• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

REMINDERS

This is a good week to follow a little of my own advice: 1) Pay attention to something that might be educational; 2) Don't take anything for granted.

This is Mac Tools U.S. Nationals weekend, NHRA's biggest and most prestigious contest. To repeat what I've written previously, in my opinion, drag racing is an under-covered sport. Why? Because too many media people look down on it as too blue collar. One day at a Powerade Series event would introduce them to the most American of America's motorsports, attention-grabbing raw power, and some of the most interesting personalities in any sport, any where. Say "hi" to John Force and he'll gladly fill your notebook. (Tony Schumacher, shown here, is in a three-way race with Kyle Busch and Scott Dixon for Driver of the Year.)

PR people from IndyCar, NASCAR and road racing could learn a ton by cruising around an NHRA pit area. Especially the ability of any fan to get an autograph from any driver. And, drag racing PR people actually say "YES!" to journalists' requests. Let the record show in two of the last three years, NHRA team/sponsor publicists (Susan Arnold and Dave Densmore) have earned the Jim Chapman Award.

Let me be clear: NHRA -- the organization and the series -- faces many, many challenges. But ESPN2 has extensive coverage of the Nationals, including Monday's finals. Your loss if you don't check it out.
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In the right-hand column I maintain links to a few sites that I am connected with in one way or another. There are other places I visit, enjoy, and use as a resource. I don't want to "assume" you know about them, although I realize that's likely. But, just in case, here are some I want to be sure to commend to you:

Jayski -- The Drudge Report of racing sites, focusing on all-things NASCAR. Like Matt Drudge, Jay Adamczyk is an Internet success story, turning his hobby into a business (now owned by ESPN). I look at it at least once a day:
http://www.jayski.com/

Autoextremist -- Peter De Lorenzo's often-controversial commentaries on the auto and motorsports' industries. Agree or disagree, Peter is frequently on-point, and his weekly offerings come on Wednesday:
http://www.autoextremist.com/

Daly Planet -- Analysis of the TV scene is one of my favorite pursuits. Veteran broadcast executive John Daly has the NASCAR telecasters under his microscope daily:
http://dalyplanet.blogspot.com/

Gordon Kirby -- The longtime open-wheel and road racing journalist and author is one of my regular Monday reads:
http://www.gordonkirby.com/

Competition Plus -- Although I'm affiliated with two other drag racing sites, Drag Racing Online and 1320tv (links at right), I check out CP -- mainly to see what my friend Jon Asher has to say. If you have any interest in the straight-line sport, 1320tv, DRO and CP all are musts.
http://www.competitionplus.com/
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BAD PICTURE: SPEED viewers didn't see the ALMS P2 class lead change on the last lap Sunday at Mosport, because the director cut away from the racing to show trite images of waving checkered flags and the usual Audi pit crew celebration. That meant the audience also didn't see the hotly-contested GT2 class finish. ALMS wants us to care about its multi-class format yet TV didn't show three of those winners cross the finish line. (!) It's a basic part of the job for the director to ANTICIPATE the action and cut to the most newsworthy picture. I wonder if any of the network's production executives, or series management, even noticed . . . or (yet another) amateurish Jamie Howe interview, this time with GT1 winner Jan Magnussen.

GOOD IDEA: At a time when meaningful creative thinking is as hard to find as a Thomas Eagleton for Vice President button, thumbs-up to ESPN. Yesterday, post-Olympics, the net placed a full-page ad in USA Today admitting, "For 9 nights, we weren't watching us either."
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DIS-CONNECTED: If you didn't see NASCAR team co-owner Felix Sabates' quotes (courtesy of SceneDaily.com) about the departure of ChevronTexaco as a sponsor, well, I'll post them here without comment:

“Texaco was a great sponsor for a long time, but for the last year they really have been disconnected with the sport. They have focused on other things. We really didn’t get much support from them. The money wasn’t all that great."

“For us, it was a blessing that we can go out and find somebody who can pay us some real money.”

“Texaco was a liability for us because out of loyalty to them, we weren’t aggressively looking to replace them. We kept hoping they maybe would wake up one of these days and decide they need to be in NASCAR. The company, I feel bad for them, they only made $6 billion last quarter."

“The Texaco management is disconnected from racing. All the new people don’t know what a race car looks like.”
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Two reminders:

* If you can, please join me in supporting the NASCAR Foundation's blood donation and bone marrow drive on Thursday, Sept. 11. You can participate at many Cup tracks. I'll do so at Phoenix International Raceway.

