In my recent posting about the brand promise of Indianapolis, I advocated that far from rejecting Indy’s traditional brand image, the city should instead embrace the best of it, updating it for the future with optimism and ambition. Core to this was motorsports, which is the brand image of Indianapolis for many people, especially outside the United States. There was some lively debate around this in the comment thread to say the least.
Interestingly, an article in the Star [dead link] shows that motorsports isn’t just a good brand, it’s good business. The Indianapolis area has over 400 motorsports related businesses, with over 8,800 employees and a combined payroll exceeding $425 million. My simple math puts the average wage for that at about $48,300/year. Many of these are located in the racing cluster around Indianapolis Raceway Park in Brownsburg. What’s more, as a commentor noted, motorsports is actually a high technology business, making it a good fit for the city’s ambitions in that sector. You can read more about this at http://www.indianamotorsports.org/ and http://www.indianamotorsports.gov/
I previously discussed what makes a good economic development strategy, highlighting Indy’s very successful amateur sports strategy and the newer Music Crossroads initiative. They key is not to focus all of your efforts on markets like high technology and life sciences, where everybody and their brother wants a piece of the action and few cities have a differentiated strategy. It seems to me that every city I look at has pretty much the same strategy there. There will be winners to be sure, but the greatest benefits will accrue to only a handful of places, and the winners in some respects have already been chosen. No Midwest burg is likely to knock Silicon Valley from its perch as America’s tech capital, for example.
That’s not to say that cities shouldn’t try to build industries in those sectors. They should. Things like life sciences, high technology, green business, etc. are such growth areas and so omnipresent in the 21st century economy that you must have at least some presence there to even be in the game. A city without a life sciences strategy could end up like a company with no internet strategy – a has been. Conversely, that means these industries are, to a great extent, just the ante you’ve got to pay and don’t build a differentiated offering except in limited situations. They are a necessary but not sufficient condition.
What cities really need to do beyond the ante is to find areas where they can build their own version of what Warren Buffett would call “wide moat” businesses. That is, those that have a sustainable competitive advantage. Rather than trying to beat Silicon Valley at their game, I’d argue cities need to define their own games they can make others try to beat them at. The Indy amateur sports strategy was a great example of this.
Indy’s motorsports strategy is another. Because of the Indianapolis 500, the city has a huge reputation for motorsports. Having built up other events at the Speedway, plus the US Nationals and other premier events held at Indianapolis Raceway Park, it’s safe to say that there is no other city with a collection of racing events like Indy anywhere in the world. What’s more, as with amateur sports, the city didn’t just rely on events, but also built a cluster of businessness and expertise in all facets of the industry. This has led to the major job cluster that we observe. This is big business, and it is a wide moat business. What’s more, it has a huge positive impact on the city’s brand.
The great thing is, there’s a lot more gas in the tank, so to speak, in the motorsports strategy, and if it is extended and aligned with an overall brand repositioning for the city, the benefits could be enormous. I mentioned before the alignment of motorsports with high technology. Consider how this could be leveraged. We often hear the legends about how many safety and other pieces of equipment such as rear view mirrors debuted in the Indianapolis 500 before they made their ways to production cars. Why not try to revive that? Indy Car and Nascar have gone for purely standard kits, while Formula 1 has veered off into true high tech, with ever more esoteric gear requiring a budget in in the nine figures just to compete. But there is a third way. I can’t claim credit for this because Bob Kravitz of the Star I believe already threw out the challenge, but why not tweak the rules of Indy Car to make technology competition part of the sport again and orient it towards alternative fuels and green energy? Why shouldn’t IndyCar perhaps, at least in some type of event, be going for a pure hyrdogen car or a pure electric car, or something that both forces teams to compete, involves high technology with massive comercial spin-off potential, the ability to lure outside funding, and a huge boost for the city’s environmental image. Think of it as the Brickyard meets a version of the X Prize.
This is just one idea of how to capitalize on motorsports. There are many others. But the key is that the city has already built a successful wide moat business here. The challenge for Indy and other cities is how to find additional wide moat businesses they can build up and expand, and not be trapped playing solely in games that have lots of lots of competitors and entrenched market leaders.
By the way, that’s not to say life sciences or high tech can’t be part of that. But find your niche. Specialized laboratory and service companies employ 6,000 people in Indiana, for example. Still, I wouldn’t be putting all my eggs in those baskets.