Sports Business

NASCAR recruits local group to test-drive comic book

Washington Business Journal - August 4, 2006
by Josh Drobnyk
Staff Reporter

NASCAR's next pair of superheroes might emerge from a small office in Northern Virginia. And go by the names Torque and Johnny Dash.

McLean-based Starbridge Media Group signed a multiyear deal with the racing circuit earlier this year to create and distribute the first NASCAR-licensed comic book.

Starbridge is developing characters and plots for the series and will ask NASCAR fans to vote on the ideas at the Daytona 500 early next year. Shortly after the vote, the three-year-old company will send the comics to racetracks and bookstores.

Besides paying the licensing fee, which Starbridge won't disclose, the company also will pay royalties to NASCAR for all comics sold.

The comic series is the latest in a spurt of initiatives by both NASCAR and Starbridge to market professional sports to children.

Three years ago NASCAR changed the circuit's marquee sponsor from the Winston cigarette brand to Reston-based telecommunications company Nextel. Because of advertising laws, NASCAR couldn't market to children with Winston as a sponsor .

Starbridge has been involved in efforts to market sports to children since it was founded by Ken Hutman and Jamie Crittenberger in 2003.

Last year, the company helped produce a new animated TV series for the Philadelphia Eagles, called "Eagles Kids Club," which will air every Saturday morning on Fox beginning this season.

Starbridge also has created a short animated series that airs in about 15 minor league baseball stadiums.

In addition, it's working with MTV Asia on a 13-episode animated series about basketball.

"Sports is a perfect backdrop for animation and comics," says Hutman, sitting in front of a table full of drawings of potential looks for the NASCAR comic's three main characters: Johnny Dash, the handsome hero; Torque, the savvy NASCAR businesswoman; and Jack Diesel, their evil rival.

"We've really hit a field that is just exploding as far as opportunities go with teams trying to attract kids," Hutman says.

The company outsources all the animation and production to Canada and China, where Hutman worked for several years in the 1990s.

Crittenberger and Hutman, classmates at McLean's Langley High School in the 1980s, reunited about four years ago at a lunch meeting and decided their complementary backgrounds could be the perfect match for a sports marketing company.

Crittenberger had spent his career with the Washington Redskins, SFX Sports, Clear Channel and Viacom, doing everything from media relations to sponsorship sales.

Hutman worked for several years with the Shanghai Animation Studio in China, after getting his master's in international relations from Johns Hopkins University. Starbridge uses Shanghai for much of its work.

Their customers "know we've sat in their shoes on the team side, and they know we've sat in their shoes on the creative side," Crittenberger says.

Marketing sports leagues and teams to children doesn't provide the immediate financial return that comes from selling expensive suites to wealthy individuals and corporations, says Bob Leffler, founder of Baltimore-based sports marketer The Leffler Agency.

Rather, it is "investment marketing," he says. "It is a smart thing to do."

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