* The 39th AARWBA All-America Team ceremony, presented by A1GP World Cup of Motorsport, will be Saturday, January 10, at the Hilton near the Ontario, Calif. airport. Specific details forthcoming. ESPN will again be a pre-dinner reception co-host. The Jim Chapman Award, for excellence in motorsports PR, will be presented. Go to the AARWBA site (right column) for table/ticket/ad information.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

REINVENTING the (TV) WHEEL

Since last week's recounting of business history in the aftermath of the IRL's new cable TV deal with Versus, I've heard from four people with significant insight into this subject: Two reps from current IndyCar teams, one from a former team looking for sponsorship to get back in, and the former program manager of a former major team sponsor which is a consumer products company.

This slice of insider opinion confirms what I wrote: The perception of less exposure value "vs." what was available via ESPN is a dollars-and-cents concern. This is based strictly on total available eyeballs rather than total air time. I best can summarize with this quote from a current team's sponsor finder, currently trying to keep one corporate backer, and looking for at least one more:

"I'm hoping someone (from the IRL) will be able to convince me my job just got easier, not harder."

There's no point in my repeating last week's observations -- if you didn't have a chance to read them, please scroll down to "Perception 'Versus' Reality." An interesting theme that has been picked up by those who have been in contact with me, however, goes something like this:

"Is there anything the IRL and Versus can do to add value?"

Yes.

Dare to be different.

This is an opportunity for both the series and the network to INNOVATE (which, before the age of spec cars, was an Indy hallmark). It's a chance to be BOLD and EXPERIMENT with new ways to present racing on TV. Frankly, fewer households gives the IRL and Versus the flexibility to try fresh ideas and fresh faces (at least a few -- read that, not Indy-based -- it's supposed to be a sport with national interest so more outside-Indiana perspective would be refreshing), something that would be more difficult to do on ESPN. Plus, Versus has promised a lot more air time, so space is available.

See last week's blog for a few suggestions. More:

Panel programs are increasingly popular, so how about a segment or two pre-race (or on the qualifying show) featuring journalists, pundits and industry insiders debating the issues of the day? It doesn't have to be a McLaughlin Group free-for-all to be fun, lively, opinionated, informative and yet respectful to Tony George and his series. But the panelists MUST have credibility, not selected only for big mouths or the media outlet they represent. (As we have seen too often on NASCAR Now and Tradin' Paint.) Larry Henry would be a fair traffic cop/moderator.

Even a casual look at the chatrooms proves fans are interested in how and why sponsors choose teams and drivers; an experienced business-knowledgeable reporter could explore that and many other topics. (Note that business reporting is now an established element of Olympics, Super Bowl and even Daytona 500 coverage.)

We're a People-magazine/photo-op/celebrity-driven society and those kinds of profiles could be done much better than ever attempted. And, let's be honest, the folks are always interested in the paddock chatter about driver and team rivalries, who's happy and who's mad, who's "in" and who's "out," etc. It IS possible to present that part of the IndyCar "experience" to the public in a legitimate and civilized way.

Sponsors and teams should be pro-active and powerful advocates of a new approach. Generating buzz can generate added value for the Versus package.

This much is clear: Repeating the same old formula is an expressway to obscurity.
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The other thing people have been asking me this past week: Did any of the involved parties explain the why or the validity of the "500" label put on the ALMS Road America race?

The answer: NO. Am I surprised? NO.
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News Conference 101: Announce the key NEWS elements in the opening statement, BEFORE taking questions. In the case of Tony Stewart confirming Ryan Newman as his Cup teammate in 2009, that meant how many years they agreed to, and the status of sponsorship for Newman's car. Neither was addressed up-front last Friday at Michigan.

That's called not understanding what the media needs, and not paying attention to the details. Or basics.

Not surprisingly, Ed Hinton of ESPN.com was the first to show his journalist bona fides. And, despite the machine-gun nature of SceneDaily.com's Bob Pockrass' query, it was completely legitimate, and Stewart's retort was less-than-respectful -- and unworthy of the conference room laughter. Here's a question that SHOULD have been asked of Newman, but wasn't: Given what happened to Dario Franchitti, aren't you concerned about signing with a team that doesn't have full-season sponsorship for your car firmly in place?
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Sad $ign of the Time$:

http://www.reuters.com/article/businessNews/idUSN1427376520080814?feedType=RSS&feedName=businessNews&rpc=23&sp=true


Meanwhile, over at the Los Angeles Times, Eddy Hartenstein is the paper's new publisher. You might recall Hartenstein's HD Partners made a bid to buy the assets of NHRA's pro racing operations, but the deal fell through.


