Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Update: It's been a long time since we remembered Dale Earnhardt Sr. This column was originally published in March of 2011.
Lots of fans have been asking about Dale Earnhardt Sr. and his life and times. It's pretty easy to find a record of his accomplishments on the track and a history of his family life, but there is a lot more.
For those of us who worked in NASCAR television in the 80's and 90's, there was little doubt that sooner or later you would encounter Big E. He was a street smart person who could size someone up pretty quickly and had little patience for those with agendas.
Times were different then. Drivers stayed at hotels and ate out locally with everyone else. Lots of problems got solved in hotel bars and sometimes others got started. It wasn't as shiny, corporate or polished. It was a lot of fun.
We are going to encourage folks to add their own Dale Sr. stories on this blog post and see how it goes. I'll start with one of mine. It all began when NASCAR decided to branch out and go race at the Brickyard.
At the time, I was working at Sunbelt Video in Charlotte, NC. This company produced Inside Winston Cup Racing for TNN, did a ton of corporate work for sponsors at the track and generally was responsible for archiving NASCAR race footage. Back then, NASCAR wanted nothing to do with the TV business.
NASCAR decided to create a kind of temporary theme park on the IU-PUI campus with different kinds of interactive stock car attractions. It was designed to get folks in that area up to speed on the sport. It was going to be called NASCAR World.
Sunbelt Video was asked to handle the TV part and gladly said yes. Basically, a big high-tech tent was put in place and inside we built a stage and bleachers for an audience. The idea was to bring in several hundred fans during the days before the race and have radio and TV shows originate from the site.
Back then, This Week in NASCAR with Eli Gold was a weekly one-hour show that featured a driver on live TV answering questions from the audience and phone callers. The featured driver on the final night before the race was going to be Dale Earnhardt Sr.
When practical jokes are played, I am not the one involved in setting them up. As I have been reminded many times in my TV life, I am a wonderful victim. At various times on the road I have been duct taped into my hotel room, put on the wrong flight and famously had my legs shaved by a college women's swim team. That wasn't pretty.
I had absolutely nothing for Dale Earnhardt and he knew it. I was a Boy Scout and he was a heavyweight boxer. I knew my role and this show in Indy was going to be a big moment for both of us. He was set to be driven to the show by a police car and was right on time.
Eli was already on stage, the entire house was packed and Earnhardt was the reason. All he had to do was walk up three little steps, come out from behind Eli and take a seat. I shook his hand, said thanks for coming and left him in the hands of the Stage Manager.
I wanted to see the fans, so I walked around to the front of the big tent and then inside. It had been closed off a while back after being filled with fans in black shirts with the number three on everything they wore. It was just a couple of minutes until air time, the crowd was screaming and everything was perfect.
The show hit the air live, Eli said his hellos and then went to a quick commercial before introducing Earnhardt. It was electric. One of the ushers we hired stood next to me and as Eli began to introduce Dale I said to him quietly that this was going to be fun. Then, it happened.
The usher said, "You think?" I recognized the voice. My head swiveled. Staring me in the face about three inches from my nose was Earnhardt. Eli was looking back for him, the crowd was now standing and the only thing Earnhardt wanted to do was watch me turn a shade of purple that cannot be accurately described in the English language.
Before I could decide to scream, faint or have a heart attack he was gone. He happily walked up the aisle of screaming fans from behind carefully knocking the baseball hats off the ones on the end of the rows. When he got to the chest high stage he got a running start, jumped up on it and slowly stood up. The entire place went nuts.
Eli is a pro who is used to driver antics and he got Earnhardt in the chair. It was finally occurring to the chosen fans that their heads had gotten the famous Earnhardt swat as he came down the aisle. The Dale show was in full effect and yet only two of us knew the reality.
As Eli started into his opening remarks, Earnhardt was slowly unveiling the one trait that every single person who knew him had experienced. As I stood there shaking my head and wondering if my heart would return to a normal rhythm, I was the recipient of one of the most famous shit-eating grins in the known universe.
What made it more special to him was that none of the screaming fans, the show host or even the producer knew what had happened. Earnhardt had seen his opportunity, taken it and was now basking in the glow of his achievement. I just had to sit down.
That's one of my Earnhardt TV stories. Others that have been told to me over the years involve his boating adventures, various activities around town during race weeks and scaring the heck out of fans by stopping by their infield campers.
