• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

BUILD 'EM UP/TEAR 'EM DOWN

This old saw has more miles on it than the one used by Mr. Fix-It. It also happens to be truer than a laser leveler:

The media builds people/groups up, and then tears them down.

The most recent example? NASCAR.

While I don't have numbers to quantify it, it sure seemed that the closing weeks of the Chase featured more "woe unto NASCAR" stories than there were about champion-to-be Jimmie Johnson. Now, let me be clear: It is FACT that TV ratings were down at all but a handful of races this season vs. 2005. (I consider the 10.4 percent overnight drop at Homestead's championship finale a definite eye-opener, especially since that's -23% since 2004.) Large sections of empty seats were obvious from overhead camera shots at many speedways. (Those at Indianapolis made me, as someone who has gone to IMS for almost four decades, sad but not really surprised.) So, these absolutely were legitimate stories.

I think a bit of context also is legit. And I'll say this up-front: NO sports organization that I know of works harder than NASCAR in publicizing, promoting, marketing and selling its product. Almost 30 years ago, when I asked Bill France Jr. why he was so confident of NASCAR's long-term success, his answer was clear and confident: "We work at it day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year." President Mike Helton (right) proved that again last December by attending the AARWBA dinner in Indianapolis, one night after the Nextel Cup awards in New York City.

No company, including Microsoft or Wal-Mart, can sustain the level of growth NASCAR has generated in the last decade. When Microsoft hit the occasional business speed bump, no financial journalist called for Bill Gates to get out. Wal-Mart announced some weak sales figures the other day but I haven't heard a single stock analyst say, "Dump it all!"

In considering the recent media attitude, let's also consider the atmospherics. The NASCAR regulars were tired at the end of the marathon season. They were in ill temper due to the overcrowded/inadequate work facilities at Phoenix and Homestead. Those who used to enjoy an easy drive to Darlington on Labor Day weekend now endure a coach-class cross-country round-trip to California. In short, many were just plain grumpy.

The pack mentality throughout journalism makes the pack racing at Talladega seem like rush hour in Roundup, Montana. Network news directors follow the lead of the New York Times' front page. In sports, many take their direction from ESPN's SportsCenter and USA Today. So, when UST put "NASCAR's growth slows after 15 years in fast lane" on P1 Nov. 15 -- four days before the Nextel Cup concluder -- that was like waving the green flag at certain reporters. They were ready to take a shot -- and did.

Was it fair? I say the true answer to that rests with the experience and credibility of each individual journo. The bottom line, for now, is that while NASCAR had a down year, every sports organization in North America -- save the NFL and Major League Baseball -- would love to have such problems. I don't agree that the arrival of ABC/ESPN alone will reverse the slide, but it sure is premature to push the panic button.

While some of the above made me shake my head, what made me laugh was the idea of a shorter schedule or reduced race distances. Would the FIRST person -- driver, promoter, or, yes, journalist -- willing to reduce his/her income in accordance with the reduced work load please step forward. (!)

I do share one concern: There are major drawbacks to the trend of pushing back race start times so telecasts move near-or-into prime time, where the TV suits say larger audiences await. That puts increased deadline pressure on writers. Much more worrisome to me, that is asking the ticket-buying public to accept getting home even later Sunday night, when work or school obligations await the next morning. Think about this one again, please, NASCAR.
Newsworthy:

* Last Friday's USA Today sports page one had a graphic titled "NASCAR laps other motor sports." It showed the results of an ESPN Sports Poll on the "favorite type of racing" among fans. NASCAR doom-and-gloomers, please read carefully: 1) NASCAR, 57.4 percent; 2) Motorcycles, 12.4; 3) NHRA, 12.2; 4) Formula One, 6.8; 5) IRL, 6.2; 6) Champ Car, 1.3.

* With Champ Car joining the IRL on the ABC/ESPN networks, what I can't wait to see is the level of promotion given to each group. Will it make a difference that IRL gets a rights fee vs. Champ Car's time buy? Just as important will be how such promos are designed to differentiate one series from the other. (!)

* As someone who has long appreciated a pro-active and creative approach to PR and publicity, let me give a call to Wrigley's. At Phoenix International Raceway, the company announced its new sponsorship of Reed Sorenson and David Stremme in the Busch Series, and Juan Montoya in three Nextel Cup races. Wrigley’s Spearmint, Doublemint, Big Red, Juicy Fruit and Winterfresh brands will be featured. Journalists were given a tin, which looked like it might contain mints, but inside was a computer data stick appearing to be a pack of gum. The news release and team bios were in Word document form. A well-done to Brian Wright, at Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., and the others involved. It made me go back and take a look at the "press kit in a can" I did for U.S. Can Co.'s sponsorship of the Andretti family back in 1986. That got blurbed in USA Today, AutoWeek and elsewhere.I'm happy to report that triple Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais (left) will make his first appearance at the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's All-America Team dinner, Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis. Team voting is currently underway among AARWBA members. Bourdais, who has been elected to the last two Teams in the open-wheel category, will be a welcome guest at this 37th annual gathering of the country's oldest and largest organization of motorsports media professionals. Thanks to Champ Car PR Director Steve Shunck for his help. Jack Roush will be the featured speaker. Other highlights of the evening will be presentation of the new Auto Racing Safety and Humanitarian Service Award to HANS Device developers Robert Hubbard of Michigan State University and Jim Downing; Pioneer in Racing Award to Dan Partel, managing director of the European Formula Drivers Association; and Jim Chapman Award for excellence in motorsports public relations. Popular broadcaster Bob Jenkins will serve as dinner Master of Ceremonies for the second consecutive year.

Tickets, for the public as well as media and sponsors, are available by contacting AARWBA President Dusty Brandel at 818/842-7005 or aarwba@compuserve.com. Information also is available at the http://aarwba.org web site, click on the “banquet” link, and discounted Hyatt room reservations can be made there. I'm dinner co-chair along with Gil Bouffard.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]