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Beyond 24 Hours: How Le Mans’ licensing program keeps the midnight oil burning

The ACO’s Brindeau and IMG’s Andreo and Virapin discuss how the race keeps its history alive.

One hundred years ago a cultural icon in motorsport was born.

On May 26, 1923, 33 cars set off in the rain for the inaugural edition of 24 Hours of Le Mans, immediately earning itself a lionized place on the motorsports calendar.

The aim of the race? To promote technical innovation and encourage the development of the automobile industry by presenting manufacturers with a different test beyond building the fastest machines. The cars in the 24 Hours of Le Mans would have to be more fuel-efficient, aerodynamic, and stable to withstand the world’s longest race.

The first race showcased the prowess of the competing automobiles and their drivers, with 30 cars making it to the end. Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard cemented themselves in motor racing lore as overall winners of the race, driving the Chenard & Walker entrant.

A century on and the French classic has become the cornerstone of endurance racing, transforming and improving itself over the years to keep pace with the changing requirements of modern racing.

Bar a 10-year hiatus in 1939 due to the outbreak of World War II, the race’s prominence in the world of motorsport has grown steadily to become part of the ‘Triple Crown of Motorsport’ alongside Indycar’s Indianapolis 500 and Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix. Only one driver, the late Graham Hill, has ever succeeded in winning all three.

A sold-out crowd of more than 350,000 people is set to attend what will be the 91st edition of Le Mans the Circuit de la Sarthe this weekend (June 10 to 11), joining the swathes of Hollywood stars and racing legends to celebrate the race's centennial.

The event has been years in the making for race organizers Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), which is keen to use the celebration to launch the prestigious race into its next 100 years at the pinnacle of motorsports.

Le Mans x IMG

One of the ACO's biggest achievements has been to capitalize on the race’s elevated position to keep it embedded in popular culture over the 10 decades it has organized the event.

Just this week (June 6), US basketball star LeBron James was named as the official starter of this weekend’s race, joining an illustrious lineup that has previously taken up the role including tennis icon Rafael Nadal, Hollywood star Brad Pitt, and legendary racer and movie star Steve McQueen.

The careful cultivation of its image has seen Le Mans become more than just an annual race – it has become a brand synonymous with prestige. This image has paved the way for ACO to generate year-round attention and develop additional revenue streams through its licensing and merchandise program.

The program has been led by international sports marketing agency IMG's licensing business, which first became the ACO's licensing partner in 2008 before extending its agreement in 2021 to run until after the 2024 edition.

Since 2008, IMG has built up a portfolio of more than 110 licensees for the event – 50% of which are commercializing worldwide, which IMG confidently said (at the time of its partnership renewal) would boom ahead of the centenary event.

Speaking to GlobalData Sport ahead of the centenary event, François Brindeau, head of licensing and merchandise at the ACO, is keen to emphasize the race’s brand power and history as a driving force for the success it has had in the space.

“Our licensing program is not only based on the race and the cars, the legendary story and history play a major part – it’s an iconic brand.

“When we connect for the first time with different partners, we speak about brand values and less about manufacturers or the actual race, speed, and track – that’s how we can speak to different categories of partners like textile, toys, movies.

“We don’t just have products targeting drivers and enthusiasts, we have made it so there is something for everyone.”

On that front, IMG has delivered – recently securing a raft of collaborations ahead of this year’s big event, including an apparel and accessories collection with Bershka, a replica hypercar release with Lego and Peugeot, a compact fridge collaboration with Smeg and The Mechanists, and a swimwear collection with Bluemint.

It also has a trading card partnership with Topps, a remote-controlled car with Silverlit, a co-branded sunglasses collection with Persol and Steve McQueen, and luxury accessories with French heritage brand ST Dupont.

The partnerships are varied and cater to every demographic, from the entry-level trading cards to luxury accessories, a strategy IMG vice president Mickael Andreo believes keeps the race inclusive while still keeping its core identity as a premium sport.