If you have been around for a while in the sport as a fan or a working type, please feel free to share a story or anecdote about Dale Sr. with us. I appreciate our Twitter friends for encouraging me to offer this topic. To add your comment, just click the comments button below. Thanks for stopping by.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
Update: The story below was originally published on April 3, 2012. Today we learned of 12 sports writers and editors fired from The Sporting News even as it partners with a UK-based company called Perform to chase digital sports rights and invests millions of dollars into this project. Another bad digital decision for this very strange management group.
It's been a long and winding road for The Sporting News (TSN). The weekly "Bible of Baseball" that started publishing in 1886 is now an online publication struggling for an identity. Pictured above is a 1949 edition featuring Jackie Robinson.
In 2006, TSN was purchased by American City Business Journals (ACBJ). If this company sounds familiar, it should. Scenedaily.com and Rowdy.com are two NASCAR online brands owned by ACBJ. The company calls itself the largest publisher of metropolitan newsweeklies in the country and is known for its business journals.
Back in 2008 a new online version of TSN was rolled-out called Sporting News Today. The project was designed to deliver updated sports news in a daily online publication. Click here for a story from sportscircuits.com about the ultimate demise of the product in August of 2011.
In a subsequent move to gain digital market share, ACBJ pulled-off one of the most unpopular moves in recent sports history. Click here for a story from sportsbybrooks.com on how ACBJ paid America Online (AOL) millions to kill the popular AOL Fanhouse and replace it with TSN-branded sports content.
"Our target is to be a top 10 sports site in terms of traffic, and the immediate combination with AOL should satisfy that on day one," TSN president Jeff Price said to paidcontent.org.
Price left Sports Illustrated Digital in April of 2009 after working as SI's Chief Marketing Officer for years before being named president in 2005. His history is one of mergers, agreements for shared content and purchases of smaller sports websites. He joined TSN in February of 2010.
Price's shared content efforts appeared to get a shot in the arm when AOL decided, in what some called a desperate move, to purchase The Huffington Post for over $300 million. Click here for the official press release where the top executives from both companies talk about everything under the sun, except sports coverage.
TSN boasts of its connection to the Huffington Post through the AOL deal. Click here to view the front page at HuffingtonPost.com. To get to sports, users must click the "More" button. The sports tab sits between the "Good News" and "Gay Voices" sections. Once on the sports front page, there are no links to NASCAR or motorsports of any kind. TSN is a tiny link at the bottom of the page.
All of this brings us back to NASCAR and ACBJ's record in the sport. Most fans remember the day in January of 2010 when stories began to appear online about a massive layoff underway inside ACBJ. It was targeted at NASCAR and it was not pretty.
Click here for a link to a Tom Jensen story about the demise of the NASCAR Scene publication. Once the dominant publication in the sport, ACBJ never "got it" during the digital transition and in the end Scene was closed and staff members terminated.
Two of the remaining NASCAR-themed business interests of ACBJ were SceneDaily and Rowdy, both online projects. Rowdy was a small and independent effort led by a group from Charlottesville, VA. ACBJ liked their efforts so much they bought the entire thing and moved the Rowdy staff to Charlotte, NC.
Click here for the note only weeks ago from Rowdy.com co-founder Tom van der Voort about changes to that business. After several years of floundering without direction or support, Rowdy.com was closed. Any remaining NASCAR content will appear on the TSN website.
Tuesday, word began to creep out that this time it was SceneDaily about to be affected. Reporter Bob Pockrass then confirmed that later this week visitors to SceneDaily.com will be redirected to the TSN NASCAR page. Just like that, another stand-alone NASCAR website is gone.
Pockrass advises that he is still working full time on the NASCAR beat for TSN. Click here to view the TSN NASCAR page which features little original content, many links to other news sources and a generic feel. It's clearly a move to put NASCAR content into a much broader online framework within a specific brand.
Price has the backing of top executives at ACBJ who are putting it on the line that he can bring The Sporting News brand back to life and make it a profitable business. With bigger fish to fry, NASCAR is going to take a step back on the sports priority list.
SceneDaily and Rowdy were both good websites that made a concerted effort to provide fans with original content. Thanks to those who worked on them both, your efforts will be missed.
We welcome your comments on this topic. To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below. Thank you for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Blast from the past: This story was originally posted last fall when the first rumblings of big movement within FOX were underway. Today, FOXSports1 is being formally announced at the FOX "upfront" sales meeting out West. Twitter users can stay updated on this big topic by following TheDalyPlanet account. It should be interesting to see what is being added and what motorsports series and shows are going away.
