Bobcats hope for Hollywood hype, NASCAR style

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Not long ago, NASCAR was a 200 mph Jeff Foxworthy joke -- and still is for folks unwilling to look beyond the antiquated beer-swillin', 'baccer chawin' redneck stereotypes.

"When you have that presence from another major sport, the largest sport, in your community, and all of them making substantial money and all of them being sports fans, it makes sense to me to reach out and build an alliance."
-- Fred Whitfield

Then there's the other side, those reared in NASCAR who see the sport today as the Beverly Hillbillies personified -- a bunch of good ol' boys who struck it rich, got too big for their britches and went Hollywood.

Somewhere in the middle lies America's fastest-growing sport.

Like Britney Spears, NASCAR is part Paris Hilton, part Gretchen Wilson.

And depending on one's personal level of respect or cynicism toward the sport's explosive growth, today's NASCAR elicits one of two opinions:

A. NASCAR has penetrated mainstream American consciousness. Good for them.

B. NASCAR is a sellout, shameless in its marketing madness. Hell with 'em.

Regardless of the respective sentiments, however, the rousing success of NASCAR's branding strategy is indisputable -- and aside from the NFL, unparalleled in professional sport.

Corporate America has taken notice, and the snowball grows bigger by the day.

So big, in fact, that NASCAR is Hollywood for one NBA executive.

"I was in a meeting with [NASCAR president] Mike Helton, and he said to me, 'Hey, 80 percent of the drivers, teams and executives reside in your community,' " Charlotte Bobcats president Fred Whitfield said. "Right then I knew we had to take advantage of that. They're our Hollywood.

"The L.A. Lakers and the L.A. Clippers have the movie stars, and it's become part of their culture. We have NASCAR. We want to take advantage of that and help NASCAR become part of our culture."

If the Bobcats' opening night is any indication, the initiative is working. NASCAR stars Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch sat courtside in a star-studded crowd that included Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter and Larry Bird. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus sat alongside several banking executives, while Busch shared midcourt seats with his wife, Eva.

And it was no free ride. There are no more free rides in Bobcats Arena. In the past, a substantial number of free tickets were issued in an effort to get bodies in the building. No more.

"For Jimmie to purchase the most-premium seats we have was huge for me personally -- as a friend, but also for our franchise and our organization," Whitfield said. "For he and Chad, and Kurt Busch, to reach out and embrace us is huge."

Not even Jordan -- part-owner of the team -- gets freebies.

"Michael had 20 people with him at [opening] night, and he bought tickets for every one of them," Whitfield said. "We have to run this like a business, and when you give tickets away you devalue it, because people refuse to buy. They figure if they just wait around long enough they'll be handed to them."

That triggers two more valuable lessons for which NASCAR is poster child: Everything has a price, and competitiveness drives value.

"You can sense the value in that," Whitfield said. "Our goal, and where Michael is critically important to us, is getting our team better. [GM and coach] Bernie [Bickerstaff] and his group have done a great job developing our young talent.

"And with Michael coming in, being an expert in how to play the game at the highest level, the best there ever was, will get our team better and that's when we'll really be able to realize the fruits of our labor."

Those fruits, Whitfield hopes, will come in the form of an elite brand that entices patronage -- regardless of the opponent.

"The first thing we noticed was there's no brand" in Charlotte, Whitfield said. "They were just trying to sell tickets, or sell the new arena, or sell the scoreboard. That's only going to take you so far. So we've blown up the whole approach and started over."

Before his appointment as Bobcats president, Whitfield oversaw business, marketing and legal affairs for Brand Jordan, Nike's elite division, raising profit some 50 percent in two years' time.

Obviously the man knows marketing. And he thinks NASCAR is second-to-none in that regard.

Hello cred.

"Fred has been a NASCAR fan for many years, so it's not surprising that in his role with the Bobcats he ties both sports together," Helton said. "It's flattering when another major sport recognizes our influence and potential in a marketplace."

"Those guys have built such a strong brand around who that sport is, and they're so connected to their fan base and their demographics, that once you go out and experience it, it grows on you so much you've just got to have it," Whitfield said. "So first of all, I thought we could borrow some of their great marketing approaches they've used to draw their fan base closer, namely being more fan-friendly with the stars."

