• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, July 28, 2013

LEARNING FROM THE 'WOW MOMENTS'

We've seen some more "Wow Moments" recently, as Brian France famously called them last year. If you take yourself past the immediate emotions they evoke, however, there are things to be learned.

WOW! You didn't have to be a golf fan to find Phil Mickelson's final round in the British Open to be really exciting. His joy, and that of his family, caddy and even the ESPN announcers came through Loud and Clear. That was real Reality TV. LESSONS: The pompous R&A executives would make terrible racing sponsorship managers. Only arrogance would lead them to willingly give up the "British" (links-style golf) branding in favor of their "The Open Championship" name. I don't think Formula One will be changing the British Grand Prix to "The Grand Prix." Also, word is Mickelson's $2.16 million for winning both the British and Scottish Opens is subject to over 60 percent in U.K. taxes! Gotta pay for that new prince, I guess!

WOW! Baseball had what I'm figuring will be the first of several unfortunate ones by suspending former MVP Ryan Braun. Daily media speculation about A-Rod (and others) followed. Maybe baseball's sad history of PED use has dulled the senses of some, but to me, it was attention getting. LESSON: Public, media and political pressure (remember those congressional hearings a few years ago?) can result in change. Otherwise, I don't think baseball's extremely powerful players' union would have agreed to the level of drug testing that now is routine. But they had no choice. The pressure to do so, and the threat of congressonal action, was too great.

WOW! Detroit went bankrupt. Honestly, it should have happened years ago. When I lived outside Detroit while working for CART from 1980-1983, I observed at close-range the fiefdom Mayor Coleman Young established for himself and his cronies. LESSONS: The city, in any way we once thought of it, is forever finished. No Super Bowl or race weekend will ever change that. And, if I were a conservative (not necessarily Republican) candidate for any elective office in America, every speech about the economy would reference the damage done by Democrats, liberals, union leaders and tax-and-spenders over six consecutive decades in the Motor City and include these words: "Just look at Detroit."

WOW! NASCAR returned to the dirt at Eldora and while I don't think there were any individual "Wows" I'd give the event as a whole one. Mike Helton said he was attending pretty much as a "fan" and I get that. I enjoyed watching. LESSON: Unquestionably the biggest dud of the night -- and honestly, this wasn't a surprise to me given his attitude -- was Scott Bloomquist in the otherwise ultra-competitive Kyle Busch-owned Toyota.

WOW! NASCAR left long-time network partners ESPN and Turner behind for billions from NBC and NBC Sports Network. Cash aside, there is no doubt ESPN lost favor in Daytona Beach over the years by seeming to treat the Nationwide series as as bother rather than the "diamond in the rough" it claimed that property to be when the rights were first acquired. And de-emphasizing NASCAR Now. LESSONS: Fox Sports 1 and NBCSN mean ESPN is no longer unchallenged with the ability to lay down "take it or leave it" terms. And, while it's still popular in various media and fan circles to criticize NASCAR, the simple fact is NASCAR is where the money is in American auto racing. P.S. 1: It was crap for certain IndyCar officials to claim the NASCAR deal proves how smart they were (actually, it was an entirely different group of people) to sign with NBCSN. It was Versus back then and unless they were able to offer proof of knowing all those years ago that Comcast would take over NBC and rebrand the cable network, I, as an interviewer, absolutely would not have let them get away with that bogus line of BS. P.S. 2: How will ESPN's loss of NASCAR affect NHRA? Here's a link to my breaking news analysis column on CompetitionPlus.com, posted last Wednesday. (Followers on @SpinDoctor500 saw this first) --
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/news/25848-michael-knight-how-espn-losing-nascar-could-affect-nhra

Wow! WOW! Ford withdrawing from NHRA pro racing after existing contracts expire following the 2014 season. That's the biggest news of the week and -- there's no spinning this one -- a vote of No Confidence in NHRA's short and mid-term ability to sell sufficient product to justify the investment. LESSON: If the Ford news, combined with an alarming number of empty seats at National events, and the alarming decline in TV audience doesn't result in major changes within NHRA, a lot more people and companies will be losing confidence in the sanction, too.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A REAL 'WOW MOMENT'

(Brief this week due to more urgent personal demands on my time.)