When an athlete does something wrong, they get put on probation. When this action is to be shielded from the media, the term is secret probation. But the top of the heap is when someone does something that is so outrageous it deserves a special penalty. Then, it's double-secret probation time.
The logo above is from the FOX Sports 1 network in Australia. As you may remember, FOX executives Rupert Murdoch and David Hill both came from down under with a long history in sports TV. FOX operates multiple sports channels in that nation. Now, one may be making the trek to the US.
The American version of FOX Sports 1 is the double-secret probation cable TV network. This topic is already causing a big mess and the FOX Sports gang is trying very hard to keep it out of the media at all costs. In this day and age, that is next to impossible.
The hot rumor that has been simmering for months is that FOX Sports is set to end the floundering SPEED channel and rebrand that network into the US version of FOX Sports 1. SPEED has never flourished under the network's various management teams and continues trying to be a racing network on the weekends and a lifestyle/reality network on the weekdays.
The big problem for FOX is that ABC, NBC and CBS all have national cable sports networks up and running right now. FOX is far behind on the new sports TV business model and is playing catch-up. In typical FOX style, throwing money at the issue seems to be the order of the day.
Here is an excerpt from a Thursday Broadcasting & Cable story by John Lafayette on what FOX and parent company News Corp are about to pay to buy high-profile programming for the new network:
News Corp. is stepping up to the plate to take a swing at building a national sports cable network that can take on leader ESPN, sliding past Comcast’s NBCUniversal.
NBCU has already rebranded its Versus network as the NBC Sports Channel and has been hoping to get a boost from a new Major League Baseball deal. But according to published reports, Comcast got left in the on-deck circle because it wasn’t willing to pay as much as News Corp., which will be putting a bigger package of games on both its Fox Network and its Speed auto-racing channel, which will be rebranded as Fox Sports One.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the COO of News Corp was taking questions Thursday from the media after a communications conference in New York City. Sports was very much on the mind of the reporters. Here is Lafayette's round-up on that topic:
News Corp. COO Chase Carey said reports that the company would convert its Speed channel to a national sports network that would compete with ESPN were "rumors and speculation" at this point.
The latest round of stories about a new national network came amid word that News Corp.'s Fox was near a new deal with Major League Baseball that would give it rights to televise more games than its current deal does.
"We obviously haven't announced anything," said Carey, speaking at the Goldman Sachs 21st Annual Communacopia Conference in New York Thursday.
Carey did say, "We do like the sports business," adding that the company's underdeveloped networks like Speed and Fuel "do give us a real opportunity to do some really exciting things."
SPEED is currently on the air riding out existing contracts, including NASCAR. The sanctioning body's deal with the network is up in 2014 and nothing has been said about the continuation of any NASCAR programming on the new network. That is just not a good sign.
The bottom line is that other sports events being acquired for FOX Sports 1 conflict with the large blocks of Friday through Sunday time SPEED now devotes to NASCAR. While FOX does have other cable network outlets like FX and FUEL potentially available for NASCAR shows, it would seem doubtful that the kind of February to November NASCAR programming now carried by SPEED will return.
It will also be very interesting to see if NASCAR returns to the FOX Broadcast Network for Sprint Cup Series races in the new TV contract without the associated programming on a support network like SPEED. Normally, part of the leverage to carry that type of "shoulder" content comes from awarding the same network or media company the big prize of live races.
It was reported this week that on September 14 FOX Sports filed for a trademark on "FOX Sports 1" with the US Patent & Trademark Office. If the lack of original programming on SPEED and the billions about to be spent on Major League Baseball by FOX did not convince you that change was coming, perhaps trademarking the new network nationally will do it.
Working hard to live up to its double-secret probation status, FOX and News Corp have steadfastly denied any change is taking place. No one in the rank-and-file at SPEED has been told anything. If NASCAR has made any determination of future plans with FOX, the sanctioning body is not saying a word.
Change eventually comes to all media properties and in the digital age of new technology this is really no surprise. It's just a shame that NASCAR was never allowed to be the centerpiece of SPEED over the last decade. It just makes one wonder why these two companies were never able to use that kind of cooperation to grow their own internal brands.
We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.
