Nitro Rallycross aiming to thrill
by Simon Ward
The combination of electric-powered racing, a focus on digital coverage to appeal to younger audiences and a customisable offering for sponsors are at the heart of the new Nitro Rallycross series, as Thrill One’s Steve Ziff tells Simon Ward.
6th August 2021, 14:52

The combination of electric-powered racing, a focus on digital coverage to appeal to younger audiences and a customisable offering for sponsors are at the heart of the new Nitro Rallycross series, as Thrill One’s Steve Ziff tells Simon Ward.

Given the multitude of motor racing series, at global, continental and national level, any new championship requires unique selling points in order to achieve real cut-through.

The organisers of Nitro Rallycross, which gets underway, in the USA this year, are confident that their high-octane offering will do just that, with a particular appeal for younger fans, and provide a platform to go international in 2022 when it will feature an all-electric supercar class.

The series, also known as NRX, is a creation of Thrill One Sports and Entertainment, the independent action sports operator and media company, and indeed a spin-off from the Nitro World Games, based on various action sports, which launched in 2016.

Inspired by Travis Pastrana, the motor racing driver and creator of the Nitro Circus business and the aforementioned games, NRX will feature races on mixed surfaces with features including high-banked corners and jumps of up to 30 metres.

Given the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, and the desire to build momentum, NRX events will be restricted to the US in 2021, with a calendar of five events running from September to December, albeit the organisers have lined up broadcast coverage in some 150 countries, on top of a live rights deal with domestic broadcast giant NBCUniversal for the new streaming platform Peacock.

Similar previous series have not achieved sustained success, with the US-based Global Rallycross Championship ceasing operations in 2018, but Steve Ziff, the chief marketing and communications officer of Thrill One, claims that NRX can co-exist with top stateside series such as Nascar and IndyCar, with electric-powered racing being one of the elements.

He tells GlobalData Sport: “Motorsport is obviously quite saturated. There are a lot of variations, from Nascar to rallying, and it’s been burgeoning, with [electric racing’s] Formula E and Formula Drift.

“There’s been a continued evolution of motorsports. People are fascinated with what is happening on the manufacturer side… As the industry evolves, the nature of competitive sport is going to evolve with it, and there will be people getting more excited about it, and the audience will broaden.

“This is one of those scenarios where the rising tide will raise all ships. As the auto industry, and the world, globalises towards electric, all sports that are heading in that direction are going to get the benefit of that, being connected to that manufacturer-led story.”

NRX claims top drivers, as well as manufacturers, are showing great interest in the series, which this year starts at the Utah Motorsports Campus in Salt Lake City on 24 and 25 September, with further rounds to follow at ERX Motor Park in Minneapolis, Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Phoenix, Glen Helen Raceway in Southern California and The Firm in North Florida.

Thrill One was created in January 2020 by Nitro Circus and fellow action sports entities Street League Skateboarding, the world’s premier street skateboarding competition organiser, and film production house Superjacket Productions, and is headed up by chief executive Joe Carr.

Given this background, NRX is being targeted at the youth segment, with digital platforms seen as the best medium on which to reach fans, and Ziff, who this year joined Thrill One from the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers, claims there are distinct advantages in having been able to take a new series to market.

“It’s great to be able to start with a focus on viewership and create an incredibly contemporary variation on motorsports, built for a younger audience,” he says. “The idea is to have a starting position from which we can really learn a lot, develop the sport and build an audience, and then expand on that.

“We’re not having to take a traditional property and re-evolve it and restart its fan journey. We’re getting the opportunity to build it from scratch, and how we build it is as important as what we build.”

A digital lens 

At a time when the average age of audiences for traditional sports is increasing, NRX in engaging with the platforms seen to offer the best opportunity to connect with young fans.

This helps to explain the tie-up with NBCU’s Peacock, which will show eight hours of action from all five rounds in 2021, with a one-hour highlights show to go out on NBC Sports Network after each event.

Ziff is effusive about the tie-up, saying: “There couldn’t be a better partner to start this opportunity with. There’s a lot of places that we could have gone for distribution, but this is one of the finest, if not the finest we could have landed in. NBC is obviously a major player, not only in the US, but in motorsports, and has a broad, rich history, and I think Peacock really symbolises the type of property we’re trying to be.

“Having multi-tiered coverage, with a linear aspect, and post-race and wrap-up opportunities… is a healthy juxtaposition, and I think that’s going to serve us well. Who knows where will be in the future, but I think this is a really great place for us to start.”