Brian France drew a fair amount of attention last year when he proclaimed that NASCAR needs more "Wow moments."  It was hoped that the new Gen-6 Sprint Cup car would, in part, help produce this sort of attention-getting, water-cooler talk happenings.

I can't honestly say I think that's occurred. NASCAR, of course, has prided itself over the decades on its ability to help create such showbiz. And, let me admit this based on my own experiences in the wonderful world of public/media relations and publicity: Under a limited and very special set of circumstances, with some sophisticated and well-thought out manipulation techniques, it is possible to artifically create "Wow moments." But such times are the exception, beyond even NASCAR's full control.

Real "Wow moments" are real, genuine, almost always spontaneous. Alex Zanardi creating the contemporary donuts VICTORY celebration at Long Beach in 1997 certainly is an example. Sebastien Bourdais doing donuts for finishing SECOND at Toronto most certainly is not. (I got an E-mail the other day from someone saying Courtney Force's magazine photos are a "Wow moment," but that's a different sort of "wow.")

The sports world enjoyed a honest-to-God "Wow moment" last week. It came when Mariano Rivera ran onto the field in the eighth inning of baseball's All-Game Game in New York City. Rivera, by statistical objectivity the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history who has announced he'll retire from the Yankees at the end of this season, not only received a much-deserved standing ovation from the Citi Field fans. His American League teammates intentionally stayed off the diamond so Rivera could have the stage to himself. They applauded from the dugout. As did the National Leaguers. You could see the tears welling in Rivera's eyes. He then pitched a classic three-and-out inning.

It was special. It was real. It was a true "Wow moment." You didn't have to be from New York or a Yankees' or even a baseball fan to get emotionally connected to the scene. I watched and, yes, said out loud: "WOW!" 

I don't think fans are getting enough of that in racing this season. Maybe, perhaps, Wednesday night's NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on the dirt at Eldora Speedway will change that. I know I'll be watching, waiting, and hoping . . .

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, July 14, 2013

NO COMPARISON

(Technical problems solved. I've edited this Tuesday to reflect usual format.)

UP FRONT: Let's get this straight: Courtney Force's "appearance" in the ESPN the Magazine Body Issue does not equate to Danica Patrick's pictorials. We can begin with the fact that Patrick first posed for FHM in April 2003 -- while a Formula Atlantic driver -- two years before her IndyCar debut. To go for that "exposure" was an early marketing decision by Team Danica. She, of course, has gone on to do several Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues. That was Danica's choice and Courtney made her choice. I will point out that Courtney currently has three Funny Car victories -- two this season -- and is a legitimate championship contender come NHRA's Countdown. I have yet to hear a knowledgeable person claim Courtney isn't a real "racer." I have heard that said of Danica, who is a mid-fielder in NASCAR. The chatroom yap about this detracting from the notion of taking female drivers seriously is nonsense. Let me repeat: Courtney is a THREE-TIME RACE WINNER in perhaps the most brutish cars (along with sprint cars) in all of racing. And female drivers of earlier times didn't have as many options for such publicity because the times, the available opportunities -- and sponsor attitudes -- were very different. When Playboy wanted to do a major feature article on Nigel Mansell in 1993, we had to sound-out the team's sponsors if they were OK with that. (They were.) I'm sure John Force Racing did the same before Courtney made her call. I know Courtney was asked to do this last year and she declined, saying she wanted to establish her driving credentials and accomplishments before wading in to such a public media project. I respect that a TON. (If she had posed while still a sportsman driver, my opinion would be different.) So, having worked on the sponsorship, marketing, management, PR and media sides of the Business of Racing, let me repeat for the benefit of the superficially-minded: Courtney vs. Danica does not equate. And the talking point of nudity vs. scant clothing is a distinction without a difference in this context. Look at the pictures or don't look at them, as you wish. But the arguments against I've read and heard are thinly considered and don't add up to much of substance.

In a related matter, well, the times sure have changed in other ways, too. In the early 1990s when Ed Hinton wrote a long, back-of-the-magazine pre-Indy 500 Sports Illustrated feature on the Andrettis, I worked directly with the SI promotions department to have advance copies sent to national media and I (then Newman/Haas Racing PR director) did a mass distribution in the IMS media center. I expected the same for the ESPN mag. It sure would have helped NHRA's cause with the otherwise completely uninterested national media. Honestly, all involved, I just 100 percent flat-out do not get not doing this. A true head-shaker and, frankly, a huge disappointment to me.

