Last week at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, a motorsport official told me that in the next year, we’d see a decline in the presence of grid girls. Wednesday morning, Formula 1 officially announced that they’ll do away with grid girls starting in 2018, and I doubt they’ll be the last series to do so.
Reading the early interactions has been entertaining. My favorite response so far has been, “Has anyone asked the grid girls how they feel about this?”
Let me interrupt with an early disclaimer: Considering some of my biggest clients over the last few years have used grid girls and spokesmodels, I’ve never given my opinion on the matter, and honestly, I don’t lean in one direction or the other. As a business owner, I can see the positives and the negatives of using them. I have no problem supporting my brands who choose to have them, and also the ones who choose not to. However, because I’ve spoken about sexual harassment and professional treatment of women at the track, others have somehow tied this into what they think my feelings are regarding grid girls, which are more often than not incorrect. Second disclaimer: in this post, we’re talking specifically about grid girls, not spokesmodels.
So, “Has anyone asked the grid girls how they feel about this?”
This question makes me pause for several reasons. First of all, grid girls aren’t starving artists. Being a grid girl is not their full-time job. They are professional models who contract out to multiple gigs, and acting as a model on a race weekend is one of several jobs she holds. Generally, they shoot magazine covers/ads, host mini-series, attend other sporting events and work trade shows and conventions. Most already have or are in the process of pursuing a degree, which is often in the area of business. It may be unfortunate to lose a contract, but this single act won’t put them out on the streets. No one’s “way of life is being demolished,” as I saw one tweet dramatically cry this morning.
Most people have been dealt the “your position is being eliminated” card at some point. But the boss never asks you how you feel about it. It’s a business decision that they choose to make based on the direction they want their business to go. No one gets consulted when their job becomes obsolete, perhaps due to technological advances or societal shifts influencing new norms. Your voice hasn’t been taken away, nor has your right to choose. Positions get eliminated. It just happens, and especially does so in racing.
Second, I also find this question odd because every industry grows and evolves, and things that made sense decades ago just don’t make sense to keep funding anymore.
When my college was founded in 1855, there was a group of students whose job was to milk the cows every morning, and take the daily supply to the kitchen for the rest of the student body. Needless to say, that role doesn’t exist anymore. The farm is gone, grocery store chains stand in their stead, and the college now has more modern ways to get its milk.
Racing, by its very nature, relies heavily on technological advances and procedural improvements as the essence of the sport. Balance of Performance (BoP) has become the baseline for leveling disparate cars across wide-ranging platforms. In-house machining and welding jobs have fallen by the wayside as more carbon fiber bodywork gets introduced. Even engineers are affected; BoP has drastically eliminated the work an engineer can do to a car, because if the car gains too much of an advantage it generally gets pegged back by the series’ technical staff. One discouraged engineer told me last year, “All I can do is make spring changes and adjust tire pressures. I can’t remember the last time I actually engineered anything.”
The media landscape has changed too. Whether it’s live television, or a more significant focus placed on live streaming or social media, traditional news wires and press releases are fading into the background. Media representatives who don’t diversify – only writers, or only photographers, for instance – must adapt to learn new media, or get replaced. This rings true for my own job and the constant evolution of social media itself. If I only promoted my clients on an outdated site like MySpace, I would be alienating my brands from their consumers. The evolution is mandatory across the board, and is vital for survival.
And right now there’s the worldwide conversation about the role of women in society that’s begun to shift the narrative. As women are becoming more empowered, perhaps grid girls aren’t as useful as they used to be for brands to reach consumers. The target has expanded, and these brands are thinking it’s time the tools did as well.
Down to Business
This leads us to the business aspect. We have to consider the business side of grid girls and the return on investment (ROI) they bring. Pinpointing a grid girl’s ROI is a difficult prospect. With the expansion of social media, grid and podium photos certainly possess the technological ability to circulate more than they did 15 years ago. On the other hand, costs have dramatically increased over the last 15 years as well. Some brands hire local women, others bring their own.
Always interested in the business of the sport, I once spent a season speaking with managers of grid girl programs. I remember a specific conversation when a manager broke it down for me, explaining the weight of the grid girls that traveled to the races for his brand. “First off, you have the travel,” he said. “Let’s say, $500 for each girl’s flights. Then you have the hotel room. You only need them for 1-3 days, but most hotels now force you to get a room for five nights for at least $200 a night. If you have two girls sharing a room, that’s $1,000 for hotel cost. If they have a handler, then that’s another $1,000. Then let’s say $200 for the car rental. Meals at the track average $80 a day, so for three days, that’s $720.”