I want to acknowledge the passing of Leroy Sievers, the broadcast journalist best known as executive producer of ABC News' Nightline. Sievers died of colon cancer at age 53. In May 1994, I worked closely with Sievers when he field-produced a Nightline for Ted Koppel on Mario Andretti's last Indianapolis 500. It was the most intense -- and I would say THE most satisfying -- professional experience of my career. Leroy reminded me several times that, no matter all our work, the show could get canned if a major world news story broke. Fortunately, we had the entire half-hour the Friday night before the race, a priceless publicity achievement. I still display in my office the Nightline cap Sievers gave me.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

PERCEPTION 'VERSUS' REALITY

In an unfortunate bit of timing, two days before the IRL announced last Thursday that Versus will replace ESPN as its cable TV outlet, Sporting News Today published an interview with NHL Players Association executive director Paul Kelly. He was asked about Versus, which took over the hockey league's rights from ESPN starting with the 2005-2006 season. Kelly's quote:

"The players want the greatest exposure possible, particularly in the United States . . . We've got a majority of our guys living and playing in the U.S. They are not satisfied with the nature of the coverage at the national level in the U.S. While we would love Versus to rise up and become what ESPN is in terms of programming in homes, hotels and sports bars -- the reality is they're not there."

The talking points from both the league and network on what is said to be a 10-year deal put heavy emphasis on increased promotion and, especially, more air time. Specifically: Each telecast will be at least three hours with extended pre-race coverage; one-hour previews the day before with qualifying highlights; Indy 500 qualifying shows; 10 hours of ancillary programming each season including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Centennial Celebration in 2009, '10 and '11.

The TPs failed to mention that Versus is in about 23 million fewer households than ESPN.

All of this reminded me of when CART management left ESPN for Speed Channel. I'm certain current IRL executives don't know the background of this history, so let me share a bit of that.

In a February 2002 announcement, CART execs revealed Speed as its new cable network for 12 races. The emphasis was that all races would be "live," with a higher level of production value, lots of additional programming, including Saturday qualifying and even a Derek Daly-hosted Friday night show. The word "tonnage" was tossed around quite a bit -- that teams and sponsors and fans would enjoy what was measured as a "61 percent increase" in total TV coverage.

That was CART's message to its teams and sponsors. The problem, of course, was Speed's smaller household penetration compared to ESPN. And people knew it. When the sponsor finder for one of CART's top teams tried this out on one of his two primary corporate backers, the reply went something like this: "I don't care if CART is on 24/7/365, if people aren't watching, and don't get the channel, it doesn't have value to us -- especially at the level we've been paying." The possessor of one of racing's best business minds emerged from a group meeting with CART reps and promptly told me, "People came away laughing at them."

While not a perfectly straight line, connecting the dots between this network switch and the decision of (at least) two primary team sponsors to get out of CART is a fairly easy exercise.

Below, you will find a link to my new Drag Racing Online magazine column, titled "The Reality of Perception." I make the point that NHRA has to be very pro-active in getting out and "selling" the validity of 1,000-foot racing to media and fans. I would say the same basic applies to the IRL, which, it must be noted, is being paid by Versus as opposed to CART's time-buy on Speed. History, which is what Indianapolis is supposed to be all-about, teaches us the "tonnage" argument alone will not convince sponsors who care more about total eyeballs than net hours.

Gentleman, start your sales pitch.
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As an example of the challenges that face the IRL, I offer two examples:

1. Cox is the cable provider in the Phoenix area, my home location. Versus is not a part of Cox's basic package, meaning those who don't pay extra won't even have the possibility of stumbling across IndyCar races while channel surfing.

2. The on-screen programming guide here lists channel 169 as "OLN." That refers to Outdoor Life Network. The network changed its name from OLN to Versus back in April 2006. (!)

A final thought . . .

At the risk of sounding elitist -- as the AP's Jenna Fryer did on a recent ESPN2 NASCAR Now roundtable when she said "those of us with NASCAR (media) hard cards" understand Tony Stewart; the direct implication being the opinions of journalists without a season pass are less valid or valuable (for the record, I have a hard card) -- I hope and respectfully suggest that Versus strive for a more, dare-I-say, "sophisticated" presentation of the IndyCar Series.