FAST LINES: In last week's seventh anniversary blog, I wrote Mark Miles had one of the most difficult jobs in the sports industry, working out plans for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's renovation. Miles since announced his new management structure, with Jeff Belskus now assigned "development of the master facilities plan to bring some $100 million in improvements . . . It’s a huge job and tremendously important as we work on improving our fan experience and upgrading IMS." The task is to create the modern conveniences fans expect but not strip away the Brickyard's historical aura. Some very, VERY difficult decisions are forthcoming. They could be make-or-break decisions . . . In the The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same Dept.: It took 24 years for IndyCar to return to Pocono International Raceway but apparently the traditional traffic mess didn't miss a beat. Pocono President Brandon Igdalsky was forced to issue an apology to fans who, he admitted, "expressed their disappointment, almost immediately, via social media posts, phone calls and through e-mails." Igdalsky said he was meeting with local and state officials to determine the reason for what he called a "breakdown." Sounds a lot like what I wrote in the Philadelphia Daily News back in the 1970s! . . . I hope this was just an unfortunate typo: In the July 8 AutoWeek is an RM Auctions ad for an upcoming event in Monterey and offering a 1974 McLaren Indy Car. According to the ad the car is "Winner of the 1979 Indianapolis 500." That would be a NO! Rick Mears won the '79 I500 in a Penske PC-6, not a McLaren. I sure hope they meant the 1974 race, won by McLaren's Johnny Rutherford . . . The SCCA Runoffs -- the national championship races -- will rotate from Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 2014, to Daytona in 2015, and Mid-Ohio in 2016. Yes, travel costs for competitors to the West Coast are a consideration, but this decision represents a rare good move by the SCCA. I must say, though, I'm sorry the Runoffs are leaving Elkhart Lake, which in many ways is the near-ideal setting for this amazing competition.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, July 07, 2013

7th ANNIVERSARY BLOG

It's always interesting to look back into the past as a way to understand what's happening now and anticipate what the future may hold.

I've done that recently in preparation for this, the seventh anniversary of this blog.

Back on July 10, 2006 -- the first posting -- and in the immediate time afterwards, we were already pondering items such as Danica Patrick's NASCAR future and the folly that was the proposed Champ Car race in downtown Phoenix and legitimate criticism based on facts and experience vs. personal attacks from the chatroom crowd.

That non-starter Phoenix race foreshadowed things to come. Its cancellation about 100 days out with about 1,000 tickets sold with at least a $20 million loss (including that year's Las Vegas street event put on by the same group) was the final straw for Big Time Champ Car backers like Paul Newman and provided a powerful shove to Kevin Kalkhoven to take Tony George's money and combine into the IRL. It also demonstrated the financial perils for so many promoters which continue to hinder IndyCar today. As one Business of Racing insider said to me recently, "If these races were making money, they (series) wouldn't have any problem scheduling plenty of races." 

Other B or R (remember, our primary audience here remains those directly involved in the motorsports and sports marketing industry -- there are plenty of fan sites out there) topics covered here include promotions, marketing, media and public relations standards. I'm sorry to say, especially with the last two, the problems have gotten worse. But at least Gene Simmons no longer is involved.

Thinking back, analyzing the present, and pondering what's ahead, here are what I consider to be the five most important issues facing the racing sport and industry seven years into this Great Adventure of learning and information sharing:

1. Leadership: Yes, in some ways (Wall St.) the national economy is getting better -- at least for now. Brian France, Tom Compton and others led their series through the tough years starting in the fall of 2008 but the slow -- at least as measured by historical standards -- recovery demands continued forward-thinking and innovative leadership. There are more and more people who seem to believe motorsports no longer holds the inherent fascination for the American public it once did -- they say the country's love affair with the automobile has diminished -- and it's up to the industry's leaders to deal with this real or perceived issue. Brian France will always face a more skeptical community due to the accomplishments of his grandfather and father. Many eyes now are on IndyCar's Mark Miles -- whatever 2014 schedule he's able to put together (New venues? Schedule realignment? Playoffs?) will be a strong signal of how he's doing. Ed Bennett and Scott Atherton, meanwhile, will guide U.S. sports car racing into its Brave New World. The bottom line throughout the industry: There is no substitute for strong, effective, confident, inspiring leadership.