So for two grid girls and one handler, we’re already at $4,520 in expenses. Then we get to the day rate. This manager was paying each girl $900 a day for the travel days, then grid and podiums. That’s $5,400, bringing our total to $9,920 per race weekend, not including the handler’s day rate (I didn’t bother asking what that was). That’s the total for two grid girls, where some brands will bring as many as six to each weekend. Another series partner I know paid out $9,000 for grid girls, before expenses were even factored in. Another one paid their girls $500 a day, giving you an idea on the range of pay rates. To put this in perspective, mechanics can earn $250-$500 a day, sometimes more or less depending on the team or the work involved.
Depending on how many grid girls you have, and how many days they’re working, you’re looking at a cost of possibly $60,000 to $150,000 per year, based on a normal 10-race schedule.
While yes, brands are paying attention to the social climate, they’re also looking at the bottom line: Can they reinvest that money elsewhere and get a bigger return for it? If that much of your own money were your own money on the line, what would you do?
[Side note: some brands opt to find agencies to bring local women in at each event and represent them for a lower rate, while also saving on travel. While cheaper, this option is not always as convenient, as then you have a brand team member dedicated to introducing strangers to the sport, helping them learn the facilities, understanding what they have to do when, etc. And then, there’s the problem of not being able to find local girls who meet the brand’s aesthetic standards of being a grid girl for their brand, which embarrassingly enough happens from time to time. I remember one local woman’s face when she overheard a manager say she was “too pudgy” for their brand.]
Racing is a business first and foremost, and there will come a point when the boss spending the money must evaluate each role’s ROI versus its cost. This is where the difference between grid girls and spokesmodels becomes important. The brands who evolved their grid girl program to become one with spokesmodels instead were ahead of their time, and now it’s paying off. One is eye candy, while the other is an attractive means to interpersonal and intelligent interaction with the public on behalf of the brand. One you take photos of for a brief moment, and the other is tasked with having a genuine connection with you, often answering questions regarding the product they’re representing. Some brands execute this beautifully and receive real ROI, while others miss the mark.
When male models stood on grid at Monaco in 2015, Sebastian Vettel asked, “What’s the point?” He stated that he didn’t want to pull up his car behind some man. Motorsports has a growing female fan base, and it’s been my experience with my own clients that the women are just as brand loyal, if not more, than men. How is it that we see the point in grid girls being necessary to appeal to the male fans, but not using grid guys to appeal to the female fans? How can grid girls for men be a “necessity for the survival of our sport,” but grid guys for women be deemed awkward, out of place, and useless?
I won’t speak for all women in the sport, but have men with this opinion considered that maybe their feelings towards grid guys representing their sex at the track is how some women feel about grid girls representing them? We can’t ignore a massive demographic of potential consumers just because “this is how we’ve always done it.” Running a business by that phrase is how brands die.
I do believe spokesmodels have the power to create and nurture brand relations, but I think grid girls, on the other hand, are losing their relevance in a changing society.
Racing is one of few sports where men and women can compete on an equal playing field. It used to be a sport comprised of only male competitors, with only male journalists allowed in pit lane, and mainly only men loyally following the sport. That’s not the case anymore. Times have changed. With more female drivers coming into the sport, more female fans getting involved, and the current conversation of representation of women, race series would be crazy not to take a second look at how such a large demographic can be so easily made to feel heard, included, and valued as much as their male counterparts are.
Unfortunately, it’s the grid girls who lose in this situation. I’ve read their comments, and it’s clear to see many feel this as a personal attack on their right to work, and their right to choose. The good news for them is there are still other series that still want to utilize grid girls, and other modeling opportunities are available. For those so strongly fighting to see these women at the track, consider also investing that same amount of energy into getting more female fans, engineers, mechanics, drivers, media, managers, etc., into the track.
This isn’t a politically correct brigade trying to avoid offending anyone, or a group telling women they aren’t free to make their own choices. It’s a major brand realizing that they are no longer a reflection of their current and desired fan base demographics.
At the end of the day, it’s an employer’s right to eliminate the positions they no longer want to fill. It’s clearly a tough pill to swallow for some, and we’ll see in time if it pays off.
If you’re a part of the demographic that wishes grid girls would stay, then support the spokemodels who remain at the track. Instead of snapping a photo and walking away, take the time to speak with them about the brand they’re promoting. Purchase it for yourself and spread the word to your friends and family. Show that brand you appreciate their support of the ladies, as well as their investment of the sport.