In what rulebook does it say the formula of an ex-driver in the booth, a female pit reporter and Indianapolis-centric microphone-holders is mandatory?

It's time for an approach that demonstrates a more expansive mindset.

It's time for a thoughtfully-constructed mixture of old and new "faces."

Especially with all the additional air time that Versus has promised, there should be a place for journalists and industry insiders knowledgeable about and willing to speak to important issues such as racing politics, business, the dynamics of sponsorship negotiations/ROI/activation, rules development, race control decision-making, the history of all-of-the-above, and even respectful-but-legitimate commentary on the "scene."
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ALMS at Road America was last weekend, which means it's time for my annual call for truth-telling:

The race was again officially labeled as a "500." It's insulting enough when the "500" tag is put on events that are measured in kilometers (and not listed that way) when the general public assumes such numbers refer to miles. It's worse when "500" bears no apparent representation of anything. The sports cars contested four hours at Elkhart Lake. That was 102 completed laps around the circuit whose published length is 4.048 miles. You do the math. That's not 500 miles. That' not 500 kilometers. Not even close. So, I ask, it was "500" WHAT?

Shame on everyone involved -- track, title sponsor, series, sanctioning body, TV network and media -- which again propagated this without explanation.

It's an issue of credibility.
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I've often said PR people everywhere can learn from politics. So, what can we take from John Edwards' confession last week?

What to do: Edwards followed the pattern that the best time to dump-out bad news is on a Friday night. The fact that it matched with the Summer Olympics' opening ceremonies, when the media and public were distracted, was even better.

What not to do: Edwards' statement raised as many questions as it answered. Worse, it -- and too many responses in his ABC Nightline interview -- were horrifically self-serving.

* He conducted the affair while his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, was in remission. (As if that made his actions any less painful to her.)

* ". . . being 99 percent honest is no longer enough." (It was NEVER enough, not when you are a candidate for POTUS.)

* That the story was published in a "supermarket tabloid." (Which proved to be accurate.)

* That the affair took place only "for a short period." (Quantity is not the issue.)

* Refused to say "yes" or "no" to the simple question of if that's him in the newspaper's photo holding a baby. (Exhibit A in why people distrust politicians.)

* "If you want to beat me up -- feel free. You cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself. I have been stripped bare . . . " (Yes, let's feel sorry for a presidential candidate who lied on the campaign trail.)

Edwards, the empty-suit ambulance-chaser, was correct about this: He believed "I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic."
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Here's the link to my August "All Business" column in Drag Racing Online, referenced above:
http://dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/x_8-1.html
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Due to budgetary cutbacks, the Arizona Republic has discontinued publication of my weekly Racing Notebook. Last Friday's (link below) was the last and I'm told the available space will be filled with wire copy. I may continue to contribute to the paper's coverage of local motorsports events. For the last 10 months I attempted to help keep readers of the state's largest newspaper informed of important news in all the major series -- NASCAR, but not just NASCAR -- and I'm disappointed that won't continue. We even broke a few stories along the way. My thanks to Republic sports editor Mark Faller and assistant SE Dave Lumia for their support and kind words about my work.
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/08/07/20080807racingnb.html

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

WHAT NASCAR DID RIGHT

I intentionally waited a week before commenting on the Debacle at the Brickyard, because I wanted to soak-in as much of the punditry as possible. Depending on who was talking or writing, NASCAR was at fault, or Goodyear, or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or two of those three, or all of the above, or George W. Bush (just kidding). I heard Brian France blamed for the new car, Tony George for diamond-grinding the track, and Goodyear for not bringing enough tires.

Now that the emotional fog has lifted, I would say this much is clear: NASCAR and Goodyear were inattentive, surprisingly so, since it was INDY and the first Allstate 400 with the CoT. Too much was taken for granted even though evidence that the track would "rubber up" should have been discounted since that history was with the old car. Pointing the finger at IMS was ridiculous as no new work had been done on the surface since the 2007 event. IMS -- actually IMS and its paying customers -- were innocent victims of NASCAR/Goodyear brain-fade.

Brian France isn't -- and has never claimed to be -- a "technical" guy. He didn't design or develop the CoT. Yes, as chairman, he's ultimately responsible for those hired to do the job, but to finger him for the CoT's problems is silly. Commentators who don't like the CoT should point specifically to NASCAR's tech guys if that is their complaint. The "not enough tires" yap was equally silly since a reported 400 sets of Pocono-spec tires were brought in (but not used), just in case.

