For a sport that moves at 200 miles per hour, NASCAR can’t really be a laggard when it comes to emerging technologies.
“This sport is constantly evolving, and constantly innovating,” says Tim Clark, Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Officer at NASCAR, the auto racing sanctioning and operating company headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina. That creates high expectations for what Clark’s team should be doing in the digital domain, whether on its mobile app, website, or on new social platforms like Discord.
We interviewed Clark as part of our latest research report, Benchmarking Innovation Impact 2023. Highlights from the December 2022 conversation are below.
My remit. I am the first Chief Digital Officer at NASCAR. I describe my job like this: if if there is fan engagement that needs to happen that doesn’t include a trip to the racetrack, more often than not, that’s a big part of of my task. I report to Steve Phelps, who is our President.
Whether it’s happening in digital media, in social media, or in evolving technology spaces, our ability to innovate both in platforms that exist, as well as charging out into platforms that are new and emerging — that’s really what my remit is.
My team. It’s really three main functional areas. There’s the technology and development group. The other one is the platform team — user experience, [and] optimizing the site almost in real-time… The third one is products. It’s critical for us to make sure that we’ve got live products, whether it’s in-car cameras, scanner audio, [or] the live leaderboard. One of the investments that we have made, and we’ll make an even bigger one going into 2023, is around a provider of data science [for] our competition data. This sport is constantly evolving, and constantly innovating… the on-track product. If those teams are innovating from a competition standpoint, then the expectations on what we’re able to [do] from a product standpoint are always being increased.
…The expectations on what we’re able to [do] from a product standpoint are always being increased.
How I think about ROI. Return on that investment can manifest itself in a couple of ways. If it’s driving sponsor revenue, or other sources of income, great. But if I can prove that return on our investment is new fan engagement, there’s value in that as well. And I might argue even more so, because those dollars may come one time, or they may come over the course of a year. But if we can engage a new fan and get them to pay attention to the sport, that’s a much longer tail payoff on that investment.
Emerging technologies. Like most, we’re very intrigued by the prospects of Web3 and of the metaverse, and we’ve dipped a toe into those waters over the past 12 to 24 months. But from the beginning, we were cautiously optimistic and looked at this as a long-term play. It was never about seizing the moment. For us, it was more of, “If this is an opportunity that could create fan engagement, both now and in the future, it’s worth exploring.” Whether there was scale in that or revenue in that was not really ever the goal. It was exploratory; it was more understanding where we might be able to fit in.
Whether it’s five fans or five million, I think it’s our responsibility to engage fans on their terms and in their environments, not where it’s selfishly most beneficial to us as a brand or a sport.
Another platform that was relatively new to us in 2022 was Discord. We became the first league with an official server on Discord. Scale is not important to us in these areas. Whether it’s five fans or five million, I think it’s our responsibility to engage fans on their terms and in their environments, not where it’s selfishly most beneficial to us as a brand or a sport.
Focus on the upside, not on the potential to fail. We hired a director of Web3 [in 2022], which I think will tell you how serious we are about evaluating this space going forward that we put a dedicated resource into helping us navigate and create our path. And I don’t think we’re afraid to fail necessarily, because failure for us is that we tried something we got out ahead of it. We took some risks, found that for whatever reason, however we’re evaluating success, [a problem has been identified] and then we can readjust. I don’t think there’s a downside to things like that. And I think the upside is tremendous…
A new sector of fan engagement. [New digital channels are] really allowing us to get in front of fans on a seven-day-a-week basis, for a sport that may only race one, two or three times a week on the weekend. For us to have that kind of 24/7 connectivity with fans, newer fans, younger fans, casual fans, I think that’s where we really started to evolve… So now, everything up until watching on television or buying a ticket is a way for us to directly engage fans.
A ‘makeshift’ KPI. We have historically optimized our digital channels off of fan consumption. And for us that is kind of a makeshift KPI, if you will. It’s pageviews and video views per visit.
And the thought is, if you’re operating a sports-based digital platform like ours, the demand is going to come and go as the sport does. If we have an exceptional race in Martinsville, where Ross Chastain makes some highlight move for the ages and Christopher Bell wins to clinch a spot in the Championship 4, our digital traffic is going to be through the roof. And that’s not for any levers that we pulled on the digital side; it’s just a manifestation of the demand around the sport.
And then you look three weeks later, well, now the sport is over, we’re in the offseason, and our volume is going to be lower than it was that Sunday in Martinsville. But if we can optimize the user experience against consumption, that means whether there’s 100 people on the platform, or 100 million people on the platform, they’re having a good experience, because we’ve surfaced content that’s relevant to them. So if we can maintain somewhere between three and five page views or video views per site visit, then we feel like we’ve created a really good experience…
Tracking other innovators in sports and media. I think the the PGA Tour has a phenomenal experience, and some of the things that they’ve done from a fan engagement and second screen experience have been fantastic. I think the there are some consumer brands, in particular Disney, both in their digital products as well as the physical environments. And then I think there’s been a lot of evolution on the sports betting side — they’re competing for the same audience, and I think their their innovations [around] how to package content and data and experience has been really interesting to watch.