Now that it's official – Danica Patrick will make a foray into NASCAR – the question is: Who benefits more?
Patrick obviously stands to increase her profile. Indy Racing League events, relegated to life on the D-list over at Versus, averaged 315,000 viewers in 2009, according to the Sports Business Journal. In comparison, 5.61 million people watched NASCAR's season finale.
What these numbers don't show is the current state of decline in NASCAR viewership. Ratings for NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series were down 11 percent in 2009. Overall, NASCAR's ratings have been in steady decline since at least 2005.
Patrick almost would certainly help curb the flow of that trend, though exactly when is still up in the air. While she announced Tuesday she will make her NASCAR debut in 2010, it won't be in the Cup Series, but rather in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, essentially its Triple-A feeder program.
As for when she might make her Cup debut, Patrick was noncommittal.
"There's no necessary time frame on that," she said in a news conference Tuesday. "We're just gonna hit the ground running and do the best that we can."
This is a smart move, according to David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. Carter contends that by starting in the minor leagues, Patrick can better manage what are sure to be lofty expectations. At the same time, starting small allows her to become a storyline fans can rally behind.
"The energy and excitement and all that goes into ascending through NASCAR's various series would be compromised if she decided to start at the top and didn't perform well," Carter explained. "Getting her bearings is the smart approach. If she is competitive, finds a real comfort level, she can move fans over to NASCAR racing and then begin excelling and moving up that ladder. That would be great for both sides."
The risk, of course, is if she doesn't excel. But clearly she and her handlers, led by International Marketing Group's Alan Zucker, who also manages Peyton Manning's brand, think the reward is worth that risk.
What Zucker and his team of brand managers at IMG, whose client list also includes Tiger Woods and Jeff Gordon, are looking at is Patrick's potential to capitalize "exponentially," Carter says.
"[In] no other sport is sponsorship as integral as it is in NASCAR," Carter explained. "You now join [brand affinity] with the fact that there are a considerable number of women who follow motorsports, the amount of disposable income women now have, and you blend those two things with a driver who can come in and combine those elements, that can lead to some exponential opportunities, and not just for sponsors but for NASCAR."
In the short term, Patrick's move should be a boon for both her and NASCAR. Ratings should spike for the Nationwide races she competes in next season – because she's keeping her day job in the IRL, Patrick will race only a partial schedule in 2010, possibly as many as 12 races – which will make a lot of people – from television executives to track owners to other Nationwide teams struggling to find sponsors – happy.
Ultimately, her long-term success (and subsequently NASCAR's ability to cash in on her presence) depends on how happy her sponsors are, which, as Carter astutely pointed out, doesn't necessarily mean she has to win. There are a handful of current Cup drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. foremost among them, who command top dollar from sponsors despite infrequent trips to victory lane. As long as she's helping to move product, Patrick doesn't have to win or even be competitive.
"Let's assume for a moment she does well in the Nationwide Series. You're inserting another intriguing personality into NASCAR at time when NASCAR could use a shot in the arm," Carter said. "She hasn't been asked to deliver on that. In the IndyCar Series, she's done well, but now she's entering into an entirely different stage. Expectations are going to be high from fans and sponsor. What happens to her long term if it doesn't work out? The upside is great. The downside has to be measured more carefully."