Why will WRC continue to grow?

The WRC (World Rally Championship) is my favorite motorsport. During every event, the driver, his team and their car has to fight the unpredictable nature on the real useful roads, without going in circles. There are many different surfaces, many elements that can’t be predicted or avoided and there are fast cars that look like cars even non-rich people can afford.

But even though I’m biased, I’m quite aware that WRC’s popularity can’t realistically be matched with that of MotoGP, F1 or Nascar. One lazy look at social media shows that, without mistake, MotoGP, F1 and Nascar have 2.01M, 2.57M and 3.15M followers on Twitter respectively, while WRC counts, compared to them, a modest 248K followers.

Long time ago WRC was experiencing its Golden Age, but it all abruptly came to a stop. Calling it the end, would just be overreacting. Just as global financial crisis reared its ugly head, several major WRC car manufacturers in less than a year decided to leave the competition. For some time WRC was practically Citroën’s playground with Ford’s M-Sport as their main, or to be more precise, only rivals. Competition was slowly disappearing, and the excitement level and fans’ interest started following the trend.

Now, the 2017 season is predicted to be the dawn of a New Golden Era of WRC. What changed?

Adapting to Times and Situations

In the past, there were TV channels that would broadcast some of the WRC stages live, but in all honesty, sport whose events last for several hours each day during at least three days on quite a large “field” had issues to find an easy way to film the action and to find a great deal of channels that would broadcast it live to a wider audience.

Apart from rare coverages of some stages, there were highlight shows that had a better chance of reaching wider audiences. But since sport is the entertainment that needs to be enjoyed in real time, WRC had a big handicap compared to other major motorsport events.

In 2011 WRC introduced the Power Stage. Power Stage is the last stage of every event that takes place at Sunday during lunchtime, offers bonus championship points and is broadcasted live. This was WRC’s attempt to reach wider audiences with the most exciting stage of the rally, where every driver, even those that crashed earlier during the rally, still compete for these precious bonus points.

Now, at the start of Power Stage’s existence magnificent Sébastien Loeb in his Citroën dominated the sport so much that there was very little competition for titles in both drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships. Without competition, WRC and its new Power Stage suffered when it came to attracting new audiences.

After winning both drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles in 2012, Sébastien Loeb decided to compete in just 4 WRC events in 2013 and then he decided to quit the WRC all together. This could have changed the sport, but in reality Citroën’s and Loeb’s domination was just replaced by another domination. Loeb’s countryman and namesake Sébastien Ogier won the following four drivers’ championships helping his team Volkswagen Motorsport to also win four manufacturers’ championships in the process. After the 2016 season Volkswagen Motorsport suddenly decided to quit the WRC. But unlike in the past this decision benefited the WRC.

This decision was no surprise to WRC fans. Big car manufacturers made similar decisions before, when they don’t see the point to continue for whatever reason, they simply quit. Big car manufacturers compete in the WRC for the glory, but they also compete in attempts to sell more of their, as Top Gear calls them, “reasonably priced cars”. For example, for the 2017 WRC season all teams use everyman’s hatchbacks. M-Sport uses Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Motorsport uses Hyundai i20 Coupe, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT uses Citroën C3 and Toyota GAZOO Racing WRC uses Toyota Yaris WRC. Prices of cars do depend on various factors, and cars that these teams use in WRC are adjusted for the competition, but they are built on the image of cars that general public can buy unused for under $18K.

VW decision left two of the best drivers, the quadruple world champion, Sébastien Ogier and, his strongest competitor during his 4 championship seasons, Jari-Matti Latvala without a team.

The Volkswagen brand is facing enormous challenges. With the upcoming expansion in electrification of our vehicle range we must focus all our efforts on important future technologies.

We far exceeded our sporting goals in the WRC, now we are realigning Volkswagen Motorsport and moving the vehicle technology of the future more starkly into focus. At the same time, Volkswagen is going to focus more on customer racing. As well as the Golf GTI TCR on the circuit track and the Beetle GRC in rallycross, we also want to offer customers top products and will develop a new Polo according to R5 regulations.”

– Volkswagen board member Frank Welsch

After years of testing Toyota joined the competition, so WRC was in a strong position. There was finally, after over a decade, proper competition for the titles in both drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships.

The WRC used this opportunity to boots the attractiveness of the sport by changing the rules. Power Stages never had a proper chance to attract bigger audiences, so now WRC decided to grab this new situation in the title races and award more bonus points to Power Stage winners. Power Stages will now bring points to 5 drivers, from 5 points to the winner to 1 point to the 5th placed driver. When you take into account that the event winner gets 25 points, these 5 point could play a massive part into deciding the championships in 2017.

WRC of course didn’t stop there, they changed their works contracts which now enable drivers to relax and subsequently to perform better.

Lastly but definitely not the leastly, the WRC now allows the manufacturers more breathing room in designing their cars, which allows them to build wider, stronger, lighter and therefore faster cars. Proper beasts.