The Peacock coverage will be complemented by a social media strategy, with Ziff saying: “We know that content is the most important way to connect with younger audiences. It’s not the technical racing that’s going to attract the fanbase, it’s all of the extraneous elements that we connect to that technicality that will make it exciting and fun.”

He stresses the shortness of the races, and the jumps and offroad scenarios, as elements that lend themselves to social media.

“When we were thinking about how we were going to bring that to life on Peacock, which is a non-linear distribution channel, it signified that we were looking at this through a digital lens rather than a traditional lens,” says Ziff.

“That doesn’t mean that linear television and broadcast across the world is not going to be important to us but we have to find the connection point between digital and linear. I think that’s where social media as a concept really enters the broadcast.

“The question is, and it’s been tried many times, and I come from the NFL where I know they were experimenting, how do you take something that has been traditionally broadcast in a way that endemics and core fans love, and ‘youthify’ it? By adding layers that bring out what’s important to people without alienating the fans that really need to be there to carry the sport into the next stage.”

As part of the strategy, NRX aims to have a diverse presentation team and will explore areas including betting, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and other digital media and broadcast integrations, while seeking to attract fans from other properties overseen by Thrill One.

Around the world, the series has attracted a variety of broadcast partners, including Tencent in China, BeIN Sports in the Middle East and North Africa, SuperSport in sub-Saharan Africa, Viaplay, Nent Group’s streaming service, in Nordic and Baltic territories and Poland, Sky Network Television in New Zealand and SportsMax in the Caribbean, with others to be announced before the start of the season next month.

At this stage, the priority is exposure rather than broadcast rights fees, in order to build international viewership, especially with the series to expand beyond the USA in 2022.

Ziff says: “Revenue is obviously important but at the start it has been about global distribution, creating awareness and picking the right media partners in each core market as we went around the world…. We were trying to look as much as we could at the make-up and DNA of the sports audiences to ensure that they stayed connected to our digital footprint and our model for growth through social.

“This is so we’d have the greatest opportunity to connect audiences globally into one centralised fanbase, using the broadcast distribution as a method to help achieve that.”

Sponsorship and global prospects

Thrill One has also been engaging with potential sponsors of NRX, and, again, believes it can capitalise on the digital focus and flexibility of what is a new property.

“It’s surprised us all how much brand excitement there was around the initial launch,” says Ziff. “We’ve taken this to market selling the current season and the future, and there’s a tonne of interest form major brands in the US and worldwide.

“I think brands are looking for this type of entertainment property generally. They may not know that they’re looking for NRX yet but they know they’re looking for this level of connected entertainment.

“I think the digital storyline that we’re talking about, and the way we’re talking about growing the audience are the things brands are interesting in hooking on to. We’re also a kind of custom entertainment property. Having the governance we control gives us an agency model to take to brands and say, ‘you can customise your own experiences in our world’."

He adds: “As a marketer, flexibility and custom potential is exactly what people want now. They want to be able to cultivate the audience their way and learn from it.

“They don’t want to do logo-slapping. They want to come in and customise every bit of the activation, and I think our properties are being built to allow for that endemically, which is also very exciting on the revenue and business end of the spectrum.”

Amid hopes that travel restrictions imposed in the face of Covid-19 will be relaxed next year, NRX aims to stage between 12 and 14 rounds around the world next year, and seven teams for the global series have already been announced.

In addition to the USA, Europe and the Middle East are likely destinations for events.

Ziff says: “It’s starting to look like a full global circuit. Seeing the potential calendar and the markets that we would to internationally and in the US is very exciting.”

He adds: “Our team’s done a fantastic job of preparing properly for this. The future is very bright. I think having the electric racing concept is a great storyline. We can take the NRX marketing package out on the road and show it to potential partners, hosts, teams and drivers. Everybody is very excited about it, and it’s sparked dialogue and interest from people on how they can get involved.”

While there are already several international electric motor racing series, including Formula E and Extreme E, the electric SUV series that launched this year, Thrill One feels that it offers a distinct proposition.

Ziff says: “I think we’re in a place where we’re a little bit different from some of the competitor properties. Novice onlookers will see a few electric properties in a similar space and say, ‘Oh, that’s all kind of one thing’.

“But we’re very confident that once people see our product live in this first season then see the car potential and the people and manufacturers who are jumping in, they’re going to realise that it’s a very different and indeed unique property built for the future.

"Everybody that connects to electric is getting on board and having discussions with us. So as much interest as there is outward, there’s interest coming inward. It’s always good that people find you interesting, not just that you find yourself interesting!”