2. Making New Fans: NASCAR's maneuvering from the mid-2000s to broaden its fan base with generic cars and tradition-bending rules proved just how dangerous it can be to alienate the established hard-core fan base. But to grow and prosper, those fans must eventually be replaced, and fresh ones created. That's much easier said than done. NASCAR is trying with its aggressive five-year Industry Action Plan and social-media heavy Integrated Marketing Communications Dept. Any new ideas Miles brings to this endeavor will be crucial for IndyCar. NHRA still doesn't get the help it needs from its series sponsor (which has plenty of resources to do just that) but made an important gain recently with the successful opening of the New England market. Sports car racing has spun its wheels for decades trying to move beyond its ultra-niche audience and now will be relying on NASCAR's resources to help with the task. Too many empty seats across the racing world prove the job isn't getting done. A huge project will be improving spectator facilities so the in-person experience can compete with the comforts of home and a large-screen HD TV. Daytona has made its commitment. A run-down looking Indianapolis Motor Speedway is next up and how Miles makes the Brickyard modern without blowing-up its traditional aura might be the most difficult job anyone in motorsports confronts.

3. Who/What Is The Next Big Thing?: NHRA -- perhaps alone among the major series -- seems to have its answer: Courtney Force. She combines results with look and personality and attitude and, properly managed with some extra guidance from experts outside drag racing, there's absolutely no reason why Courtney should not be a mainstream MAJOR American sports star/personality. IndyCar thought it had it with Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti but, while they have the right last names, they still don't have the on-track results. NASCAR's gotten most of what it can out of Danica Patrick -- barring winning -- and has promoted its new Gen-6 car thus far this season. The stock car sanction's continued investment in minority driver development and its established feeder system from the K&N Pro, Trucks and Nationwide series likely will continue to suit its need for future racer-personalities like Carl Edwards.

4. Spreading the Word: Perhaps nothing has changed as much in the last seven years as communication tools. Who knew Twitter and social media in 2006? As noted above, NASCAR has invested in a pro-active capability to understand and utilize the communications revolution. The traditional mainstream media corps has diminished due to the economy, changes in consumer habits, and technology. What NASCAR is doing can't as yet be called "successful," but that company is way, far ahead of everyone else combined working this new frontier. But that doesn't mean old-fashioned methods still don't have a place. As noted here many times, when so-called "PR people" don't even bother to visit the media center, don't bother building good professional relationships with the media, and in some cases don't even know how to write a basic news release, it's a flashing red alarm. Too many appear to be too lazy or too unqualified to even know how to "pitch" a story. Why doesn't every series have a media "hot list" -- especially sports talk radio -- that can be tapped on short notice to offer driver interviews when practice/qualifying days are rained out? That's just one example. Racing is far behind entities like the NFL, which require some basic professional standards in PR and media relations from its teams. NASCAR and IndyCar absolutely must do so and PR people who really are just helmet-carriers need to have their "PR" title stripped. And those who act annoyed when asked by a journalist to arrange a driver interview, and who think E-mail is a substitute for conversation, must GO OUT THE GARAGE GATE, NEVER TO RETURN. It's especially embarrassing that some such people collect paychecks from some of the biggest teams in motorsports.

5. Standards: The changing media landscape and a decline of acceptable social values has, sadly, brought along a lower bar. Too many sports reporters, and too many of their editors, think a story about Dale Jr.'s potato chips is more important than real racing NEWS. The lazy practice of simply repeating what someone else has reported, without obtaining separate, independent, confirmation, is a terrible commonplace occurrence. Gossip and rumor seem to have more entertainment traction than actual fact. The public, the readers and watchers and listeners and audience -- the CUSTOMERS -- will have to demand better or the situation will only get worse. And we'll all be worse-off if that happens.

Thank you to all who take time to read this blog. I am grateful. Year Eight, here we come . . .


"Positives" -- my new July CompetitionPlus.com column (those who follow me on Twitter @SpinDoctor500 saw this first):


[ more next Monday . . . ]