Since every car has been changed and improved, nobody knows which is actually the best. All that can be said for sure, they look a lot better with new wider bodies. They will surely find their way to more posters and wallpapers.

WRC on the Internet

Here comes the most interesting part for marketers. Even though WRC is behind other major motorsport competitions on social media, their work on the Internet should be followed as exemplary by many. WRC’s official youtube channel offers a great deal of content during the events and between events.

WRC’s onboard videos are the best content motorsport can offer on the Internet, the pure excitement they bring to anybody that ever experienced the joy of pushing a throttle can only be matched by other sports with extremely well produced videos. All the WRC has to do is to put a dash cam on the car and let the adrenalin rush through the veins.

Why these videos are not pushed more in other sports is beyond me. Just take a look at this video filmed from the Gerhard Berger’s F1 car during the Portugal Grand Prix in Estoril in 1989 (yes, Nineteen-Eighty-Nine). Already then there was technology to produce these videos, yet still they are very rare in 2017.

WRC official page offers material few European sport organizations do. For starters they offer WRC+, their online coverage of events. It will set you back an acceptable monthly fee starting from €4,99. With the WRC+, fans can get all the content they need to follow the sport, and more. Previews, reviews, overviews, highlights, archive footage, radio coverage, real-time GPS tracking, live timings and live text, telemetry data (speed, acceleration, gear shift, throttle, brake and G-force), split screen mode to compare drivers and of course onboard videos. But these are not just onboard videos, it is live onboard videos from all WRC cars from every stage and every event from three different angles. 

Of course WRC+ offers a great deal of live coverage, which is more comprehensive than ever in 2017 season. Fans will get 3 hours of HD live coverage per event, live helicopter and drone footage and live commentary from experts and special guests. Imagine your favorite sport, now imagine having this sort of content on their online service.  And just imagine how all this coverage will look like with the improvement in VR technology.

Not so long ago this happened:

Ott Tänak drove his car into a lake at 2015 Mexican Rally Guanajuato. The only evidence of the incident was this fan footage and his onboard camera footage, but the since his tracking equipment stopped working under the water the organizers were not aware what happened. When the Estonian driver didn’t arrive to the finish line they became worried, and their worry grew when drivers behind him didn’t see him or his car anywhere on the stage. They had no other choice but to go and look for him. Nobody wants to think about what would be Tänak’s and his co-driver’s Raigo Mõlder’s destiny if they were not so fast in their reaction. Now, with introduction of drones and ever improving coverage and technology, something like this can’t happen again.

On top of all the activity on social media, as a big podcast fan, I was trying to find a proper WRC podcast. It is not that hard to find to be honest. You instantly find the official WRC.com podcast, but I ignored it for quite some time due to my prejudice over similar official podcasts. They usually… well totally miss the idea of podcasting or they are simply bad. When I finally decided to give WRC.com’s podcast a chance I was pleasantly surprised. In the era of podcast growth a sport that is experiencing its most awaited season in over a decade knows how to use this medium to provide extra and free content to the fans.

Both WRC+ and free official podcast are just more qualities that make WRC more of a North American sport brand than European sport brand.

Conclusion

I look forward to the day when there will be no blackouts in online coverage and when I won’t have to pay for sport channels on TV (and have at my disposal sport events I am not interested in that I had to pay for anyway).

WRC was a sport that could never be broadcasted live in its entirety. WRC+ eliminated both of these problems for WRC fans. On top of that WRC free online content is a great way to attract fans both to the sport and to interest them in investment in WRC+.

The same competition and rule changes for the 2017 season made sure the WRC+ and other WRC online content will have plenty of excitement to share for current and future fans.

Speaking of fans…not so long ago a wrote an article comparing the American and European sport experience.

WRC is already online more like North American sports than European sports.

With several kilometers, or several dozen kilometers, long stages surrounded by meadows and similar areas perfect for barbecuing, drinking or in other words tailgating, WRC offers the ideal venue and atmosphere to create an American style game day fan engagement activities and “fan zones!. Except WRCs tailgating doesn’t last for a day, it lasts for at least three days!!!

For example the most attractive parts of WRC stages, Rally Sweden’s Colin’s Crest and Rally Sardegna’s Mickey’s Jump, are already like American “fans zones”.

These are the most known fan zones in WRC, but of course on every stage there are at least a few more similar “fan zones” areas filled with fans having fun and being entertained.

Motorsports are the sports with the best opportunity to popularize the “American” experience in Europe.

Since the WRC is the tech smart growing motorsport, they will (with time) maximize the opportunities they have at their disposal, reap their benefits and maximize the growth of sports that deserves more attention and works hard to earn it.

Tomislav Žarković

Tomislav Žarković

Overtime Sports Marketing

If you have any questions about sports marketing, feel free to contact me at tomislav.zarkovic@gmail.com

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