Sunday, January 27, 2013
A man was going to do what was clearly dangerous. He was going against the odds. He had courage, desire and a single-minded focus. Despite our bravado, the vast majority of us would never do what he was about to do. It was the perfect stage to keep the undivided attention of millions around the world.
Perhaps like many families, we stumbled across the Redbull Stratos project through news reports and social media mentions. We went to the website of the live mission first, then added the Discovery HD Channel telecast as a second screen. We also actively chatted with others on Twitter as things unfolded. Three screens for one special event viewed spontaneously.
The drama of watching Felix Baumgartner slowly drift up toward the edge of space was heightened by the camera shots of his wife and family members. The announcers built the suspense. The fundamental idea that he was going to jump out of his capsule and free-fall some twenty-four miles back to earth with just a parachute was hard to grasp.
Every spectacle needs moments. Eventually, the capsule reached the height needed for the record attempt. After adjusting the cabin pressure, the live video from inside the capsule gave us the first moment. The door opened and there, in all its High Definition glory, was earth. It was a long way down.
As Baumgartner finished his final checklist, he slid his feet out of the capsule door. Across the world, folks watching on every single kind of device from TV's to cell phones got the very same feeling. This guy was actually going to do it right now. The sense of danger was very real, even if the only thing I had to ride was my couch.
The video showed Baumgartner standing on the small ledge outside the capsule. The angle switched to one from overhead looking down. Key to the tension from the start of the event were the pictures. Then, with a small lean forward, he was gone. It was actually happening.
That moment of being terrified, thrilled and amazed all at the same time felt familiar. As Baumgartner hurtled toward earth risking his own life in front of my eyes it hit me all at once. This is the way I used to feel about a Sprint Cup Series race. This heart in your throat can't stop watching excitement is what got me into NASCAR.
The cheers went up when Baumgartner's parachute finally opened. There was still a long way to go but at least things were going according to plan. The thrill had changed into an appreciation of just how much effort had gone into this one event. Now it was time to see if he could bring it home.
From twenty-four miles up Baumgartner eased his way back to solid ground and just for good measure, he stuck the landing. My viewing partner and I looked at each other. Without saying a word, we both knew what had happened. We had shared a unique moment with each other from just being there.
That is the way I used to feel when a top-notch NASCAR race was over. It could be a high-speed run at Michigan or a short-track slugfest at Richmond. The drivers were ready and willing to take a risk to win. The drama would unfold with the announcers and pictures playing a key role. The story developed without any of us knowing the result.
The real key to making this work was that each race was a spectacle. Each race offered an individual challenge that would last until the final turn of the final lap. Fate and luck would play a role that was yet to be determined. The danger was real, the intensity was high and sport was driven by the personalities involved.
I stopped enjoying Sprint Cup Series races a while ago and stopped watching live telecasts this season. Rather than let the spectacle of each unique event unfold, things seem to be centered on simply getting in position to participate in the post-season Chase for the Championship. Team decisions are centered on what can be lost, not gained, by taking risks.
Inside the Chase, it's even worse. The announcers are caught-up in trying to promote the playoff format at the expense of the actual event in progress. The stories of most of the teams in the field are rarely told, regardless of the racing value. Teams not in the Chase just don't matter, despite the fact those drivers are taking the same risks and working just as hard as the chosen twelve.
I miss that lump in the throat feeling when watching racing. When Baumgartner leaned forward and stepped off the ledge, you knew he was committed. You knew he was willing to take a risk. It was pure spectacle. Maybe someday racing will change back to embrace that style of celebrating every event in a unique fashion and let the season championship be a result of risk rather than calculation.
We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.
The Wallace father and son made it personal. They assured fans on the TV commercials that the Wallace family could vouch for US Fidelis. Thousands of NASCAR fans trusted the Wallaces and signed-up, believing the extended warranties would cover almost everything. Unfortunately, it was all a lie.
"Trouble Brewing For Rusty Wallace And US Fidelis Sponsor" was a Daly Planet column from June of 2009. Click on the title to read it. Various media outlets had begun to report on the reality of US Fidelis. NBC's Today Show dropped a bomb with a look at what was happening inside the company. That video can be seen by using the story link above.
"Will NASCAR Learn From US Fidelis Collapse?" was the next column posted here in March of 2010 when the US Fidelis empire came crashing to earth. Click the title to read the story. The company had filed for bankruptcy and there was almost certainly going to be criminal charges coming for two of the company founders, Cory and Darain Atkinson.
