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Starz Encore Backs Indy Racer Unser

In the fast-moving world of cable and telecommunications, it's no wonder so many industry figures are racing fans or amateur drivers themselves.

It's also not hard to see why racing sponsorships have been a perennial favorite among marketers trying to tie their brands in with the thrill of the sport.

Premium-movie provider Starz Encore Media Group LLC hopes its new sponsorship of the Al Unser Jr. car in the Indy Racing League series will help to put its new "Super Pak" brand in the fast lane to consumer acceptance.

"The Indianapolis 500 is the largest sporting event in the world," Starz Encore vice president of affiliate marketing Michel Champagne said. The Unser name is also among the strongest in racing, he added.

Champagne used his own racing background to help seal the deal with Unser after several weeks of competitive bidding. "Being a media company, we could drive a lot of exposure" for Unser and the racing league, Champagne said.

Outside of the obvious promotional value-the Starz Encore Super Pak will be visible on Unser's clothing, car and "hero cards" that fans collect in hopes of scoring autographs from their favorite drivers-the deal offers other perks. For example, Starz Encore chairman John Sie will ride as a passenger in the pace car that leads the Indy 500 race on May 28.

Champagne said the pace car drives at speeds up to 120 miles per hour. Celebrities in last year's Indy pace car included late-night television-show host Jay Leno.

Starz Encore is also using its sponsorship to reward its affiliates and drum up additional interest from consumers.

"Motor sports are among the few sporting events where you can entertain 200 or so of your closest friends," Starz Encore vice president of corporate communications Paul Jacobson said. The programmer plans to host about 250 guests at the Indianapolis 500.

Starz Encore is running a consumer sweepstakes on its Web site through April 25, offering free trips for two to the race. The company also offered its cable affiliates and satellite retailers in local markets where Unser will race the opportunity to run customer-service representative incentives and consumer promotions of their own.

Last month in Phoenix, local Cox Communications Inc. marketing specialist for digital cable John West attended a race and met Unser after receiving a tour of the garage. The operator is also one of the sponsors at the Phoenix International Raceway.

Were Starz Encore to hold such an event next year, West said, Cox might be able to tie a promotion around it, such as offering tickets to customers who upgrade to digital and the Super Pak.

U S West Broadband Services field-operations supervisor John Urban also attended the Phoenix race with his wife. "For us, it was a surprise,"

Urban said. "We'd never gone to something like that." Urban met Sie at the event. "We had an extremely good time," he added.

EchoStar Communications Corp. dealers in markets such as Las Vegas-where Unser was set to race this past Saturday (April 22)-may run special promotions designed to tie in the direct-broadcast satellite company's new "Dish 500" system with the "500" racing series. But EchoStar has made no formal plans to tie the Indy 500 race in with its launch last week of local channels in the Indianapolis market, spokesman Marc Lumpkin said.

DBS rival DirecTV Inc. held its own National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing event, the "DirecTV 500," at the Texas Motor Speedway early this month. DirecTV inherited the racing sponsorship when it bought certain assets from PrimeStar Inc.

The DBS company does not plan to continue its sponsorship of the race next year, but will sell the rights to another company, spokesman Bob Marsocci said. This year, DirecTV did not use the race to host affiliate-relations events as it typically does at the Super Bowl, he added.

Demographics for IRL fans skew "much higher" than those for NASCAR fans, Champagne said. Their average income is higher and more of them are college-educated, he added.

Other IRL fan attributes, according to Starz Encore, are that 80 percent own their own homes, 73 percent subscribe to cable television and 22 percent own satellite dishes. Also, 47 percent of IRL fans are in the Starz Encore target age group of 25 to 45.

Champagne said IRL fans exhibit strong brand loyalty. He cited polls showing that 72 percent of fans believe a brand associated with their car is superior to other brands.

Starz Encore hopes to benefit from the old adage, "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday," Champagne said.

Win or lose, there's no question the Al Unser Jr. name will bring much-needed exposure to Starz Encore, which is already investing $30 million in a national branding effort for its Super Pak multiplex-movie service.