• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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 . . . ]