Monday, November 26, 2012

A Fish Out Of Water

56 year-old Canadian comedian and TV show host Howie Mandel will host the Sprint Cup Awards on Friday. Mandel will lead NASCAR through a completely scripted sequence of events that will once again play to an empty stage. The Sprint Cup Series banquets held in Las Vegas have been a bust.

The participants in the festivities will depart from the Concord and Charlotte, NC airports and fly the 1900 miles to Nevada. It would be much easier if they just drove downtown. Charlotte is home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and is currently working very hard to revitalize itself. The NASCAR Plaza and the Charlotte Convention Center are two key pieces of that puzzle.

While a move away from New York City in 2009 was much needed, the Las Vegas destination has not offered the kind of high-profile post-season platform the sport has been seeking. This year, some of the other functions taking place in Las Vegas the same day as Friday's banquet include a national Chiropractors convention, a meeting of certified public accountants and ambulance company owners from across the country looking at new vehicles.

Click here for the website of the Charlotte Convention Center. Right on the front page it promotes the Convention Center as being adjacent to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It seems ironic that this association is part of a pitch to attract business conventions to the area, but has so far failed to lure NASCAR's own end-of-season function to the facility.

Several cities were in the final competition for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. One key reason Charlotte was able to close the deal was the promise of a new forty thousand square foot addition to the existing convention center space. The new ballroom was built as a part of the Hall of Fame. The idea was to make the Hall a unique attraction for convention business from around the country.

The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA) is struggling to effectively use the Convention Center facilities. The Charlotte Observer recently offered the fact that the Convention Center is used only 35 percent of the available time as opposed to 57 percent for other facilities the same size.

Click here for a map of the downtown Charlotte convention facilities that include the Hall of Fame. The idea is to make the entire complex available to larger scale conventions who have flexible facility needs. That would seem to fit the very definition of NASCAR's post-season requirements.

In addition to the actual Sprint Cup Series banquet, the current post-season function is spread over several days and contains several different events. Some of these wind-up being lost in the shuffle. One untapped resource is the National Motorsports Press Association Myers Brothers Award Luncheon. This informal funtion offers candid and sometimes emotional comments from a wide variety of NASCAR personalities.

There has also been a "Victory Lap" that has morphed from a parade of showcars into a burn-out contest and celebrity ride-a-long for NASCAR journalists. The subsequent informal question and answer session called "NASCAR After The Lap" has become a fan sensation and one of the few times drivers can offer candid comments in an informal setting.

While several of these activities are designed for NASCAR fans, Las Vegas is not. The Charlotte area already offers racing shops and a bevy of NASCAR-related attractions. There is little doubt it the banquet came to town additional fan-friendly events would spring up around the area.

Click here for an Observer story documenting the fact that the Charlotte City Council is debating offering a subsidy to attract a key convention to the city. It's a statement on just how tough it is to get that type of business to come to a market and location like Charlotte. Just what does that say about NASCAR?

The time is right to make a switch and bring NASCAR's post-season activity back to the very city that put its faith in a Hall of Fame for the sport. The move would be good for Charlotte, for NASCAR and for the fan base. Bring the banquet to Charlotte.

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hope everyone has an enjoyable and safe holiday weekend. Happy Thanksgiving.  

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Boom Goes The Dynamite - Updated Sunday 11/18

Update 11/18: During the final episode, it was announced that the NASCAR Performance on SPEED would not return for 2013. This show has been a hallmark for the sport and the network for years. The column below was first published when FOX signed the new Major League Baseball deal that confirmed changes would be coming for SPEED.

"Boom Goes The Dynamite" is one of the most popular viral sports videos of all time. Former Ball State University student Brian Collins will live on forever in the YouTube world. The clip shows the total meltdown of a TV sports broadcast, but Collins puts the video over the top with his now infamous line toward the end.

What this video shows is a situation where things are just going so wrong it's painful to watch. On Tuesday afternoon the FOX Media Group officially signed a TV deal with Major League Baseball. Just like that, the SPEED network's fate was sealed. It will cease to exist and become the FOX Sports 1 cable network in 2013.

Boom goes the dynamite.

Here is an excerpt from Joe Flint's outstanding "Company Town" column from the Los Angeles Times:

The new contracts take effect at the start of the 2014 season and run through 2021. FOX's rights fees will go from a per-season average of about $257 million to $495 million. The deal also clears the way for FOX to use baseball for a new national sports cable channel it is planning to launch in the summer of 2013. 