What was not contained in the subsequent lawsuits and legal actions against US Fidelis were the names Rusty and Steve Wallace. While Rusty Wallace Racing was still owed over $500 thousand in sponsorship dollars when US Fidelis collapsed, that was the least of the worries for the Wallace family.
Federal law changed in the last decade in response to celebrities and athletes endorsing products and companies that were lying about goods and services. "Both advertisers and endorsers may be liable for false or unsubstantiated claims made in an endorsement," is the language of the new law.
This time, the Wallaces walked away with only a dent in their racing wallets. The much larger dent was in the wallets of NASCAR fans across the nation who unknowingly helped to contribute to the over $100 million in cash that the Atkinsons plundered in this scam before it was ended.
"NASCAR Fans Got Fleeced By US Fidelis" was the TDP column on this topic from November of 2010. Click on the title to read it. "U.S. Fidelis suckered consumers through a multitude of lies while its owners, the Atkinsons, drained money out of the company to maintain a lavish lifestyle,” said Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna at the time. A multi-state task force had finally brought the Atkinsons to justice.
On Tuesday, Cory Atkinson plead guilty to fraud and tax evasion in Federal Court. He was sentenced to three years in prison. In ten days, he is expected to again plead guilty to state charges of fraud and should receive an additional four years in jail. His brother Darain, the mastermind of the scam, is expected to spend twice that amount of time in jail when he is also sentenced later this month.
As you can see from the reader comments on the 2009 and 2010 columns, it was quite apparent that something was up with this NASCAR sponsor from the start. Who can forget the endless replays of the Wallace family TV commercials and the unsolicited phone calls that were made by US Fidelis nationwide.
These days, Rusty's NASCAR racing is limited to his appearances in the Infield Pit Studio for ESPN. His race team is closed and his son is out of the Nationwide Series. It seems that perhaps the US Fidelis debacle has been long since forgotten by the NASCAR media.
The lasting damage from this incident is twofold. First, the financial impact felt by NASCAR fans who believed the sales pitch and contracted for extended service warranties with several thousand dollars paid upfront. They may never view Rusty and Steve Wallace quite the same way again.
Secondly, NASCAR thrives on brand loyalty and often uses that term when courting major sponsors. Wallace is a high-profile TV analyst and now a Hall of Fame member. This was not a backmarker hawking diet pills or bbq sauce to pay the tire bill. It was a well-known NASCAR personality selling a vehicle-related product directly to the fan base.
Did NASCAR learn a lesson? That has yet to be seen, but perhaps if Rusty Wallace Racing was alive and well right now the doorbell would be ringing with yet another notice of a civil lawsuit. After all, in today's world the consumer has just as much right to sue the endorser as they do the company providing the product.
At least the ugly end of the US Fidelis episode may give pause to drivers, media personalities and owners in terms of thoroughly researching the companies and products they choose to endorse in the future.
Additional links to the US Fidelis story are furnished below. We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.
US Fidelis Co-Owner Gets 40 Months In Prison - ABC News
US Fidelis Co-Owner Makes No Apology, Blames Others as He’s Sentenced - KMOX/CBS
US Fidelis co-owner Cory Atkinson sentenced on tax and fraud charges - KDSK (with video)
Cory Atkinson sentenced to 40 months in prison on federal fraud charges - St. Louis Business Journal
Right now, it's just a big ugly building sitting on 32 acres of land in Stamford, CT. All that is about to change. Only 65 miles down the road from ESPN, the new powerhouse in the sports TV industry is setting up shop. NBC Sports is coming to town and taking over the site of a former Clairol hair dye factory.
This week a panel of dignitaries including Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy announced a blockbuster economic agreement that will consolidate the various companies now housed under the NBC Sports umbrella in one location. It is a very big addition to the TV sports landscape.
The logo above represents the new name for the VERSUS network starting in January. Make no mistake about it, the NBC Sports Network is a fully-funded effort by the Comcast Corporation to grow their own in-house version of ESPN. Comcast recruited top executives, filled their war chests with Comcast subscriber cash and has now put down roots.
Mark Lazarus is the Chairman of the newly-formed NBC Sports Group. "Our plan (in Stamford) is to redo the administration space, to build what we think is a work environment that is cool and sports-like," Lazarus said. "We will create an open area, an inclusive environment and a place that is conducive to creative output. The equipment that comes in here that will allow us to send sports television and digital media out to the world will be second-to-none, state-of-the-art and we're thrilled to do that here."
