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IndyCar can't afford another mistake

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For more on the sports, follow Tom Davis via Twitter at Tom101010.

Series lacks leadership, needs new ideas

Tuesday, October 30, 2012 - 11:55 am

Give both the National Hockey League, as well as IndyCar credit for this much, the two sport entities are in the news this week and neither are even in the midst of scintillating seasons. In fact, it is just the opposite, as both are so poorly managed that their ineptness has resulted – temporarily at least – in gaining publicity. But study both leagues and you'll see that the clock is ticking on their 15 minutes of infamy.

In the case of the NHL, for the second time in a decade its leadership is perilously close to canceling yet another season. Not that America cares. But I do, because the sport is a fantastic one.

In the case of IndyCar, currently no one is guiding the series despite the sport being at an extremely important crossroads, due to CEO Randy Bernard “resigning” late Sunday. Again, not that America cares. But again, I do, because the sport could be a fantastic one.

Both leagues lack leadership (one figuratively and the other literally) and because of that, both leagues are speeding – like Ryan Hunter-Reay – into obscurity.

For anyone wanting to debate the relevance of IndyCar, try to digest this number: 141,000.

That is how many more people watched the championship game of the WNBA Finals earlier this month than watched the typical IndyCar race this past season.

The series has undertaken several significant steps to try and get back on the track and in the race, so to speak. However, right now it's a heavily damaged car being driven by Simona de Silvestro. Here are some mechanical adjustments that would get the series at least back on the lead lap:

Know what you are

Fans that watched Takuma Sato risk his life at nearly 225 m.p.h. on the final lap of May's Indianapolis 500 saw what epitomized this sport. Speed, skill, guts, risking it all for a moment of glory and a place in history; that's IndyCar. What more do you need to market than that? That needs to be the focal point of every marketing campaign this series has.

Remember who you are

Indy car racing was built on a legacy of American studs speeding around oval tracks at make-you-shriek levels inches from death. The names of Mears, Foyt, Andretti, and Unser tested the limit of sanity and we all lived vicariously through them.

So why does this series next year have 13 races on road courses and just six on ovals? Because this series lacks both leadership and judgment.

Not only would racing on ovals afford fans the speeds, passing and being able to view more than 1/16th of the race, but it makes for better racing (i.e. television ratings). Nothing says “hand me the remote” more loudly than having to watch a car hitting its brakes every seven seconds, with the occasional slide off into some sand. If I wanted to see that, I'll get on I-465 at 5:15 p.m. on a Tuesday.

A handful of road courses would serve a very useful purpose, however. Conducting a number of them in major markets would be a really cool (and intelligent) thing to do.

Having races in Long Beach, Sao Paulo, Toronto, Sonoma, and Houston are great ideas. Now the series needs to add one in New York, move the Detroit race back to the Michigan Speedway (no one wants to go to downtown Detroit), and switch the St. Petersburg race to Miami (is the target audience 77-year-olds or 27-year-olds).

Also, IndyCar needs to move the Iowa race to Chicago. If this series is a legitimate one, then it shouldn't be going to Newton, Iowa for any reason.

Remember where you are

If there is one aspect that every sports league should learn from the NHL, it is the importance of not just televising your product, but doing so in the right place. Just as in real estate, it's location, location, location, and striking a deal with the NBC Sports Network is the equivalent of purchasing a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch in Haughville – minus the gunshots.

The network cares deeply about the production of IndyCar, but the fact of the matter is that it is hard to find, nobody wants to go there, and more importantly, nobody DOES go there.

The NHL televised its games on ESPN in the 1990s and Sports Illustrated put the sport on its cover and proclaimed “Why the NHL's hot and the NBA's not.” I'm not making that up (June 20, 1994 edition). The next thing you know, the NHL struck a great deal with the Versus Network (now NBC Sports Network) and most of America hasn't seen Sidney Crosby since.

