• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, August 25, 2013

THE NATIONALS MOOD

The Big Go is this weekend (finals Monday) but I doubt the Business of Drag Racing atmosphere surrounding the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals will be positive.

Amidst a season of plunging TV numbers and attendance, and sponsorship levels that have the gap between the top and bottom half of the nitro class ladders maybe larger than ever, came more bad news last week: Castrol will end its 29-year sponsorship of John Force Racing after next season. (That's one year less than Budweiser's record 30-year run with Kenny Bernstein.) This just weeks after Ford announced it will exit pro NHRA racing after 2014.

When NHRA's biggest name (John) with a daughter (Courtney) who stands at the foot of sports marketing superstardom admits his team can't survive as it currently exists without a new automaker partner and big sponsor, it's legitimate to question of biz health of the Mello Yello series. (A big problem is the lack of activation by the Coca-Cola Co. brand, which was publicly promised when the entitlement switch from Full Throttle was made.)

I won't be in Indy for the Big Go, but I have a feeling the private conversations among team owners and headliner drivers won't carry a good vibe. I know this: In any other properly run business enterprise, the Board of Directors would call in the CEO and ask for his views regarding the negative metrics. Then, they'd ask for his plan to address those problems.

Those conversations need to happen. I'm also going to hope, however, that the downers won't detract from the entertainment and competition of a great motorsports event. As I've said for years, even if you aren't a straight-line fan, you should get out and attend the Nationals. Or, at least, watch on ESPN2.


I Tweeted about this, but it's worth repeating here: Since basic common sense seems to be in such short supply in our everyday lives, last week's news that Mark Martin will sub for Tony Stewart the rest of this season (except Talladega) was refreshing. Martin was leaving the No. 55 after this year anyway and Brian Vickers already was confirmed as the full-time driver for 2014. Giving Stewart-Haas Racing a quality replacement in the No. 14 while allowing Vickers extra seat time with his new team, well, it just made common sense.

Even Martin noted what he called "the amazing amount of cooperation that it took to get this deal done by so many parties, and I haven't seen this much cooperation in the past, and I think it was largely in part for the incredible amount of respect that everyone has in the sport for Tony Stewart."

Applause to Michael Waltrip Racing, Aaron's, Toyota, Chevrolet, Mobil 1, Bass Pro Shops and everyone else who had to give the green light.


Regular readers know I'm a sprint car fan and am a National Sprint Car Hall of Fame voter. But it's important to be honest and admit it's been a tough few months within this exciting, daring -- and dangerous -- sport. Jason Leffler and HoF driver Kramer Williamson have died in crashes. Stewart broke his leg in his third big wreck of the year and is out for the rest of the season.

The economic scale of sprint car racing means the reality is more limited resources for safety measures. I'd love to see USAC and the World of Outlaws step forward in a leadership position and help fund some new initiatives. But the best bet in improving the safety of the cars themselves might well be Stewart and Kasey Kahne, who have access to things and people most sprint car owners don't.


Just wondering: With ESPN to be out of the NASCAR game come 2015, what will it do with Jayski, which it owns?


Here's the downside to social media: Comments on Ben Affleck as Batman. Consider all the other important news out there. Ridiculous. Sad.

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, August 18, 2013

LET THE COMPETITION BEGIN

It has been a momentous few weeks in the media business.

You've seen the headlines: The Graham family, sainted patrons of investigative journalism and Social Washington, agreed to sell the Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million. The D.C. insiders wailed about the "end of an era." The New York Times Co. dumped-off the Boston Globe to John Henry, Red Sox' and Roush Fenway Racing partner, for a mere $70 mil, a tiny fraction of what it paid for the paper. Big Mouth/Bigger Ego Should-Have-Been-Farmed-Out-to-Pasture-Long-Ago Globe columnist Bob Ryan called it "scary." I would suggest Ryan deal with it or quit.

Given the troubled state of the newspaper and print businesses, I bet those who get to keep their jobs thanks to Henry will have a vastly different opinion.

We'll see what much-needed new ideas Bezos and Henry will bring to these iconic enterprises. And how the actual journalism is impacted. It's difficult to imagine how the Globe could increase its reporting on the Sox. But will criticism be tolerated by ownership? I got an E-mail asking if I thought NASCAR would now get more coverage in the Globe. I said: No.

Not to worry. NASCAR recently completed its long-term TV deals with more races (eventually, including part of the Nationwide series schedule) on the various Fox networks and a move off ABC/ESPN to NBC/NBCSN. At a reported total of more than $8 billion, this again proves the MONEY in U.S. motorsports is in NASCAR. The chatroomers can criticize all they want, but that is the true bottom line.

But the REAL action began Saturday with the launch of Fox Sports 1, which replaced fade-to-black Speed Channel. Combine FS1 with NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus, becoming just NBCSN) and CBS Sports cable channel, and suddenly, ESPN has REAL competition for the first time. EVER. This reminds me of when CNN had the cable news space all to itself and basically dictated terms of what was -- and wasn't -- "news." And how that "news" was covered. Then, along came MSNBC, and -- far more importantly and successfully -- Fox News Channel.

That's the way it's been for decades with ESPN. It could arrogantly do as it pleased and decided what "news" was "worthwhile" for SportsCenter. I'm hoping competition will make that a thing of the past. I remember when I worked at the Philadelphia Daily News and we, for a time, had four competing daily newspapers. It made us better.

Besides various NASCAR programming and, starting next year, the United SportsCar Series, FS1 has loaded-up on popular sports, including baseball. Last week, Fox grabbed the rights to USGA golf from NBC -- golf being a new venture for the network. I'm hoping the additional resources and higher emphasis from management will lead to better auto racing production. (Are Phil Parsons and Hermie Sadler the best it can do in the Truck series? Really?) It's a new era and, in part, that should mean the end of the weak pit-road microphone-holders who make speeches instead of asking crisp, meaningful, to-the-point Chris Economaki-esque questions. THAT'S what viewers APPRECIATE. THAT'S what viewers WANT.