There are lots of NBC-themed companies that will be setting up shop in Stamford in addition to VERSUS. They include the NBC Sports group, NBC's Olympic division, NBC Sports Digital and the Comcast Sports Management Group that oversees 11 Comcast Sports regional TV networks. In addition, the NHL Network will also build studios on the site as it continues a ten-year partnership with NBC.
NASCAR fans may remember VERSUS televising selected NASCAR Whelen Modified Races a while back in a TV package that featured SPEED's Jimmy Spencer in the TV booth. VERSUS continues to be the home of the vast majority of the IndyCar Series races. Lazarus confirmed that the new Stamford studios would be the home of IndyCar, college football and Olympic studio production in addition to multiple sports talk shows.
While the facility will not be up and running for over a year, the Stamford commitment from the "new look" NBC Sports Group could be huge for NASCAR. SPEED has recently confirmed with its new TV programming orders that no new NASCAR TV series are on the horizon. That certainly did not sit well with the Charlotte-based NASCAR Media Group (NMG).
The TV production arm of the sport has been searching for new strategic partners. There is little doubt that the NBC Sports Network is going to need a big block of original programming to compliment the live sports coverage at night and on the weekends. The current NASCAR TV partners have been of little help in this regard.
FOX is an over-the-air broadcast network and carries no additional NASCAR programming. TNT has been steadfastly refusing any additional NASCAR TV series for years. That group is six races and done. ESPN has now pushed the NASCAR Now series back to early afternoon and cancelled the later re-airing, essentially killing off the weekday shows.
The NBC Sports Network could potentially partner with NMG in carrying original reality or race footage-based new TV series. There are tons of TV series concepts flying around, but none have gained even a toehold with the current TV partners.
The long-term strategic move of NBC Sports to Stamford could also signal a renewed interest in perhaps luring the company back to televising NASCAR racing. Next year the sport will begin negotiations with interested parties to discuss the top three national touring series. The current TV contracts expire at the end of the 2014 season.
There have been no statements from NBC about an interest in racing coverage, but it's been obvious that the company has been involved in much more fundamental pursuits including building a base of operations. Right now, NASCAR can wait.
It's certainly interesting to consider that by the time 2014 rolls around and the current contracts are over, NBC may present a tremendously powerful combination of broadcast, cable and digital distribution options that could seem very attractive to NASCAR.
If Mr. Lazarus expresses an interest in joining the upcoming round of NASCAR TV negotiations, we will certainly pass that information along. One item to clarify for TDP readers is that NBC was not the mystery player featured in the "New Potential Player In NASCAR TV Negotiations" post from late July. That should keep some folks talking about the topic in general for a while longer.
We welcome your comments on this topic. To add your opinion, just click on the comments button below. We simply ask that you stay on the topic, refrain from any profanity or hateful speech and do not post links to other website stories. Thank you for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Change has been a buzzword in NASCAR for quite some time now. On the heels of the tragic passing of Dale Earnhardt Sr., a movement was set in motion to change the equipment in the sport. Now, over a decade later, it is the sanctioning body itself that continues to change.
Just as the COT became a familiar term for fans during the equipment transition, the term "brand marketing" has become a central theme as the sport reacts to the new media landscape. Long gone are the days of a powerful and robust NASCAR media presence at the track and across the nation.
The digital revolution has closed newspapers and magazines. It has ended the careers of many print journalists. Veteran fans can click-off the names of NASCAR reporters, writers and columnists who are now gone from the sport. The list of NASCAR-related print publications now out of business or limping along in an online form is familiar.
Over on the TV side, the last few months have seen the president of the NASCAR Media Group resign. The head of NASCAR's in-house TV production wing also left in the same shuffle. The Executive Producer of that same group, responsible for many of the sport's best TV and film projects, was fired late last year.
Just like the print media, NASCAR's TV presence has been a victim of change. Away from the track the demand for NASCAR TV programming has virtually ceased. In February, Showtime cancelled the high-dollar Inside NASCAR program. Over the last few years, SPEED stopped buying original NASCAR series and shifted to non-racing reality-style shows. Efforts to expand NASCAR program sales to other cable networks proved fruitless.
