When NASCAR gathers this week in Michigan, unbeknownst to most in the paddock, the numbers that determine their collective worth are being compiled in a nondescript office just down the road from their Ann Arbor hotels.
That's where the researchers at Joyce Julius and Associates are busy recording every sponsor decal, mention and logo that manages to make its way onto the TV screen, radio airwaves, or into print. An idea? Well…
If the Goodyear blimp flies through the shot during a NASCAR on ESPN telecast, they note it.
If Dale Earnhardt Junior thanks "the good folks at Amp Energy Drink" during a post-race interview, they log it.
If Mike & Mike mention the AT&T Chevy on ESPN Radio, they put a hash mark by AT&T and Chevy.
In fact, they are reading this very story right now, trolling for sponsor mentions.
"Everything counts," says Eric Wright, Joyce Julius VP of Research and Development. "Anything that is clear and in focus during a broadcast, even if it's a shot of a fan in the stands with a sponsor on their t-shirt and it happens to come in clear and in focus, we pick it up."
"It kind of ruins it when you're just sitting at home watching sports on TV," admits longtime researcher Kat Tramble. As she talks to me, she's in the midst of her third viewing of last Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen. "I've been watching the Olympics and I'm constantly going, 'Oh man, that's some great positioning that sponsor has.'"
They also pick up verbal mentions, sponsored elements (think "Pontiac Game Changing Performance"), and the number of times a sponsor is mentioned in print and internet stories. Starting by hand (and eye) they also use Image Identification Technology, which digitally scans images and instantly recognizes a sponsor's pixel patterns.
They then convert those hits into a monetary figure to measure "sponsorship impact", numbers that big corporations use to determine if their time and money spent on sports is worth it. Currently, NASCAR Sprint Cup teams asking for upwards of $20 million per year to ride on the hood.
"We pore over those Joyce Julius reports as soon as we get them," says an Alltel marketing executive, referring to the weekly post-race Sponsor Reports that dozens of corporations subscribe to. "We know in an instant if we're getting a return on our investment."
So far in 2008, they certainly have. According to the Joyce Julius & Assoc. report for the first 15 races of 2008, Ryan Newman's Alltel Dodge ranked 7th among all Cup rides when it came to value of its sponsorship impact, ringing up $81,675,770 worth of television exposure (Dale Earnhardt Jr. was #1 with a whopping $185 million).
That number is calculated by taking the total amount of Newman's in-focus on-camera exposure time (4 hours, 41 minutes, 37 seconds), adding it to the number of verbal mentions (28), and multiplying it by the prorated cost of a 30-second TV ad during a race telecast. A plus B times C. Simple. Newman's Daytona 500 victory alone registered more than $18 million worth of advertising for Alltel, thanks to 17 minutes, 38 seconds of camera time plus four verbal mentions.
"They really have changed the way sports sponsorship is handled," says John Bickford, Jeff Gordon's stepfather and business manager. "They are the ones showed the world the value of in-car cameras and where you place those tiny little stickers that look so big on television. They are the reason the haulers have the sponsor names painted on their roofs, because sponsors realized the TV blimp could see from them up there. And those reports tell us exactly what gets seen, from Jeff's uniform to the stickers on the tool box in the garage."
Newman's impressive exposure numbers are partly due to his free agent status. He's a topic of conversation. Which is where this all gets weird.
For example, some sponsors would be happier if their driver wrecked every week. A car being shown on a replay a dozen times receives a ton more airtime than one that rides around safely and finishes 25th.
"I ranked way up on the exposure list for a while back in 2003 even though I sure weren't contending for the championship," recalls driver-turned-broadcaster Jimmy Spencer. "But I had a big feud going with Kurt Busch that everyone was obsessed with, so my name and my car were on TV all the time."
Long before races, results, or ruckuses, many teams refuse to make sponsorship decisions or even determine what kind of paint scheme to put on their cars until they consult with Joyce Julius first. And what's the best way to go?
"Keep your logo large and simple," company co-founder and namesake Joyce Julius-Cotman recalled during a conversation back in 2001. "And look at it with a television camera. Remember the Piedmont Airlines car back in the 1980's? It was beautiful just sitting there, white with that powder blue and red logo. But when that car rolled onto the track it just disappeared."
She started the company in 1985 focused primarily on NASCAR, but after twenty years of research Julius-Cotman's impact now reaches far beyond the racetrack, with a client list that includes the PGA, NFL, NHL, NBA, NCAA, and pretty much any other alphabetic sports combination you can come up with. During the opening ceremonies in Beijing, the company worked with Ralph Lauren to make sure the designer got maximum exposure from his U.S. Olympic Team uniform design.
It was her idea that pro golfers start sewing sponsor logos onto the sides and backs of their hats. She'd realized that with their heads down all the time, especially on the greens, the camera rarely saw the front of their lids.
JJ&A also recently completed an intensive two-year study of Major League Baseball stadium signage, revealing that Chicago's Cellular One Field is the best place to buy backstop billboards, while left-handed hitters totally ruin one's "clear and in focus" time at San Diego's Petco Park.
Now they've also gotten into the movie business, clocking the value of brand placements on the big screen. Iron Man may have blatantly pimped Burger King as Tony Stark arrived back in America after his time in captivity, but in reality the BK logo on his coveted cheeseburger was only in focus for about three seconds. That's worth about $195,150 in exposure, which won't even score a fifteen second ad on American Idol.
"They don't miss a thing," says NASCAR team owner Eddie Wood. "But I had no idea they were right there in Ann Arbor. Maybe they'll pump up our numbers if we park our hauler over in front of their building every night while we're in Michigan."
Sure thing, Eddie. But if you'd really been on your game you would have mentioned Little Debbie in that quote. We repeat: Little Debbie. Trust us. Joyce Julius just marked it down.