More than anything, I'm hoping for some good, honest news reporting from FS1. That will largely come from its late-night version of SportsCenter. Will sports whose rights aren't owned by Fox get the bottom-feeder treatment we've come to expect from ESPN over the years? That would be a mistake, for a lot of reasons. CREDIBILITY needs to be established at FS1 and I'm hoping all involved know that and will act accordingly.

Yes, I know, there will be gimmicks and nonsense. But, please, FS1, not to the degree now found on SportsCenter. NFL guy Sal Paolantonio is actually a very good reporter, but he's recently taken a big back, back, back step with his Chris (Buffoon) Berman style. Why the NFL and Pro Football Hall of Fame permits an MC with an ego that overshadows the HoF honorees is beyond me.

Finally, sadly, is the impending Howard Beale ESPN2 show. A few days ago I saw an interview with ESPN President John Skipper in which he said the hiring of Beale is in keeping with the net's tradition of "smart." I guess Rutledge Wood was otherwise occupied.

Here's an easy prediction: Skipper, in the end, won't look too smart in giving Beale yet another chance.

Oh, how standards have fallen. Please, may true competition raise the bar.

[ more next Monday . . . ]




Sunday, August 11, 2013

SEE YA, SPEED

I think it was back in the early 1990s. Paul Page and I were talking about various TV topics and, somehow, the question came up: Could there be an all-auto racing channel?

I think we both thought NO, mainly because the overall fan base, while large, was broken down into too many sub-niches. Page, as I remember, said he thought an all-golf channel might work, though.

Not that many years later, along came SpeedVision. I found it on my DirecTV dish and loved it: Brock Yates, Leon Mandel with a TV version of AutoWeek, Le Mans, classic Formula One races and other goodies. In a way it was too raw, too pure and that made it too good to be true. Sure enough, the programming evolved over the years, and the name changed to Speed when it came under Fox ownership. It will end Aug. 16 and the network will be transformed into Fox Sports 1.

Motorsports -- make that NASCAR -- will continue to be an important programming element, especially in light of the new TV contract Fox has done with our friends in Daytona Beach. Gone, though, will be Speed Center and Dave Despain's Wind Tunnel.

Speed, maybe surprisingly, never got a consistent grasp on a hard-news show. I never thought SC got traction on that front. And a very surprising number of its microphone-holders never learned how to ask a MEANINGFUL question. (That's Reporting 101 and something I hope FS1 producers will deal with, starting with Hermie Sadler.) There were The Big Mouths dressed in Empty Suits, Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer. And the true embarrassment of Rutledge Wood, who single-handedly lowered-the-bar of professional standards for everyone else holding a mike. As for WT, I well remember when it debuted late on a Friday night for 30 minutes. That quickly grew into an hour. At its zenith, WT was on for two hours Sunday nights and then another hour Monday-thru-Thursday. When I did PR for Robby Gordon's 2004 Indy 500 effort, we officially announced his attempt at "The Double" on WT. I had Sam Schmidt out on Indy's pit road late one Sunday night in 1995 for a WT chat.

Despain guided the show through quite a few solid interviews and memorable debates, including those between Robin Miller and Ed Hinton. The whole idea of WT was viewer participation and the quality of those comments ranged from stupid to superb. Krista Voda became a star on Speed and her career survived an embarrassing guest-host appearance, which began with her explaining how Despain's bathroom posture was different from hers. (A multi-Emmy Award winning sports announcer told me she should have been fired for that.) There are ways to end a run and it's been disturbing to me to see the mail-it-in final year of what, in some ways, was a landmark show.

Speed was at its best in live race coverage and gave us a chance to see events that likely wouldn't have had a TV outlet. (Oh, for those years of live Knoxville Nationals.) Those who complained it became the de facto NASCAR Network simply ignored the business realities of the overall Fox contract and the fact that NASCAR became where the money -- and audience -- were. Speed also did well with some of its specials, such as Despain's On Assignment productions, and documentaries, such as the one about Hendrick Motorsports that ran last year. Speed was at its worst in the alternative weeknight shows it tried to develop, with the Michael Waltrip co-hosted "talent" competition the all-time low.

Something I've certainly appreciated, and has been good for Speed, has been Megan Englehart's excellent media relations work.

For many, Speed going to black is sad. It's fair to debate what its demise says about the health of the overall racing, motorsports and automotive industries. Meanwhile, Paul Page (who is doing some Sportbike and Superbike events for CBS Sports' cable channel), was right about a golf channel -- The Golf Channel -- succeeding.

Beside Fox Sports 1 (which, with FS2, which was Fuel, will be where you'll find the United SportsCar Series), NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) and CBS Sports' less-visible cable channel have become home to various racing properties. As of now, ESPN will only have NHRA come 2015.

Thanks to all who made a professional effort over the years. See ya, Speed.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, August 04, 2013

TECHNICAL PROBLEMS

There are more technical problems with Blogger that are beyond my ability to fix. So, please just allow me to report that I picked up two medals in the 2012 International Automotive Media Awards, results announced last week. My Arizona Republic feature examining how the relationship between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson has changed over the years won the gold for newspaper personality profile. And this blog got the silver for Internet commentary. My thanks to all involved, especially you, the reader. Meanwhile, if you haven't looked at CompetitionPlus.com in the last week, or don't follow me on Twitter @SpinDoctor500 please go to CP and read my business analysis of Ford's withdrawal from NHRA pro racing. Fingers crossed, Blogger will get fixed and we'll be back to normal here next week. Thanks.