“We are lucky enough to have a race where you can have people that come to the race but only have the money to pay for the ticket so will not buy a lot of merchandise, but also very rich drivers that will come to the race with a Porsche that will look to purchase much more,” he says.

“It gives us a big spread of potential partners that we can work with, rather than having to only focus on a select few that ‘fit’ into the race’s image.

“We make sure all potential sponsors and licensees fit in with our core values whether it’s a luxury good or fashion house. Then it’s about what they can bring to us when it comes to distribution – can they open channels for us where the race’s brand has never been visible?”

Keeping it real

A scattered approach to licensing and merchandise can spread the brand into new areas and demographics but has its drawbacks too. Many sports organizations, keen to generate more and more commercial revenue have often been accused of lazily slapping on a logo to offload merchandise to fans.

One of the biggest flaws of this approach is failing to create a meaningful connection between the items and their owner or racking up a gallery of low-quality tat that cheapens the sport’s image.

But that is a situation Le Mans has been very keen to avoid, opting only to partner with brands that put the race’s history and carefully curated image at the heart of any project.

“We are really very vigilant about the fact that when we connect to a new brand, we are straight away speaking about the storytelling of the race and the brand. Putting logos on products is not interesting for us,” Brindeau explains.

“Our main objective is to bring something new to our audience and to enlarge our audience – in that way, logos are just not enough. The reality is that people want to feel some emotion and want to get close to the story of the brands so we work together on how we can achieve this.

“Of course, there is the element of fees, and the business part is an important part of the discussion, but we make sure it is not the first or only part. We like to work with every partner to tell a different story and cover different ground.”

In this way, the race’s long history gives IMG and ACO a raft of storylines to choose from, with partners able to pick a specific year or a decade to focus on.

The centenary, meanwhile, has especially opened up an opportunity for licensees to reach back into Le Man’s vault of images, with the first set of products released by Topps in February featuring artwork from the original race posters from 1923 to the present day.

This year’s event also marks a return of big-name manufacturers joining the new hypercar category including Toyota, Porsche, Ferrari, Alpine, BMW, Cadillac, Peugeot, and Audi, giving ACO even more with which to work.

“Luckily enough with the ACO we have access to a super wide range of logos, branding, posters, exclusive imagery, which is not always the case with other partners, so this makes it interesting for us,” says IMG’s licensing director Arthur Virapin.

“It’s been great to be able to deep dive into the vault and provide a style guide with assets that are completely different. There has been a lot of work done by the ACO around coming up with the right product, telling the right story with their partner, and it's not often we have access to so much history in terms of visuals so that is a good problem for us.”

The ACO’s cautious approach to partnerships, meanwhile, has seen it delay Le Man’s entrance into the world of digital collectibles and non-fungible tokens as it looks to navigate the murky world of cryptocurrency.

“We are aware of NFTs, and we’ve had many discussions with IMG and with actors in this category about our approach, but firstly, of course, we want to make a good choice on what we decide to do in this area,” Brindeau says.

“The DNA of the ACO is always to look at the past but make innovations and test new things in sports licensing, but we also have a specific DNA as a company, and it is not so easy to move those lines.

“So, we have to manage this and make a good choice.”

Other sports organizations have not been so guarded. Keen to be the first movers in this seemingly lucrative space, many happily dived into partnerships only to be burned by the collapse of the cryptocurrency market.

Only last week (May 30), the American football union NFLPA revealed that as of the end of its fiscal year, it was unable to collect $41.8 million in licensing and sponsorship revenue from OneTeam Partners, a joint venture that oversees the commercial ventures of the players' unions of most major US sports leagues, due to the collapse of the cryptocurrency market, which affected the value of NFTs the NFLPA released through its partnerships with Dapper Labs and DraftKings.