FOX also received broad rights to baseball highlights that could be used for a sports news program similar to ESPN's "SportsCenter." While FOX has declined to comment on its planned channel, people familiar with the matter said the company will convert its niche sports channel called SPEED into a broad-based sports network.

Besides baseball, Fox will also put NASCAR racing, college football, soccer and Ultimate Fighting on its cable channel. The working name for the channel is Fox Sports 1.

Well, there you have it. The baseball game of the week slated for the FOX Sports 1 network is going to be on Saturdays, either at 4 or 7PM Eastern Time. As Flint's column mentioned, FOX will also use the new network for college football on Saturdays as well.

While those sports put FOX out of the mix for a future bid on the Nationwide Series, it does keep hope alive that the Camping World Trucks may survive the cut. The trucks have given SPEED it's only major NASCAR series carried by the network from start to finish for many years.

These tentative plans also seem to suggest an end to the type of all-inclusive TV coverage from the Sprint Cup Series tracks of Saturday activities seen on SPEED in the past. A FOX Sports 1 commitment to both Major League Baseball and college football would add Saturday telecasts throughout most of the NASCAR season.

It's unclear why a mediocre sport like baseball would draw this kind of national TV interest. Like hockey, baseball has traditionally been a regional TV sport up until the playoffs. There are an endless array of MLB games already available on regional sports networks, home satellite and online services. It's a bit of a head-scratcher.

Our primary concern is the confirmation that SPEED will be ending. Flint was the first to offer a timeline for the transition in mentioning next summer. Since it would be impossible to begin 2013 NASCAR coverage in February and then end it in late April for baseball, we can perhaps speculate that this may be the final season for some familiar NASCAR programming and some familiar NASCAR faces on SPEED.

Change in sports television is almost always awkward. There is also little doubt more significant changes in NASCAR's future TV plans are on the way. The tough part is, despite all its faults, SPEED has done the heavy-lifting for NASCAR's TV needs for a very long time.

It still seems strange to believe it all may be over when the current NASCAR racing season ends. But as young Mr. Collins would say: "Boom goes the dynamite!"

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

Click here for a story on what happened to Collins on this fateful night, where he is now and his level of media involvement.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

And On The Fourth Day He Tweeted

There he was, assuming the position that many of us know so well. That is Dale Earnhardt Jr. and he is on Twitter using his sponsor's account to interact with fans. Earnhardt used the National Guard account and the #DaleTakeOver hashtag to spend an hour Wednesday spontaneously answering questions from all kinds of fans.

This is how reporter Aaron Burns described the experience in the Mooresville, NC News:

Earnhardt has a Twitter account but he’s never used it, preferring to stick to Facebook despite fans’ repeated requests for him to join the Twitterverse. He’s one of only two Sprint Cup Series drivers – Carl Edwards is the other – to not tweet regularly.

Among other items, Earnhardt suggested his fans listen to “I’m on Fire” by Town Mountain. He also said his favorite television mini-series is Lonesome Dove and his favorite sandwich is a turkey burger. He didn’t commit to trying Twitter on a full-time basis, but said he enjoyed the experience.

“This is an awesome way to connect with my fans,” Earnhardt said. “(I) appreciate the involvement.”

Once again, it seems that Earnhardt and the entire PR and Marketing arms of both Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports missed the point. It's not about Junior.

"NASCAR Needs Junior On Twitter" was a TDP column from July. Click the title to read the full content. Here is an excerpt:

There is little doubt that if and when the official Earnhardt Twitter account becomes active it will quickly top one million followers. The marketing power for Hendrick, JR Motorsports and NASCAR in general would be tremendous. In a time when sponsors are looking for exposure and the sport is looking for a spokesman, cranking Earnhardt's Twitter account up would make a lot of sense.

It took a little encouragement for some personalities to join Twitter. Perhaps, this might be the encouragement for Earnhardt. Simply by asking folks like Mark Martin, Darrell Waltrip or Kevin Harvick about their experiences Earnhardt would find out just how much a simple app on a cell phone can accomplish.

If there was ever a time for the most popular driver to get in the social media mix, it is now. Perhaps with a little encouragement, Earnhardt can sign-on and discover what many of his celebrity friends, teammates and fellow drivers already know. Twitter is the ultimate way to say thank you to the fans.

