• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I REALLY DID NEED A 'LEGAL' PAD THIS WEEK

Grief and a family's deep emotions are not only understandable, but natural, following the loss of a son. With that said, Kevin Ward Jr.'s family should carefully consider the consequences of a civil action against Tony Stewart. I'm no lawyer, but given what was revealed by the district attorney regarding the illegal substance (federal and state law) found in Ward's system at a level the DA said would affect judgment, I can think of a long series of questions that would need to be asked of the family during the normal course of any legal process. They should be obvious so I won't list them here. Unless the family is going to dispute the DA's report and the state's test results, the legal part of this story should end NOW.

Two of the least impressive TV heads to yap about the Tony Stewart grand jury decision were Fox Sports 1 legal analyst Rob Becker and his NBC Sports Network counterpart, Jack Furlong.

Imagine you were a senior corporate executive of a NASCAR team sponsor -- perhaps one skeptical of the value of such a seven-or-eight figure sponsorship -- sitting at home watching your driver being interviewed in victory lane. Man, that corporate logo you paid for on the driver's uniform looks good and the national TV exposure is great. And then you see some guy in a NASCAR cap put a towel over your driver's shoulder, covering your logo, taking away that ID and effectively reducing your ROI. Would you be impressed with the self-anointed "sophisticated" and "sponsor friendly" NASCAR marketing organization?

When the late Jim Chapman ran PPG's CART series sponsorship with dignity and class, there is absolutely No Way he would have offended paying team sponsors by having or allowing a PPG-logo towel obscure another company's uniform ID. It would be the right thing to do for Sprint, Nationwide and Camping World to tell NASCAR they wish to follow Mr. Chapman's example. 

In a world where everyone has a cell phone camera, security cameras seemingly are everywhere, and TMZ is regarded as an important (and paying) news source, what I've counseled drivers both professionally and privately is more true -- and obvious -- than ever: Always assume someone is taking your picture, no matter what you're doing, anytime, anywhere. Quite something the reckless behavior of some in thinking this doesn't apply to them.


A telling sign of problems within the industry: It used to be common sense that prospective employers would ask the opinion of informed journalists before hiring someone for a PR/media relations job. And yet, at least three times this year, that wasn't done. Or, at least, the proper people weren't asked. Guilty parties include a major speedway and two series that like to consider themselves major. One person picked this way already is gone, another pretty much hasn't bothered to outreach to key media, and the third was recommended by a consultant who has no business consulting about anything media-related. Executives: Please bother to do your home work. 

Isn't it instructive -- and sad -- that the people who have no experience in, and haven't bothered to properly educate themselves about the Business of Racing, are the ones who criticize those who do and try to share that knowledge?

Considering the number of ESPN hosts who have been suspended in recent months, it is fair to ask when the senior network management who thought it was a good idea to hire these people in the first place are going to be held accountable, too.

Everyone has known for years that as long as Bernie, the FIA and team owners get their money, Formula One will race anywhere, no matter global issues or human concern. See the Middle East GPs. Now, on to Russia. At least the International Olympic Committee had the fig leaf excuse that Putin waited until after the Winter Games to extend his middle finger to the world. But what's the excuse for F1's team sponsors and manufacturers? Answer: It doesn't matter to them as long as their cash registers ring, too.

In many, many ways, including what it projects as its image vs. its business practices, NASCAR is very, very, well, I'll call it "inconsistent."


I've said for years, and repeat now, that it's impossible to be a good race fan without knowing something about the Business of Racing. So I shake my head when those callers to Sirius XM's NASCAR channel say Cup drivers should be banned from the (still) Nationwide and Truck series. Tell that to the TV networks who pay the rights fees and to the track operators who have to pay the purse. No-names don't sell in our celebrity-obsessed society, at least, not most of the time. And the days of corporations being willing to sponsor driver development programs just to be a part of NASCAR are over. TV and tracks and sponsors have to have the "names" and that's the bottom line in what too-often is a very silly debate.

It sure says a lot about the state of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Tudor United SportsCar series that so little was said about IMS not being on the 2015 schedule.

Have any series executives/officials anywhere bounced down and up and down again as much as IndyCar's Brian Barnhart and SportsCar's Mark Raffauf? Once upon a time, both were the president of their respective organizations!