“We are being a bit careful there,” adds Virapin. “IMG as a whole has been quite active in that space but with the ACO we’ve taken our time and I do think that we were better off holding back and just exploring.

“The NFT sector is good because it’s moving forward, and I see our approach as pairing physical licenses with digital, but we will wait and see because it’s a fast-moving sector.”

Looking to the past, targeting the future

Much has been said about the history of Le Mans – search the internet and you will find a compendium of articles, features, and videos lauding the event as not only the ultimate challenge of man and machine but also a cornerstone that helped shape modern motor racing.

The ACO has put in a lot of legwork to carefully curate the race’s image to be synonymous with prestige, luxury, and pedigree – all words that are regularly and liberally used across its branding – and this year’s event will see it heavily lean into those elements, aided by a sprinkling of sports legends and Hollywood stardust that will be out in full force to celebrate the race’s platinum jubilee.

But once the race weekend has ended and the confetti has been brushed away, the ACO and IMG’s next project will be to keep the story alive for the next 100 years, with a particular focus on engaging its next generation of fans through its program.

“We have two different targets. With millennials, we spent the last 15 years investing in esports and video games, so when the esports wave came in, we already had some big-name players in the space such as Sony, Microsoft, and Electronic Arts, and we now have between eight and 10 deals with the biggest companies,” Andreo explains.

“Then the Covid pandemic came and there was no physical race, so we had a virtual one instead, and that was a massive success. For us, this is an interesting and easy tool for us to link with a new generation of fans, because the average age of a gamer from 20 years old to more than 40 years old.

“Then we also have fashion collaborations like Bershka, which is perfect for us because it targets not only a much younger generation but women as well. That partnership was far from what we had done in the past with our official outfitter which was more traditional looking.

“Kids is a complicated target because when it comes to licenses, you have to compete with all the blockbuster brands like Star Wars and other movies, but we have signed with two of the biggest companies in this area in Lego and Mattel. We also signed a deal to produce a remote-controlled car with Silverlit and that is a good example of how we can try to attract younger fans.”

One of the most seismic events to happen to motor sport’s fanbase has been the surprising commercial success of Formula 1: Drive to Survive, the Netflix documentary series that dives deep into the culture and world of the premier motor racing series.

Its sudden and explosive popularity, especially in the US, has seen motor sports catapult back into popular culture after years of being seen as a sport for rich car enthusiasts and petrolheads.

Virapin admits Le Mans has benefitted from the series’ popularity and the timing of the boom ahead of its centenary has helped with marketing the race to potential partners.

“Overall, there was a topic around motorsport being a bit old-fashioned and there was a lot of tension around global warming with the younger generation, and now we see it as more fun connecting with those fans,” he says.

“It has helped that we have a very strong message with the ACO around sustainability that speaks to that generation as well as most of the F1 manufacturers coming back to race with us has made it easier for us in the market. We see it as being positive for the whole sector.”

When asked if Le Mans is keen to follow in F1’s footsteps with its docuseries, Brindeau says IMG and ACO are currently “in discussions with many big streaming services.”

Only yesterday (June 7) stock car racing's Nascar announced that it has struck a deal with streaming giant Amazon Prime Video to shoot a documentary around this weekend’s Le Mans, a potential precursor to a larger new relationship between that racing series and the technology titan.

Going forward, the ACO has its work cut out to keep Le Mans relevant at a time when fans are always clamoring for more – more races, more content, and more products. F1 has a race every two weeks in far-flung markets to keep things fresh while Le Mans only has one per year at its home in France.

This is the reason the ACO puts so much stock into its licensing and merchandise program. Its success is a key element to keeping its story alive and bank accounts full during the rest of the year.

“We see this program as being for the very long term – the brand is established now on the market,” says Andreo.

“The centenary, I would say, is a fantastic tool to bring new partners on board, but the goal is absolutely to take it to the next level after the centenary and keep building the program in Europe and worldwide.”

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