What Are The Answers To Fixing The IRL?
My article on Friday was based on the rumor that Roger Penske might buy the IRL. I concluded that the rumor would more than likely stay just that – a rumor. Still, it generated some interesting comments from readers. One such reader justifiably took me to task for stating; “every facet of the IRL needs an overhaul”, yet I never offered any suggestions how to fix it. Well, he got me. I’ll place the “Legions of the Miserable” tag on myself for that one.
So how would I fix it? That’s a good question that doesn’t have an obvious solution. I guess if it did, someone would have fixed it by now. I will throw some ideas out there, but I’ll throw out my disclaimer that I am no more qualified to solve what ails the IRL, anymore than I am able to fix whatever is wrong with the Titans who are now 0-6 after yesterday’s 59-0 debacle (ouch!). Although I hold a marketing degree, I know nothing of marketing a struggling worldwide sports entity. But recent history will also show that those that have purported to know, have failed miserably.
This is another topic that falls under the banner of winter bench-racing – something that is fun to talk about, just to talk about it. This is nothing that anyone should get too wrapped up about; whether we come up with a seemingly great idea via the comments section, or if I say something completely asinine in the body of an article. I try not to take myself too seriously and I suggest no one else does either, but here goes…
Although we are dealing with a complex problem, let’s try to break it down into the simplest terms possible. If we had to single out the biggest problem facing the IRL, what would that be? I think it all boils down to a lack of fans – and what fans there are seem to be dwindling. If that problem is solved, everything else can be addressed with a lot less urgency. But with an increasingly shrinking fan base, all other problems are shoved to the forefront and are all deemed to be in an almost crisis stage which must be fixed NOW.
If the IRL had NASCAR-like ratings, do you think the IRL would have made the aero-tweaks in mid-season like they did prior to Kentucky? Perhaps, but maybe not. If the IRL were enjoying record crowds, TV numbers and were flushed with sponsorship; they more than likely would have tabled it for the off-season – and then probably would have ultimately done nothing anyway. But with miniscule TV ratings and grumbling among its hard-core fan base, the league felt a sense of urgency to do something quickly.
When things are going poorly, all problems are greatly magnified. The ever-shrinking fan base makes the issue of car count a major concern. The lack of American drivers all of a sudden becomes a crisis, because many want to pinpoint that as the reason why open-wheel racing has become such a fringe sport. The single chassis/engine becomes a lightning rod because there are so few fans left in our sport. The current TV package is a disaster because even though the on-air product is excellent, no one is watching. The Gene Simmons “I am Indy” is labeled a bad song because, well…it IS a bad song.
It all comes back to marketing the product. I’m not sure that the powers that be at 16th and Georgetown really know who they are marketing their product to. After all the years that the IRL has been in existence, I get the idea that Terry Angstadt doesn’t really have a clue as to what demographics he is targeting in order to grow this series and sustain the growth. If you try to appeal to everyone, you’ll end up appealing to no one. That pretty well describes today’s IndyCar fan base.
So the thought here is that the commercial division of the IRL needs to identify their target market and then go after it. Is their profile of an IndyCar fan an affluent white American male over forty? Take out the affluent part and that pretty well describes me. Do they really want to simply expand on what they already have?
Perhaps they are banking on the Danica factor finally paying off in bringing in the young female fan in their early twenties. So far, that strategy hasn’t been successful in bringing in sustained new fans. At best, that tactic has brought in a few curiosity seekers each year for the Indianapolis 500, but nothing indicates that they have ever tuned in for other races.
There seems to be a school of thought that the IndyCar Series can piggyback off of NASCAR fans – the thought being that if they are a fan of one, they can become a fan of the other. Based on what I see here in the southeast where NASCAR rules and always has, that doesn’t seem to be a sound strategy. To use another baseball analogy, it’s sort of like the Mets and the Yankees. You really can’t be a fan of both. You tend to be a rabid fan of one and a distant closet fan of the other.
Just as CART/Champ Car did, the IRL is beginning to flirt with targeting the international fan. With an annual race in Japan already on the books, they have visited Canada for the past two seasons. To satisfy contractual agreements with Champ Car, the league visited in Australia last fall in a non-points paying race. Presumably, the IRL will open next season in Brazil – although with less than five months before the green flag is scheduled to fly; the league has not even decided upon a city in Brazil, much less a venue.
It’s my opinion that the league should shore up a North American fan base before venturing to other continents. Otherwise, it gives the impression that they have given up on the fans here and will be content to be seen as Formula One Lite around the world. TV contracts are based on a US market as well as most sponsorship packages. Although some companies, such as Marlboro and McDonald’s, have a presence in these other countries – others such as Target, GEICO and Menard’s do not.
So again, I’ve identified problems without offering much of a solution – other than identifying their target and continuing to focus on North America. But the IRL needs to develop a better strategy of getting more fans in the seats and more eyeballs watching on TV before they can solve their other problems. Without fans, the sponsors will continue to drop off and even Versus will no longer be interested. This will translate into no new cars or engines because teams will not be able to afford them, thereby further disenchanting the hard-core fan base. Then the lesser teams will continue to disappear due to lack of funding and/or interest. Ultimately, there will be no viable need for an open-wheel series as even the aging die-hard fans either move on or eventually die off. It isn’t a pretty picture.
Do I think it will come to that? It’s possible, but I doubt it. But the league needs to come up with some answers and quickly. I don’t have the answers. If I did, I would be sitting in my own office at 16th and Georgetown. The marketing arm of the IRL and CART/Champ Car has been the Achilles heel for the past few decades. The on-track product is far from perfect, but decent enough for now. The major overhaul I referred to needs to take place on the commercial side and should be the top priority of THIS offseason, and not put it off for “down the road”. Otherwise, that there will be no need to fix the other problems later.