Sports Media Watch had a chance to speak with IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard on Tuesday, in advance of his scheduled appearance at Friday’s 2010 Ivy Sports Symposium at Princeton University. Topics of conversation include the challenges he’s faced in his first year as IndyCar CEO, viewership for IndyCar races on Versus, replacing the ‘IRL’ moniker and NASCAR’s recent ratings slide.
SMW: You’ll be participating in the Ivy Sports Symposium this Friday, discussing the business of motorsports. How would you describe the business of motorsports today?
Bernard: For IndyCar, it’s looking up. We had a fantastic year this year, we’ve seen our sponsorships more than double, and we’ve seen our ratings increase. So I think we are starting to see some positive output. We’re very optimistic about 2011.
SMW: You’re in your first year as IndyCar CEO. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in this first year, and what sort of the challenges do you foresee in the future?
Bernard: Our biggest challenge when I came here in March was that we were a spec series. And the one thing we heard from fans was that they didn’t want a spec series. They wanted to see open competition when it came to the engines and chassis. One of the first things I did was create the ICONIC advisory committee to determine what the next car would be, and they had 75 days to articulate a strategy that would really reshape the sport of IndyCar. They agreed that fans were right, and it will be open competition. We now have Honda, and as of last Friday we have Chevrolet, and there’s a very high likelihood there could be another one by the end of this week, which gives our fans something that they wanted.
Also, the fact that we are allowing aero kits. Aero kits were designed to give brand identity to auto manufacturers, but at the same time, it was inviting aerospace industry into our sport to really come up with what is the best type of aerodynamics you can do to one of these cars.
SMW: This year was the second that IndyCar was on Versus; you’re in the second year of a ten-year deal. Viewership was up this season, as you referenced earlier, but it was still down about 53% from the last season on ESPN. What do you think can be done to increase the viewership on Versus to the point where it gets back to the ESPN level?
Bernard: Hopefully, we’re going to see that very shortly with Comcast hopefully owning 51% of NBC, if the Department of Justice approves that acquisition. I think you’ll see their universe of homes go up, and when that happens, you’ll see our viewership go up.
If you look at what our ratings were last year and look at what they were this year, I think you’ll see a direct correlation between what the NHL did the first year in comparison to its second year. This year will be very important to us to keep that momentum, double-digit growth, so that we’re setting ourself up so when the amount of homes — hopefully, in a year or two, there will be a hundred million homes — it will help us with our viewership.
SMW: The NHL took a couple of years to really get back to where it had been. There were a couple of lean years there. Do you anticipate the same thing, where it might be two or three years down the line before things really start to pick up?
Bernard: I definitely do. As long as we can continue to keep positive growth — and we have five races on ABC, we need to keep those moving upwards, as well as our Versus — I think most importantly, we just have to educate the motorsports world where Versus is, and make sure that we can attract them over to Versus.
SMW: I believe you’ve stressed the importance of keeping the races on broadcast TV. With the current landscape the way it is, with the NBA Conference Finals on cable, Monday Night Football and the MLB League Championship Series — the general trend seems to be for sports to move from broadcast to cable. Would you look to reverse that for IndyCar, get a few more races on broadcast TV?
Bernard: I would hope so. I think it’s very important that we try to reach as many homes as we can. Network television is typically in about 120 million homes, and cable is in around 100 million homes. It just makes logical sense that you would want to be where your universe is the biggest. Typically, your terrestrial networks are at the low end of those channels, so they’re surfing those more often than cable. So yes, I think that would be a very logical thing for us to do.
SMW: One of the big things you’ve done this year is you’ve done away with the IRL moniker, in part because you wanted to distance IndyCar from the 1990s split and, quoting you now, get those “15-20 million fans we lost in the mid-90s” back. How much do you think changing the name can help that process?
Bernard: I’m not sure changing the name will ever change it. Those 15-20 million fans — I believe there is a significant amount of those who left with the bad blood of the split. We want to distance ourselves from the negative connotations of that era. We know those fans didn’t die out there, I say that time and time again. They were once passionate about open wheel racing, how do we get them back. I think it’s very important that we use a brand that has been built around the world. If you go to Europe or South America and mention IRL, most people won’t know what you’re talking about. If you talk about IndyCar, they do. I’m optimistic that it helps us with leveraging our brand in a stronger way around the world, opposed to just here in the United States.
SMW: Going back to that whole bad blood issue, even with the unification between Champ Car and IndyCar, it seems like there are still a lot of hard feelings about the split. Do you think it will ever be possible to really ever get back all the fans that left, or do you think its a situation kind of like LeBron James and Cleveland, where that bad blood seems like its going to be like that for an extended period of time?
Bernard: I’m a firm believer that that has to be our goal, to try to attract all those fans back. During the split, you can understand. It’s very difficult that I’m going to be a fan of something, where you know you’re not watching the best in the world every single week, when there’s two different factions. But now, knowing since 2008 that IndyCar is back as one, I think that’s very important.
