond the drivers, the possibilities for brands have been two-fold; those already sponsoring a team, driver or series have benefitted from moving their branding into the virtual world, while sponsors not previously involved in the sport have latched onto the possibilities that sim racing presents. So, with motorsport interest amongst new fans at a potential high, drivers’ skill and dedication on show, and brands being represented in the virtual world, why would some drivers be foolish enough to treat it like a ‘silly video game’?

It appears that unfortunately some drivers haven’t got the memo, and it’s that small minority who might undo the work of the large majority. Pagenaud and Ferrucci haven’t been alone. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen NASCAR driver Darrell Wallace lose one of his sponsors after ‘rage-quitting’ during a broadcasted virtual race. Losing a sponsor is one thing, but as Kyle Larson found, his virtual decisions lost him his real job having inexcusably and indefensibly used a ‘certain’ word during a live NASCAR broadcast.

Spur of the moment decisions rightly having huge consequences. The drivers may feel like they are sat in their living rooms with no one watching, but they are wrong. Much like at a real circuit, they are representing themselves, their sport, and their sponsors, and the viewers are most definitely there.

The decisions made by Pagenaud and Ferrucci not only disgraced their personal and team sponsors, but also took away the opportunity for brands to celebrate and align themselves with the victors that were taken out of the race. The consequences are massive.

Motorsport has found itself in a highly unusual and unplanned for scenario. The real stars, like Norris, are those that have fully embraced the prospect, dedicated time to the cause, and represented their sponsors in the same professional manner in which they would at a real event. Sim racing has very quickly found itself at the top of the virtual sporting world, and for any driver that doesn’t respect that, they need to get wise to it pretty quickly, otherwise their professional racing days might just come to a very abrupt end.

For sponsors, each time a driver makes an unjustifiable racing decision, it impacts on their reputation too. This shouldn’t be enough to put brands off entering sim racing. We’ve seen some great examples of how to do it well over the past few weeks (take ROKiT Phones as an example).

What it does highlight is the need for brands to be as thorough with their sponsorship strategy and property selection in the virtual world as they would be in the real world. It’s an exciting moment for sim racing, and decisions made by the likes of Ferrucci shouldn’t let sponsorship plans go Askew…