It seems ironic that with only days left in the season fans get to interact with Earnhardt on Twitter at 3PM Eastern Time on a Wednesday. As a Twitter search of the @NationalGuard account will prove, even in this limited amount of time conversations were had and questions answered that generated interest and helped to open the door to this elusive personality.

Twitter has proven to be an effective tool for high-profile personalities from NBA star LeBron James to tennis star Rafael Nadal. Earnhardt actively using Twitter would enable that content to be posted on websites that integrate NASCAR tweets through software called widgets.

In other words, websites around the world would be adding Earnhardt's Twitter content to the existing list of drivers from the sport who are already featured. In much the same way that Twitter allows hundred of NASCAR personalities, facilities and media organizations to interact with NASCAR fans the sport would now be able to feature its most popular personality.

James reaches 6.49 million users each time he tweets. Nadal sends each message to 3.35 million fans around the world. It certainly would be interesting to see if an active Earnhardt Twitter account would wind-up having more users than the upcoming Homestead Sprint Cup Series finale has TV viewers.

Anyway you slice it, 2013 is the year of NASCAR taking control of its own digital efforts. It certainly would be nice if the most popular driver played a key role.

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

Friday, November 9, 2012

Familiar Topic: A Sport Or A Show?

A common theme of the fan comments on the Chase for the Championship has been the caution flags displayed by NASCAR without an accident, rain or fluid on the track. Once again this season the debris caution is on the minds of the fans.

Since 2007 and the start of this blog, it has been a topic visited several times. The issue always comes back to one burning question. Is NASCAR ultimately a true sport or just a show for the fans and TV viewers? There are strong supporters on both sides of the topic.

The Chicagoland race was a rough one for me. Debris cautions that were never paid off by the TV team in terms of showing the offending item were just tough to take. One one side, NASCAR is clearly handcuffed this season in terms of the lack of racing action on many tracks.

Click here to read a TDP post from 2010 where multi-car Sprint Cup Series team owner Michael Waltrip talks about an idea he has for closing up the racing action on the tracks. His comments came after a late caution flag for debris in a race at MIS.

Here is an excerpt:

"I am a huge fan of a late caution. In basketball they just call it what it is. A TV time out. In football its the break in change of possessions. In baseball its either a walk to the mound or the end of an inning. Its sports. NASCAR needs to have those too."

"The last caution today was well thought out by NASCAR. Everyone had pitted and no one was adversely effected by the caution. The 100,000 plus fans that drove to MIS to be entertained I'm sure appreciated the late race reset."

"Crews had to make the right calls on pit road and drivers had to get up on the wheel to close the deal. What's wrong with that? Thank you for buying a ticket and gas and a hotel and etc.."

Waltrip's comments drive home the point that the racing dynamic is very different than most sports because of the inability to stop the action. Sports like tennis and baseball contain natural breaks in the action, while NFL football is built around a made-for-TV commercial format disguised as four quarters of action.

SB Nation NASCAR reporter Jeff Gluck addressed the issue in May and featured comments from NASCAR VP of Competition Robin Pemberton. He was responding to a controversy after a late race questionable caution thrown at Richmond that basically cost Tony Stewart a win.

Click here for the full SB Nation story. Here is an excerpt:

"Sometimes, some people are a little more needy than others and they want to see that for whatever reason," Pemberton told reporters attending a function at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "And whatever their thought process and beliefs with the governing body (are), they think they need proof.

"Sometimes you see (the debris) and sometimes you don't, and that's based on TV coverage, basically."

But Pemberton said he doesn't mind TV not showing the reason for debris caution because, "I don't have an issue with (the reason for the caution)."

He also said NASCAR does not keep the debris as evidence of why it called the caution.

"We don't inventory it, we don't tag it and put it a library anywhere or anything," he said. "It's just trash."

Ultimately, the man pictured above is responsible for the officiating in the sport. The calls of his staff shape the event when a caution is waved and fans start searching for the reason why.

Click here for a good read from Jeff Owens at The Sporting News on this topic. Here is an excerpt:

The problem is that it’s not fair to the competition on the track—namely the leader—and it looks bad, damaging the sport’s credibility. Throwing a phantom caution is like an umpire suddenly shrinking the strike zone to make a baseball game move along faster, or football referees ignoring pass interference to create more offense and make the game more exciting.

Manipulating the competition to produce a better show is crossing the line between sports and theatrics, making games a bit too much like professional wrestling (for which, ironically, Stewart once got into trouble for comparing NASCAR to).