NASCAR was faced with a dilemma. While there was plenty of action on the track, the media pipeline to communicate that excitement was broken. Without enough reporters and writers to act as messengers, the media presence of the sport was shrinking. Without the TV shows dedicated to the sport, NASCAR's ability to cultivate new fans and to sell sponsors on the basis of national exposure was fading.
NASCAR chairman Brian France, after commissioning a professional review of these issues, decided to make a major internal shift. Instead of a stand-alone independent media presence reporting directly to him, NASCAR's entire public and media relations function would be moved to the marketing department.
Click here to read the official announcement. Ultimately, France hired the very executive who had done the review to become the new Chief Communications Officer. Brand marketing executive Brett Jewkes joined NASCAR to work for Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Steve Phelps. In the blink of an eye, the pendulum had swung from the classic media and PR approach to a marketing-driven agenda.
In one way, the changes are easy to understand. The marketing department is used to creating content about the sport and directly distributing it. The pipeline established over the years to deliver information about teams, tracks and other topics to the media is still firmly in place.
The new configuration is called the Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) department. Even Larry McReynolds would have been proud of the statement describing the IMC function. "The IMC will provide overall thought leadership in the communications space," said the news release.
The driving force behind this change takes us back to the digital world. Social media has changed the traditional role of the press by allowing direct interaction between sports organizations like NASCAR and the fan base. Facebook, Twitter and emerging specialty sites are now providing a bridge that lets NASCAR itself replace the role formerly held by the media.
NASCAR speaks directly to 3 million fans when it posts to the sport's official Facebook site. The sport's Twitter account has crossed the 500 thousand follower mark and is growing by the week. NASCAR has recently taken control of its own website and will providing all the content starting in 2013.
For the remaining media members, NASCAR provides a double top-secret website at NASCARmedia.com. Not only does this site provide raw content like press releases, photos and stats but it also provides complete stories on NASCAR topics that can simply be downloaded and used by news and sports content providers. It's a one-stop digital media shop.
While the Infield Media Center at the Sprint Cup Series tracks used to be the hub of activity for the sport, it now houses a group of reporters often all tweeting the exact same content for hours at a time. Follow ten reporters during a race on Twitter and you will get ten copies of basically the same running race commentary. The challenge for fans today is how to sort-out the best way to "consume" the race outside of the TV and radio coverage. NASCAR believes it has an answer.
Weeks ago, NASCAR embarked on a project with Twitter to jump in and control the flow of information being seen on the NASCAR twitter account. Now during races the content stream is "curated" by a Twitter representative as it happens. The resulting stream of PR-friendly information is dry as toast but fully under control. That is a familiar theme.
The most recent development speaks volumes about the future of the sport. In the NASCAR Hall of Fame studios in Charlotte, right next to the new NASCAR.com offiices, will be the Fan and Media Engagement Center (FMEC). A drawing of the new project is shown above. It might as well be called the Misson Control of Marketing. Click here to read the media release on the topic.
"A platform that facilitates near real-time response to traditional, digital and social media," said NASCAR about the FMEC in the release. "This is a clear example of our commitment to using cutting-edge technology to better inform our sport," said CMO Phelps. "Ultimately, this tool will help our industry connect with media and fans more effectively and efficiently."
What the FMEC also does while it engages fans and media is measure things. "Measurement also will be a key function of the FMEC," said the release. "Those capabilities will expand across qualitative and quantitative measurements and include tonality, volume, proximity and other coverage attributes in regular reports the FMEC will generate."
Now several IMC staffers can see, hear and respond to any snippet of information about the sport being sent by TV, radio or the Internet. On the new digital playing field, NASCAR is establishing a presence it had roundly rejected up to this point. Next season your Facebook post, tweet or chatroom comment could be weighed and measured in Charlotte without you knowing it ever happened.
The fear is that what goes missing from this configuration is critical throught. That is, the fundamental ability to disagree. While media relations types love a good debate, that is the last thing a marketing person cares to participate in. Opinion in the media is sacred, but in the marketing world it simply dilutes the message.
It will be October before the FMEC begins weekend duty and 2013 before NASCAR unveils its new website. While it's clear how we arrived at this place in time, that does not make it any easier to digest. Ultimately, the challenge for the IMC is to provide content that allows fans to believe they were informed about NASCAR without being sold a product or message at the same time.
That challenge could perhaps be described as simply passing along news about the sport vs. providing "thought leadership in the communications space." Makes you wonder just what Dale Sr. would have thought about all these bells and whistles.
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