Data Economy

NASCAR: Big data offers little to bottom line

NASCAR Sprint Cup race on Saturday in Bristol, Tenn.
Getty Images

In all the buzz over the benefits of big data, there are fears that a mini-tech market bubble is being fomented, and big data's hype far outweighs its economic might.

A recent article in The New York Times joined the naysayers by featuring a group of economists dismissing the big data wave as no match for the Internet or gasoline engine in terms of innovations that have defined economic revolutions. And when companies from retail giants to professional sports franchises talk about implementing big data solutions, the conversation often involves analyzing tweets and posts rather than true cutting-edge meta data analytics.

Hunt down Osama Bin Laden with the help of the CIA-funded company Palantir Technologies? Big data. Root out fledgling pandemics by monitoring massive amounts of social chatter from the Third World? Big data. Use more computer cores than ever before to teach an artificial intelligence program to reach the level of "deep learning"? Big data. And in each of these cases, without any direct revenue implication for any one company.

(Read more: Teaching a computer to recognize Miley Cyrus)

When you ask the world's big money makers in typical big brand consumer businesses to discuss how they are making money from big data, though, the message can be about as hard to decipher for the average individual as combing through Internet chatter from Pakistan.

Take NASCAR, among the most popular spectator sports in the U.S. It's partnered with Hewlett Packard on an "engagement center"—a glass-encased 600-square-foot room on the eighth floor of NASCAR Plaza in Charlotte, N.C.—which the group's chief marketing officer Steve Phelps said is "an enormously powerful tool."

"It takes big data and brings it down to something that is actionable," Phelps said on CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Monday morning.

Here is how it works for NASCAR: Within the glass-enclosed "Fan and Media Engagement Center," NASCAR can gauge through tweets and social media posts whether fans are confused about something occurring in a race, or confused by a promotional campaign of a sponsor, and NASCAR can react in real time. "We can have the broadcast partner make a change and retell the story in real time," Phelps said.

(Read more: The Kit-Kat surveillance state)

Nascar's new marketing strategy
Nascar's new marketing strategy

Yet action does not translate into revenue.

NASCAR pays HP for the software solution and consulting services, in addition to having an official partnership.

Phelps said the effort goes beyond simple technology solutions that monitor trends, but like many corporate executives discussing the specifics of big data, he had trouble defining exactly what big data is in a typical corporate context. He stressed that the engagement center isn't just gathering social media chatter but what the traditional print, radio and broadcast media are saying as well. "It's not just social media. It's traditional media as well. There are lots of listening centers out there but this is not just a listening center."

"We partnered with HP to hear about the dialogue happening within NASCAR, what's the tenor of what's being said," Phelps said.

(Read more: Retailers go high tech for high returns)

What was heard most clearly during the Squawk interview, though, was the answer to the question on every big corporate spender's mind when it comes to opening up the purse strings and hopping on the big data bandwagon.

Phelps was asked whether the race car association could make money from the big data effort, and he said the effort was about doing something for the "Nascar ecosystem."

When pressed, Phelps said, "Monetization for us isn't a direct piece." The big data effort creates no new revenue stream for NASCAR, he said.

That's a message easy enough to interpret. You want to pay for innovation, go right ahead, but don't expect innovation to end up on the bottom line, at least not yet.

By Eric Rosenbaum,