Sunday, January 27, 2013

Repost: The Art Of The Spectacle

Spectacles need fundamental elements. Drama, danger and a large crowd are three things that the folks at Redbull assembled on Sunday afternoon. For several hours the social media buzz moved from the NFL to something else. That something else was a spectacle of the highest order.

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.

Repost: US Fidelis - Fleeced NASCAR Fans See Justice

Rusty Wallace and his son Steve looked NASCAR fans right in the eye. On a series of TV commercials several years ago, the duo promoted the extended auto warranty company US Fidelis. The company's website had pictures of the two as anchor images on the homepage. This NASCAR sponsorship was a key part of the company's marketing efforts.

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

Repost: NBC Sports Invades ESPN's Backyard

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

Repost: When Media And Marketing Collide

Update: The Fan and Media Engagement Center is now open. Here is my column on that topic originally published in July.

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 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 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.

We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.