NASCAR's influence on the team's new regime was apparent on opening night, as Bobcats starters were introduced in the stands in an attempt to bring the players closer to the fans. Fan-friendliness and access has always been NASCAR's greatest attribute, the distinguishing factor between stock car racing and everything else.

"NASCAR has figured out that in order to be successful, you must build a brand, and the NASCAR brand is one now that's as attractive as any other sports entity out there," Whitfield said. "It falls right in line with my philosophy that we need to build a brand and have an identity that connects with our core consumer and our demographics."

Whitfield was first introduced to NASCAR as a child, when seven-time champion Richard Petty appeared in his native Greensboro, N.C., to sign autographs during Scoutorama at Greensboro Coliseum. Petty was the first celebrity Whitfield had ever seen. Subconsciously, he was deeply influenced that day, he said.

Years later, while he was living in Charlotte and working for Nike, a friend asked him to attend a race. Whitfield went and was hooked. So when he was named president of the Bobcats in July, he knew he had to make his team as enamored of the sport as he was -- by experiencing it live and in person.

So he recruited Bobcats stars Emeka Okafor, Raymond Felton, Gerald Wallace and Adam Morrison to attend the Bank of America 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Oct. 14. With a 10 a.m. practice the next day staring them in the eye, the players were reluctant.

"They're real team players, and I had explained to them that this is part of our initiative of reaching out, and we have to support [NASCAR] in order for them to support us," Whitfield said. "I even canceled a team event that was scheduled for that day."

That was a team barbecue at Bobcats partner Skipper Beck's house for team owners, players and senior staff.

"We moved that to the 30th, because as president I knew I needed to be at that event, but I was going to be at the race that day, no matter what," Whitfield said. "So I said, 'Hey, either we change the date of the barbecue or I'm going to miss it.' "

"Fred was a NASCAR fan before he came to the Bobcats, and we're honored with his support," said NASCAR vice president of licensing Mark Dyer. "We've become a bigger part of the greater Charlotte community, with the multimillion-dollar investment we've made in Concord with our R&D facility, the tremendous partnership that's developed between Sprint/Nextel and the City of Charlotte with the All-Star race, the NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, and Charlotte's commitment to build our world-class NASCAR Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte.

"The Bobcats, under Fred's leadership, are making a concerted effort to be a bigger part of the community and align with us, and we welcome the relationship."

Whitfield had laid the groundwork long before he was appointed Bobcats president. While visiting Charlotte last year he met Johnson through a mutual friend, and the two forged a friendship. From there, Whitfield met and befriended NASCAR president Helton and Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler, among others.

Wheeler, a pillar of the Charlotte community, instantly engaged in Whitfield's NASCAR initiative.

"Humpy is the man, embraced me immediately," Whitfield said. "When I told him what I was trying to do, he said, 'I'm going to do everything I can to make you successful.' So for him to unilaterally take that kind of interest in who we are was unbelievable."

When Whitfield was announced as Bobcats president, majority owner Bob Johnson held a private reception for him in Charlotte. Wheeler attended.

"He told me that night, 'I'm going to get you in the driver's meeting, and I'm working on something else that's really going to help you out,' " Whitfield said. "I had no idea he was going to put me and my guys on stage for driver's introductions. The players were blown away.

"They had practice the next morning at 10. It was a night race. They didn't want to go. But once they got there they didn't want to leave. Emeka lived in Kasey's [Kahne] pits. I thought he was going to jump out and change a tire. They really got into it. And the next time I saw them they said, 'Hey, I'll go to any race, anytime, anywhere, you just let me know. I loved it.' "

Now Whitfield's mission is to ensure that passion is reciprocated by the NASCAR community. Busch is a season-ticket holder, and bought several "difference-makers" seats that are handed out to underprivileged children in the Charlotte community. Okafor and Kahne share charity initiatives.

It's a start. But just a start.

"When you have that presence from another major sport, the largest sport, in your community, and all of them making substantial money and all of them being sports fans, it makes sense to me to reach out and build an alliance," Whitfield said.

"You guys are our Hollywood; support us as your NBA team. [NASCAR's] season ends Nov. 20 and doesn't start back up until about Feb. 15. That's the core of our season. And if they're here in town, not racing, and are sports fans, our goal is to have them embrace us as their NBA team. If we can do that, it'll grow our fan base substantially."

NASCAR as a platform to increase basketball interest? As a barometer for achievement?

Maybe the good ol' boys really have gone Hollywood.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.