• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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

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