But NASCAR can’t get itself into a position where its credibility is constantly questioned because of an overabundance of debris cautions. What it must figure out is why there has been a decline in close racing, leading to fewer natural cautions and taking away from the excitement of close competition. If it can solve that dilemma, there won’t be a need for questionable caution flags.

As the Sprint Cup Series heads to Phoenix, this issue will once again be in the spotlight. Stewart's issue at Richmond where a late caution was thrown seemingly to bunch the field up for the finish proved that it's not only the 1.5 mile tracks where this happens.

The sport is looking for some drama, more storylines and better competition this weekend. It should be interesting to see if the selective use of the caution flag becomes a tool to accomplish this goal.

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Spin Room

Update: The election is over, but the comments are still coming on NASCAR's new approach to controlling the content that is released in the media. Certainly been that way this week.

Originally published 11/5: It's that time of year. After a lot of money and a lot of talk, the race for President is about to be decided. Along the way, most Americans have been exposed to a whole lot of what the media calls "spin."

It is vitally important in today's political world to have a strong contingent of dedicated marketing professionals who only speak to designated points. What they address has been decided in advance and rarely reflects reality. That does not seem to be a problem.

The spin in the media at first is entertaining. It's fun to watch marketing types use catch phrases and talking points to try and influence opinion. Then, the backlash begins. Citizens without an agenda and with their own independent thoughts begin to bristle at being told what to think.

Now, with the Presidential election looming, a key issue is just how much damage the effort at spinning the truth has caused both candidates. Ultimately, each individual has their own perception of what reality is and a set of reasons for their own political views.

This year, we NASCAR fans have seen a shift to the same style of marketing from the sanctioning body. Instead of offering a realistic view of what is actually happening, the message being sent through a wide variety of media outlets is shaped and arranged in advance.

A key piece of this philosophy is to brand anyone who dares move off-message. Buzzwords like hater, complainer and the ultimate scarlet letter of being called anti-NASCAR are quickly thrown at anyone who steps out of line. From on-air personalities to amateur bloggers, anyone with media access is now under scrutiny.

NASCAR is actually constructing a "Fan and Media Engagement Center" in the Hall of Fame building that will continually scan the digital media world and work to influence conversations not in line with the talking points of the sanctioning body. Click here for the TDP post on that topic from July.

Anyone who doubts this can reflect on the published goals of NASCAR's Integrated Marketing Communications group. "The IMC will provide overall thought leadership in the communications space," said the sanctioning body's news release. Well, there is just one little problem.

In today's social media world NASCAR fans are free to voice their own views with the same level of exposure as media members, Sprint Cup Series drivers and even NASCAR executives. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook don't care who you are, they just post the content delivered by the user.

All of this has led to a very interesting dynamic that came to a head this Sunday during the race in Texas. The pre-race chatting on Twitter and Facebook quickly moved from cheering to downright surly once the race began. Following the postings to the #NASCAR hashtag on Twitter and the comments on NASCAR's Facebook page became an exercise in watching pent-up frustration boil over.

Some of the targets were familiar ones. Mysterious caution flags for debris where none was shown on TV. The dominance of Jimmie Johnson in a sport where cars are supposedly equal. The lack of passing when the cars were racing at speed. The frequency of TV commercials shown under green flag conditions and, of course, NASCAR's Chase playoff format.

What is perhaps important to keep in mind is that this is the time of the NASCAR season when the focus should be on the racing. Sunday, it was once again a race that looked a lot like practice. Single cars were spaced out and once in a great while, carefully passing each other. Pit stops and two-tire calls made for the only storylines until late in the event.

The problem is that none of this makes a dent in the marketing spin. What will be sent along through channels is the final lap mini-drama of two drivers actually racing. In a nutshell, that type of basic racing action is what NASCAR fans want to see throughout the race. It is what NASCAR and the tracks promote as being at the heart of the sport. This season, nothing could be further from the truth.

This week pay attention to what you hear on NASCAR's SiriusXM radio channel. Keep an eye on what topics are raised on SPEED's daily Race Hub show. Check Jayski's media links page and scan the headlines for the reality of what you saw on Sunday. It should be an interesting exercise.

Tackling issues head-on and getting public feedback was once said to be a priority. The NASCAR Fan Council was going to change the sport and opinions from the fan base were going to be the primary influence. It seems ironic that efforts this season are to control the message, spin the reality and slap a happy face on what so far is a sport desperately in need of fundamental change.

We welcome your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderate prior to posting.