Sprint goes all-in on Unlimited

Sprint's decision to sponsor the season-opening exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night was a no-brainer for its executive marketing staff. The company told ESPN.com it will spend no more money than was already allocated for the midseason Pit Crew Challenge -- and attendance, network television brand awareness and digital interaction they'll receive as a result is markedly higher.

Sprint sponsored the Pit Crew Challenge to add depth and relevance to the All-Star Race weekend, said the company's vice president of corporate marketing Steve Gaffney. But, Gaffney continued, that relationship "reached its maximum potential, frankly, for us."

Enter the Unlimited opportunity, which Gaffney said enables Sprint to extend its messaging throughout the preseason and into the start of the year. It creates a defined, Sprint-branded beginning, middle and end to the NASCAR season, as the company now sponsors the season's kickoff event, its All-Star weekend and its championship playoff.

"We're always challenging ourselves, certainly, to invest our money in the most efficient and effective way possible," Gaffney said. "And couple that with the fact that we're always looking for ways to bring fans closer to the sport, this fits the bill."

As a result, Gaffney said, sponsoring and rebranding the first on-track event of the season is a can't-miss opportunity for his company.

"The unique opportunity provided to us, to have the fans actually influence the makeup of the race, really put this in a totally different category -- one we just couldn't pass up," he said.

Repucom, a leading sports marketing research firm, told ESPN.com the NASCAR-kickoff platform has been great for brand exposure in the past, due in large part, it says, "to a pent-up appetite for NASCAR racing, a prime-time slot on network television and the 'go for the money' style of the race."

The viewership of this nonpoints race is above average for the season, which means higher values for sponsors who are involved, especially the ones who are involved at the entitlement level.

Budweiser, the former occupant of the entitlement, saw nearly $3 million in brand exposure from this event alone, Repucom said, with a majority of that value coming from broadcast assets such as television graphics and verbal mentions.

Year over year, this number increased by nearly 30 percent due to better levels of integration by the track and network partners. Budweiser was further able to activate its brand with the selection show-themed bar and other elements. Budweiser was the top-performing brand in the event's exposure ranking, outpacing even the highest-generating car (Kyle Busch's No. 18 Toyota) in the event by nearly 40 percent.

Given its entitlement placement in the Cup Series, Sprint certainly doesn't require more exposure in NASCAR, but, Repucom said, "Quality integration that is well activated is really the storyline here, versus more logos."

Gaffney backed that up.

The notable benefits to Sprint fall in a pair of value blocks, Gaffney said. First, sponsorship enables Sprint to remind existing customers in real time of the value of its unlimited data plan -- the only available across all networks. Second, it's a method for Sprint to market directly to non-Sprint customers who actively engage in the digital space in the hopes of converting them.

"That's the biggest deal for us -- the opportunity for us to win new customers by virtue of the message we're communicating to them," Gaffney said.

These digital extensions of the sponsorship for Sprint are many. Fans will determine everything from how the field will line up to start the race, to the length of each segment in the race -- which on Valentine's Day was announced as a 30-lap first segment, a 25-lap second segment and a 20-lap final segment. This format received 55 percent of the vote. Fans also vote for what type of pit stop teams will complete after the first segment (four tires, two tires or no pit stop at all) and how many cars will be eliminated after the second segment (none, two, four or six).

The lineup will be determined in one of three ways: number of career victories; 2012 driver points rank; the date of the respective pole that earned each driver his Unlimited berth.

"In the lead-up, the amount of activity off the handset is a big deal for us," Gaffney said. "But in addition to it, we've got a great network partner in Fox, and will get great visibility over the course of the race, and continue to remind people of our core differentiator in the marketplace with unlimited [data].

"So certainly in the lead-up, it's how many people are using the device, total votes and then what we get in terms of brand visibility from the race itself."

These metrics are key for Sprint. And Gaffney said it's working. Seventy percent of the traffic to the voting site has come from mobile devices.

"Our business is all about getting people to engage their mobile devices, and particularly on Sprint," he said. "So this is absolutely playing right into where we want to be, which is creating that behavior on the part of the fans to use their mobile device to interact with the sport."

So how realistic is it, really, to convert a customer from one service provider to another by way of a NASCAR sponsorship?

"It's a journey. It's not a one-time interaction that's ever going to create that type of behavior or activity," Gaffney said. "But we have consistently said we've attracted new customers into the franchise by virtue of the sponsorship, as well as retained our most valued customers.

"This is part and parcel to that overarching story of why you would choose Sprint. No one activity is ever going to drive a specific behavior on the part of the customer. But this is a great reminder and great added benefit to the fan base."