What a sad commentary on our society that people can't listen or read and process the information simply as it is presented. Instead, too many hear or read based on what they want/don't want to accept based on their own biases.

Two words explain the downturn in Formula One's global TV audience: Ferrari uncompetitiveness.

Even the biggest dump on the Formula One schedule is arguably a nicer and more modern facility than just about anything you'll find in NASCAR, IndyCar, SportsCar or NHRA. Why? Bernie demands it! Maybe the rebuilt Daytona will change that.

I bet those Lewis Hamilton-Nico Rosberg technical debriefs are a million laughs!

A healthy skepticism is, well, healthy for a journalist. Cynicism is not. When the media bleeps like Jason Whitlock (yes, another ESPN trouble-maker) downplayed the significance of Derek Jeter's fabulous exit from baseball -- a game-winning walk-off bottom-of-the-ninth RBI single in his last game at Yankee Stadium and an RBI hit in his last game at Boston -- it showed (again) all that is wrong with today's Big Mouth & No Substance News Media. Whitlock and the rest simply proved to their audience that they know nothing about the historical and traditional underpinnings of baseball, the New York Yankees' franchise, Yankee Stadium, and their fans. On the other hand, Baltimore Orioles' Manager Buck Showwalter (Jeter's first Big League skipper) showed his respect by allowing Jeter to hit and not take an intentional walk last Thursday night. Ditto for the Boston Red Sox, who despite one of sports' most intense rivalries, sent Jeter out Sunday at Fenway Park with respect. Well done.

Scott Pruett comes as close as anyone I can think of to be a near-perfect IndyCar race director.

Donny Schatz is in the midst of a historically dominant STP World of Outlaws season. He scored his career-high 24th win this past weekend. Can't wait to see how many Driver of the Year votes he gets. The over/under is one.

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, September 21, 2014

PAUSE

Sorry, no blog this week. Hope to be back next week.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

LEADERSHIP

The "new" Chase is on. Whether or not it will be "new" and "improved" we'll find out over the next nine weeks.

But the real story, the important issue, this week is leadership. LEADERSHIP.

While there is zero doubt the National Football League is America's No. 1 sport and a true cash-generating marketing machine, we saw in the last few days that it isn't bulletproof. The NFL's $44 million man, Commissioner Roger Goodell, came under more intensive media and public fire for his handling -- or not handling -- of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. Goodell  took to the big leather executive chair in the league's swank New York City Park Avenue offices with the agenda of even further protecting "The Shield's" PR image, always tightly controlled. He became the Enforcer-In-Chief, rolling out a series of new or more robust penalties for off-the-field misconduct. I happen to agree that much of that was needed as the athlete-as-role-model notion increasingly became fantasy.

But I've also had the unsettled feeling, right from the start, that Goodell wasn't really the rock-solid leader the image-makers wanted all of us to believe. We now know the NFL has been, well, less than aggressive, regarding the effects of concussions. Yes, there are new rules and medical evaluations, but given what we've seen in auto racing it's difficult for me to believe more hasn't been done on the football helmet front. (I know Bill Simpson and others have been working on it, but it's the NFL that will be the force to get it done.) The legal negotiations over a compensation fund for retired players left with brain damage has been a prolonged and twisted road, which has not reflected well on Goodell. There was the questionable handling of the New Orleans Saints' BountyGate affair. And I thought it outrageous that Goodell essentially kept Rush Limbaugh out of a potential St. Louis Rams' ownership role based on political correctness and pressure from liberal media and outside interest groups. I wrote here at that time that this wouldn't help the career of Goodell's wife, Jane Skinner, now no longer a Fox News anchor.

Sure, Goodell has brought in Billion$ to the NFL, but also a LOT of controversy. Experience tells me that, sooner or later, that will catch up with him.

I'm not an NBA fan but look at how much stronger Adam Silver, who had to step in to the Big Shoes of David Stern as commissioner, seems than Goodell for his leadership in the Donald Sterling affair.

We've even observed Rhodes Scholar Pat Haden, a very smart and overall good guy and now the athletic director at USC, get smacked down for coming from the press box to the sidelines to argue with game officials.