So it is unfathomable why IndyCar signed not just a deal with the obscure network, but a 10-year deal.

For the sake of the series, whatever the cost is to get out of this deal and sign one with ESPN, IndyCar has to do that. Write the check and move on. And do so before the 2013 season. The move will be a costly one (you'll have to pay ESPN to air your product), but in the long run, it'll be worth every penny.

Six of the 2013 races will air on ABC next year (including the Texas race in primetime) and that is a start in the right direction.

Forget the committee

The leadership of IndyCar recently hired a consulting group to “weigh in with a long-term strategic plan for the series.” Let me know when David Stern hires a committee to help forge the road ahead for the NBA.

Hire a leader, not a consulting group.

Keep it in house

By hiring the aforementioned strong leader, the abundance of criticism from drivers, crew, and owners of the series and its leadership, should not only slow, but cease to exist – in the public eye.

Tweeting about the sport from its leader, drivers and owners is an absolutely fantastic avenue to market the product. But if anyone involved in the sport has a problem with anything, be it a race day ruling, the CEO himself, even how much air is in the tires, that is a private conversation behind closed doors. The sport is in critical condition already, those involved shouldn't be the ones yanking on the IV.

Keep them period

Buzz Calkins held off Tony Stewart to win the initial race in this series in January 1996. Wouldn't it be great if Stewart, an Indiana native and series favorite, was still around racing today? Oh wait, he is – for a rival series.

Stewart, Sam Hornish Jr., Danica Patrick, among others have each bolted for the greener pasture of NASCAR. And don't you think Jeff Gordon would've wanted to win the Indianapolis 500 if given an opportunity?

The NBA won't lose LeBron James to the Italian League. Ever. And IndyCar can't continue to lose its most recognizable names to NASCAR.

If that means pooling money from the owners, siphoning off sponsorship dollars from teams, lowering series costs in order to raise the needed revenue to secure prominent drivers, whatever is needed, then so be it. Until it is able to stem this tide, IndyCar will always be relegated to second tier (if not third) status.

Forget the gimmicks

To supposedly boost interest in the series next year, IndyCar is going to host doubleheader weekends for three street courses (Toronto, Houston, and Detroit), as well as instituting a $1M Triple Crown award for a driver who can win all three of its long oval events in Indianapolis, Pocono and Fontana. The races will have full-length events on both Saturday and Sunday.

Huh?

Just market the speed, skill and daring of your athletes. The avid racing fan (all 292,000 of them) will watch the race regardless. The casual observing fan (which comprises the majority of sport audiences) doesn't care if Scott Dixon is going for $1M or not. Heck, that's not even a lot of money in sports. Sam Young is going to make nearly that from the Pacers this season.

Who is Sam Young? Exactly.

Just market the competition (one race per week) and forget the bells and whistles.

When the NFL has Peyton Manning throwing through a tire for extra points on Sunday afternoons, I'll buy this doubleheader, bonus garbage.

It's all about the marketing

The series has a number of great-looking, young drivers (and have you seen their wives and girlfriends). Sell them. Everywhere. Even if it means paying talk shows to host them.

Sure it helps to have an American driver lead the series, and Hunter-Reay is the reigning champion (speaking of hot wives), but does the casual sports fan know anything about him? No, is the answer to that question.

Guys like Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti could be marketed if they were actually competitive in the series (though they can't live in Indianapolis and Nazareth, Penn., respectively, and reach their marketing potential). But others like Will Power (how IndyCar marketing hasn't taken complete advantage of this guy, with that name, is beyond me), Scott Dixon and JR Hildebrand can and should be seen everywhere.

In closing, IndyCar may not realize it today, but it is at a very critical juncture in the history of the sport. Who it hires to lead it into the future and what that person is given the autonomy to do, essentially will determine whether the sport exists in the future, as racing fans currently know it.

Unlike many other decisions that have been made by series leadership, it can't afford to screw this one up. It may never get another opportunity to save the sport.