The best analysis came from Bob Margolis, on Yahoo.com, who correctly stated that NASCAR is the only major series in the world with on-going tire issues. I'm not an engineer, but I think it's increasingly obvious the CoT requires a wider tire, and quite possibly a taller one, too.

After all the media sound-and-fury, it's time to say there are two things NASCAR did right:

1. They offered an apology. People usually respect it when a mistake is admitted. I'm still waiting for Tony George and the assorted CART/Champ Car executives to say they're sorry for making a mess of American open-wheel racing.

2. They did the best that could be done under the circumstances. The reality is there are going to be days when things go very wrong. That's not an excuse; it's a fact. When it happens, the obligation of the sanctioning body is to keep the drivers as safe as possible and put on the best possible show for the fans. NASCAR did that at Indy. The 400 wasn't fun, but the show went on, running to the full advertised distance. Given the demands of the Cup schedule, the size of the crowd, and the amount of time needed to understand and fix the problem, postponement wasn't an option as it was for CART at Michigan in 1985. That happened when a 500-mile race was pushed-back a week so Goodyear could build bias-ply tires to replace radials that weren't holding up. CART officials showed exactly how NOT to do it at Texas in 2001 and Australia in 2002. As did Formula One at Indy in 2005. In those cases, officials made the situation worse.

NASCAR shares responsibility with Goodyear for ruining Cup's second-most important event of the year. But it's fair to recognize two important things they did right.
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* Ooops, He Did It Again: For the second time in the last three Rolex Series shows on SPEED, Leigh Diffey blew the call of the race winner. Friday, at Montreal, Diffey shouted Darren Law as the winner. Only, Law ran out of fuel yards from the checkered flag, and finished third. Inexcusable, especially since this was a delayed telecast, although I'm sure it was done "live-to-tape." (Equally inexcusable was no post-race Law interview.) Even Bob Varsha acknowledged this mortal sin of broadcasting. On Sunday's Hungarian Grand Prix, when Felipe Massa's first-place Ferrari broke with three laps to go, Varsha said: "I'm not going to do a Leigh Diffey" and call the winner too soon. (!)


* And Some So-Called 'Big Time' Racing Teams Have Nobody: The Green Bay Packers hired former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer as a consultant for one month to guide them through the Brett Favre media circus. Just goes to show you how "small time" many motorsports operations really are.

* Jim Chapman Wouldn't Believe We'd Ever See This: During a news conference in Indy, Tony Stewart's 2009 sponsors were announced. Old Spice will continue its association with Stewart. Alex Keith, GM of Procter and Gamble Beauty, North America Deodorants, proudly pointed out the "creative use of Tony Stewart’s arm pits in our television advertising."

* Finally: The transcript doesn't reveal the name of the questioner, but at that same news conference, someone finally asked Stewart about Gene Haas. He's the other half of Stewart-Haas Racing, and currently serving prison time for a tax-evasion conviction related to Haas Automation Inc., and not the race team. I'll just print Stewart's answer here as provided:

“Obviously Gene is a partner. We’ve looked at the situation. Obviously there was no way we would not look at the situation. There was a mistake in the company, from what we understand, and the admirable thing about the whole thing is that Gene took responsibility for it. And you don’t ever want to see anybody in that position. But at the same time to see somebody that saw a flaw in it and that a mistake was made and for him to take full responsibility for it, I think is something that’s pretty admirable.

“There’s nothing positive about that, but at the same time there’s a lot more cases that are out and are more negative than the situation that Gene is in there.”
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REALITY CHECK: The other week I pointed out that enough-is-enough with the wretchedly managed airlines, citing U.S. Airways' new policy to charge for WATER. The Wall Street Journal had a story about this last week: $2 per bottle. Oh-so-generously, the carrier will "provide water and drinks for passengers in cases of medical emergency and during extensive delays." Thankfully, the airline isn't looking for passengers to drink tap water from the plane's bathroom.

"Frankly, that's just not classy," was the comment from U.S. Airways spokesman Morgan Durrant.

Neither is that quote. Or the way U.S. Airways treats its customers.
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Here's last Friday's Arizona Republic notebook, leading with Johnny Benson:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/07/31/20080731racingnb.html

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]