Executive leadership at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar series has been a hot-button issue for many years, perhaps going all the way back to Tony Hulman's death. I'm certainly not going to signal thumbs-up or thumbs-down yet to current CEO Mark Miles. It's obvious, though, that his decision to end the season by Labor Day is controversial. It will be legitimate to reassess this in another year. Most in the pit area will only talk about it off-the-record, but don't doubt many Many competitors, sponsors and track operators have serious doubts about the leadership in NHRA drag racing.

Which, of course, brings us to Brian France.

When Brian, son of Bill Jr. and grandson of Bill Sr. who both had the vision to make NASCAR Big League, innovated the Chase "playoffs" back in 2004, he drew more praise than criticism for this revolutionary new approach to the Cup championship. France separated the Chase from the regular season as a way to jump-start interest against college and pro football and the concept was copied by others, most noteably the PGA Tour with its four-tournament FedEx Cup.

Not long ago a very smart and accomplished sports marketing guy I know, one not directly affiliated with the NASCAR scene, told me the Game 7-type winner-(highest finisher)-takes-all format being used this season was a matter of when, not if. The system was sure to evolve. Just, for example, as baseball has with one and five-game playoff series. 

Adapting the playoff idea to stock car racing meant it almost certainly would eventually reach the point of a Game 7, which many consider the ultimate thrill in American sports. In NASCAR's case, that translates to the highest finisher at Homestead-Miami Speedway among four eligible drivers will claim the Sprint Cup championship. As my business contact said, it was inevitable. 

The potential challenge for France and the rest of the Daytona Beach brass is, now that they have gone this route, what's the next step in the evolution? Maybe it will work so well one won't be needed. But what happens if this doesn't work as hoped, in terms of higher TV audience, ticket sales, media coverage and marketing opportunities? I guess NASCAR could reverse itself and alter the title run to a best-of-three race series, but I'm strongly sure the media and public would see that as going backwards.

Honestly, we won't know for two or three years if France has painted himself into a corner.

I think the chances are good this will produce a bounce come November. I have to admit, though, I continue to have an uneasy feeling about Homestead. Can you begin to imagine the negative feelings from Junior Nation if someone spins out in front of Dale at Homestead or a tire blows? In other words, something out of Earnhardt's control that costs him the Cup? Such bad vibes might trigger an earthquake in Florida!

I think the most significant effects will be seen at the elimination events -- Dover, Talladega and Phoenix -- due to the make-or-break nature of the situation. But also because of the number of drivers who still will be championship eligible. Out here at Phoenix International Raceway, for example, eight drivers will start with a Cup chance. We've typically seen two-three with a realistic shot. Some people prefer one-on-one rivalries -- let's say Junior vs. Kyle Busch -- but the selling point for race promoters will be having a lot more drivers still in the mix. 

France has been rejiggering NASCAR in many ways the last few years, from his executive management team to the pressure he imposed for more side-by-side racing and exciting finishes supposedly to come from the new car. The results have been mixed, at best, while it's too soon to grade some of his other moves. NASCAR's health for the next decade has been secured with billions of TV dollars, perhaps due to good timing, because of the expansion of sports cable TV and those networks' need for content to fill all those hours.

As this version of the Chase unfolds, while fans' eyes will be on the drivers, the industry's eyes will be on Brian France. In NASCAR, as in life and sports and business, it's all about leadership.

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, September 07, 2014

MORE NOTES FROM MY LEGAL PAD

Since my lists go page-after-page, and since many of the previous responses were interesting, here are some more notes from my legal pad:

What in the bleep happened to the quality of racing at Richmond? Last weekend didn't help sell a single ticket for any Chase event. Was it Goodyear's new tire combination? If so, and if NASCAR wasn't on top of the tire situation (again), well . . . what say you, Mr. "Side-by-Side Racing" Brian France?

Given who his sponsor is, and remembering that Brad Keselowski admitted he was "buzzed" during post-Cup interviews two years ago at Homestead, Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett best be careful when describing Brad K's lackluster 2013 season as a post-championship "hangover." 

