CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio — When it comes to marketing, sports and tires fit like hand in auto racing glove.
But when there's no sports, there's really not much sports marketing.
As the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic essentially shut down society earlier this year, the idea of live sports with large gatherings was cast aside quickly, and when they ground to a halt, so too did the opportunity for tire companies to keep their names front-and-center at both live events and through television and radio coverage.
Many sports have long delivered key demographics for tire makers, giving companies the exposure they want to the audience members and potential customers they seek.
Motorsports and tires, in particular, are a natural combination — a marketing marriage that has stood the test of time. Not only do manufacturers create and supply tires for various racing series, they also use race coverage to promote their products to the general public.
As live sports ground to a halt, leagues and marketers started to pivot. There were programming hours to fill and millions of sports fans going through withdrawal on their living room couches. Case in point: South Korean baseball league games started showing up on cable TV at one point in the wee hours, complete with remote English commentary.
And virtual sports, also called e-sports, gained traction among the uninitiated. That's where Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. saw an opportunity.
"Coronavirus has had a significant impact on sports entertainment as the country experienced lockdowns and events were postponed or canceled," Chris Pantani, director of motorsports at Cooper Tire, said.
"However, we are fortunate to have sports sponsorships with partners that have been very innovative throughout the coronavirus pandemic and have found new ways to reach audiences hungry for sports entertainment."
The Road to Indy, a driver development program for IndyCar racing, went virtual with two separate five-race e-series championships using race simulators.
"The e-series races allowed drivers from Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship to compete against one another using race simulators," Mr. Pantani said.
"Fans could tune into the races to continue to be engaged in the sport, while the e-series also allowed drivers to continue to complete and get experience on virtual versions of well-known racetracks," he said.
Virtual race cars used Cooper-branded tires, giving brand exposure to fans in a new way.