We have to make sure we are attracting the best drivers in the world. We have to define our sport in a way that fans, mainstream fans understand what we’re about. We must define ourselves as the fastest, most versatile race car drivers in the world. That differentiates us from NASCAR and [Formula] 1, the fact that we race road courses and street courses and ovals, short tracks and superspeedways — it’s very important for us that we clarify that and use that as part of our marketing objective.
SMW: Prior to joining IndyCar, you were the CEO of the PBR (Professional Bull Riders). What from your experience running the PBR have you used in IndyCar?
Bernard: The great thing about the PBR was, in 1994, I was the only employee. That allowed me to really understand every department of the business, every genre of the business — from selling tickets, to promoting, to doing the marketing, to doing the PR, to understanding rules, and how important it is to understand what the fan wants. All that is very valuable to where I am today. Back then, we had a brand in PBR that didn’t mean anything to anybody. There was another bull riding organization at the time called Bull Riders Only, BRO, and it had more brand recognition than PBR. If anyone knew what PBR stood for, it stood for Pabst Blue Ribbon.
That’s one of the things that intrigued me the most about coming over here. We did it over there with no acronym, no brand recognition or exposure when we started. To come here, you had such a legacy, tradition and heritage, that I felt this was a perfect opportunity. I saw where it was in the mid-90s, and I truly am a big believer it can happen again. That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re laying down our foundation, setting us up for success in the future.
SMW: Is it easier to be with a sport like the PBR, which I believe was just three years old when you became CEO — is it easier to take a sport like that, that has no history, that’s just starting out, and make it successful, than it is to restore a sport that had been in its glory days but has kind of fallen on harder times in recent years?
Bernard: I disagree with that, being in both. I think that there are three major areas of a sport that you have to focus on and be successful on in order to be successful. And these aren’t in any order. Sponsorships, fanbase, and television ratings. If you have all three of those, you’ll be a successful sport.
When we were at PBR — and actually, in ’92 they incorporated, but they didn’t have an event until ’94, and I produced one of the first events; I started full time in ’95, so it was actually the second year of that business — we didn’t have any three of those, which is different from IndyCar. There was a foundation for all three of those, and everyone in sports marketing and advertising knows what IndyCar is. When I would pick up the phone and call a sponsor or an ad agency back in ’94 or ’95, they’d pretty much laugh you out of the room, not knowing what the heck PBR was. You don’t get that here. People know who you are, and most people want to see it succeed.
This is an American icon. We’re going to celebrate 100 years here at the Indianapolis 500 this year, and most people want to see this succeed. There’s a major difference there. We need to make sure that we listen to the fans on what they want so that we can continue with this momentum right now.
SMW: Right now, NASCAR has had a bit of a difficult run in terms of ratings. Ratings for the Chase [for the Cup] have been generally down on ESPN. When you see something like that, do you view that as a bad sign for IndyCar as a whole because of its effect on motorsports, the business? Or do you view it as a good sign from the standpoint that your chief competitor might be coming back to Earth a little bit, might be ripe for overtaking at some point down the line?
Bernard: I never want to wish negativity on anyone, especially someone in our industry. I’m a firm believer that all boats rise on a high tide. Hopefully, this little hiccup that NASCAR is currently seeing will end. I’ve watched a significant amount of races this year, and I’ve found them to be very exciting. Of course, I pay close attention to it, because I don’t like to see that. I think there are some things we can learn together.
I think one of the biggest things is that we must attract youth. We’re going to reach out and do a lot of different things next year to make sure that we are continuing to work on our age being a younger age every year. One of the most positive things that IndyCar saw this year was a 40% increase in the 18-34 year old male, which is a great sign.
It’s very important that racing as a whole, whether it’s NASCAR, F1, or IndyCar, we must collectively work better at reaching youth. We need to drive our average age down, bottom line. IndyCar will be taking several steps in this. First and foremost, is having Izod as our title sponsor. Izod is all about image and fashion, and they’re targeting that 18-34 year old male, which is very important to us. We could not ask for a better title sponsor than Izod.
But we also need to reach out and go into the garage area. It’s always been 18 and over in the IndyCar garage. To me, this is the best place where we can create fans for life. Next year will be the very first year ever that Indianapolis Motor Speedway will make it nine years of age and older, as well as all IndyCar events. Kids nine and over will be able to go into that garage and they can hear and see and smell the fumes of these cars, and they’ll have a whole new understanding and appreciation for what IndyCar is. I think this is very important. This is where we can create loyalty for life. We’re going to make it an entertaining, educational process for youth in our garage next year. We have some fantastic ideas for that.
Also, we have to look at social media. One of the primary objectives to reach youth today is going to be social media, whether it’s Facebook or YouTube, we’ve got to do a better job of utilizing the social media to reach the youth of this world.
For information on the 2010 Ivy Sports Symposium, visit www.sportssymposium.org.