Back in the late 1990s, ESPN pulled motorsports-know-nothing Rece Davis out of who-knows-where? to host the weekend editions of rpm2night. The 1998 CART season opened at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and on the Thursday afternoon there, I was in the paddock area talking with a half-dozen of the series' Biggest Name drivers. Someone noticed Davis off in the distance and that triggered a bunch of comments from said drivers. I'll be polite and say they had minimally high regard for him. A couple of minutes later Davis started walking toward our group and the drivers quickly scattered in several directions on their motorbikes, leaving me to talk with him. I'll never forgot that Davis was so out-of-touch with reality that he told me how "welcoming" all the drivers had been to him. (Hey, Rece, that's called PR!) This memory came back to me while in the garage area before the IndyCar season finale at Auto Club Speedway. NBCSN has at least one talking head that's regarded by this generation of competitors (some of whom were at Homestead in '98) the same way Davis was. If NBCSN production boss Sam Flood were to spend any meaningful time in honest discussion with IndyCar drivers, he would know that.

I about fell out of the driver's seat on my trip to Fontana when I heard a SiriusXM NASCAR channel host say NASCAR "doesn't make decisions based on PR." What! Please tell me an example of a decision the sanction hasn't made in recent years that didn't involve PR!

Under the philosophy and leadership of NASCAR's conjured-up Integrated Marketing (Non) Communications theory, more and more statements from the sanction include these words: "NASCAR will not comment on . . . "

Look no further than Atlanta's victory lane to see one reason why Hendrick Motorsports is NASCAR's most successful team. There we saw Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all together congratulating Kasey Kahne on his victory. Trust me, folks, this doesn't happen within a lot of other organizations.

Absolutely no one should be surprised Beaux Barfield is no longer IndyCar's race director. Numerous people who have worked directly with him for the last three years have expressed to me, well, I'll call it their "concerns" about his attitude, arrogance and inconsistency. I experienced it once myself. Barfield's status was strongly signaled to me last May at Indy and that was before the bogus red flag near the end (pre-determined by him and excused post-fact by SAFER repairs.) And have no doubt Jon Beekhuis wants the job.

The Big IMSA staff shakeup, with two races still to run this season, proves how stunningly wrong Jim France, Ed Bennett and Scott Atherton got it in putting their Year 1 merged-series program and organization together. There have been officiating, operational, marketing and communications problems right from the first race Rolex 24. Race control blew the call on a class winner at Daytona and the top PR guy -- highly hyped to me by NASCAR IM(N)C -- lasted exactly one race. So who will call France, Bennett and Atherton on the carpet?

I don't care if a beer company is a team's sponsor, the team PR rep should not be drinking beer on the victory podium. It's his/her job to coordinate and stage good PR photos showing the driver, owner and crew enjoying the product, not to publicly knock down a can himself.

The IndyCar championship stage ceremony at Fontana was one of the worst organized I've seen in decades of experience. I stood off on the side and watched almost the entire thing. For example, time was wasted as the Chevrolet group came up and then off the podium three times for photos. Why wasn't it planned well enough to do once? And thus help get Will Power, etc. into the media center sooner for journalists already battling impossible late Saturday night deadlines. Another issue for CEO Mark Miles to fix.

Here are seven words any ticket buyer hates to hear in pre-race driver interviews: "It's going to be hard to pass."

And here's the driver cliche I'm tired of hearing: "The crew has been working hard." If someone isn't working hard, he/she shouldn't be on the payroll.

It's obvious to me ESPN is about out of ideas how to present it's NHRA event coverage. The same old clips and soundbites are put out there every year about the U.S. Nationals. "It's Indy!" We get it. Move on.

We're coming up on what I consider to be sport's most self-important and overblown (with the possible exception of NASCAR's All-Star race) event, golf's Ryder Cup. Let's see: The team members must be custom outfitted for expensive designer uniforms for the opening ceremony, practice rounds, each match, closing ceremony, off-course media and leisure time and social events. Ditto for their significant others. How about this for an idea? Redirect that time, money and effort into grass-roots programs to counter golf's declining participation rate.

I might scream the next time I hear a TV or radio pundit tell us: "It's going to be interesting."
Really? Wow, what great insight!

I've noted before that politics and government often showcase PR's best spinners and image-makers. But not lately. As if the Carney Barker's lack of credibility as White House press secretary wasn't a big enough disgrace . . . well . . . if you want to see how not to do it, watch any briefing from State Department spokeswomen Jen Psaki or Marie Harf. Their presentations make what any Kardashian has to say seem intellictual. My friend and PR legend Jim Chapman was a Democrat and a committed liberal, but I have no doubt he'd be embarrassed by these inept and amateurish performances.

[ more next week . . . ]