Still Unsure About Randy Bernard

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It has been a busy time in the IndyCar world for early February. Things are abuzz with new car drawings being released and unveilings to come, driver announcements by teams, the head-scratching as to why some drivers are yet unsigned, Danica Patrick’s reasonably successful debut in the ARCA race on Saturday, as well as the entire city of Indianapolis being fixated on their ill-fated Super Bowl last evening.

Not lost in all of this hoopla was the naming of Randy Bernard as CEO of the Indy Racing League. As some have let me know via e-mail, I have yet to comment on the hiring of Bernard. There is a reason for that. I wasn’t too sure what I thought of the hire and I wanted to get a better feel for the move, before I started pounding away at the keyboard in frustration.

Now that the questions, the hysteria and the obligatory rodeo and cowboy jokes have died down; I’ve taken a step back to give a more logical and less emotional approach to my analysis. Well, guess what? I’m still not sure what I think.

When Bernard’s hiring was first announced, my reaction was like the majority of people. It was basically…who? He comes from where? He’s never even seen a race? Are you kidding me?

For those that were in seclusion for the last ten days, the IRL hired 43 year-old Randy Bernard as its CEO replacing the departed Tony George. Bernard has spent the last fifteen years as CEO of Professional Bull Riders, Inc. Apparently he has brought that sport from essentially nothing to a multi-million dollar organization that will stage more than four hundred events in 2010. Quite honestly, I had never heard of the PBR until this past IndyCar season when their events were being aired prior to the IndyCar race on Versus. I would tune in to the race early, just in time to see some kid get his face trampled by a bull.

Bernard has a reputation as a tireless worker with a strong background in marketing, promotion and sponsor activation – something that is sorely lacking in today’s Izod IndyCar Series. He also freely admits that he knows nothing about the sport and has never even attended a race.

As my dismay at the hire finally settled down, my biggest concern was the man’s connection and credibility with the current fans – mainly people like you and me. It will be hard for him to be convincing if he ever speaks in reverence of AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, the Unser family, Bill Vukovich, Wilbur Shaw or Rick Mears – when we know that up until this month, he really had no idea who any of these people were.

Is this important? That’s the big debate that has been raging for the past ten days or so. If you look at the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball – their current commissioners were all involved with their respective leagues before assuming the top spot. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell began his career in the league office in 1982 before being named its chief executive in 2006. His predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, served as chief legal counsel for the league. Pete Rozelle was GM for the Los Angeles Rams before being named a surprise choice as commissioner in 1960 until he stepped down in 1989, giving way to Tagliabue. Three top executives in fifty years – that all had experience with the league, has helped the NFL see stability, unprecedented growth and popularity in that time frame.

The NBA’s Larry O’Brien (1975-1984) and MLB’s Peter Ueberroth (1985-1989) were the last leaders of their respective sports to not have prior working experience within their leagues. Ueberroth had just come from heading up the extremely successful 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and O’Brien came from a life-long career in Democratic politics where he served as director of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 presidential campaign.

O’Brien’s nine year reign was not considered a success, as the league endured several public relation gaffes. Although he did oversee the merger with the ABA, he was considered an indecisive leader who had to rely too heavily on those that knew the game more. The lone bright spot – a new TV contract, was actually attributed more to his successor, current commissioner – David Stern.

Ueberroth’s short tenure was looked upon far more favorably. He successfully avoided labor unrest with the umpires and the player’s union, he landed a $1.2 billion TV contract with CBS and he oversaw a period where MLB set attendance records for four straight years and all of the teams had returned to profitability. However, he and the owners were found guilty of collusion against the player’s union and Ueberroth quietly stepped down before his term had expired.

So where does this put Randy Bernard? Will he be closer to Pete Rozelle and Peter Ueberroth – two men who took their league to great heights and profitability; or will he come closer to Larry O’Brien – someone so out of their element that they cannot make a decision without relying on others to advise him. I’m hoping it is closer to the former and not the latter.

The Izod IndyCar Series is not in a position of strength where they can survive a bad hire. The candidate for this job assumes it with almost a “make or break” mentality. The NBA could recover from a bad hire in 1975, because there was no winter competition. There was college basketball and hockey, and neither were on cable because there was no cable to speak of. ESPN was still four years away from being launched. Today, there is far more competition for sports viewers than ever before and time is running out before open-wheel racing is completely out of the average viewers mind – if we’re not there already.

There is the argument that it is time for some new blood. The University of Alabama fan base was split for years after the death of Paul “Bear” Bryant. One side insisted they keep finding a coach that had ties to “the Bear”, the other side demanded an injection of new blood. Since Bryant’s death in 1983, the Crimson Tide is on their eighth head coach. Now that just about any coach with ties to “the Bear” is too old to coach, that argument has finally gone away – and they are now the defending National Champions. Bernard could bring some new and untried ideas to the IRL. Lord knows that the ideas from the current crop of minds at 16th and Georgetown have not produced much.

Randy Bernard has worked wonders taking a far more obscure sport and growing it. Now he faces a bigger challenge in returning a once-popular sport back to greatness. I would say that this is a tougher challenge. He knew nothing about bull riding when he took over the fledgling PBR, but he took it to unthinkable heights. But now, his job description will involve being that very important “face for the league” that we have been missing. Tony George didn’t have the charisma or personality to pull that off and Jeff Belskus was certainly lacking in that capacity.

The fresh-faced Bernard comes across well and he seems confident, yet sincere. If he can overcome his lack of knowledge for our sport and learn to embrace its many traditions, which might seem quirky to an outsider (milk for winning?); I think he might do well. Ask anyone in my family and they will tell you I’m not the most open-minded person in the world. But unlike my initial reaction from ten days ago, I’m more inclined to drop all references to the many rodeo jokes (of which I’ve thrown a few around, myself), and give this guy a chance. Besides, I really have no other choice.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “Still Unsure About Randy Bernard”

  1. I voted for choice #2. Like you, I have some concerns about Mr. Bernard, considering he has never attended a race and doesn’t know about the history-good and bad-of the sport.

    Having said that, he does bring a background in marketing and promotion, and that is something IndyCar sorely needs. My view-I know some will critique me for saying this-is that people are very easily swayable by good marketing and promotion-see reality television as an example. So a good marketing/PR person can sell the series. I am not ignoring the issues surrounding the series-although we can debate what those issues are. But these days, marketing and promotion often trump other things. I am very willing to give Mr. Bernard a chance. We’ll just have to wait and see how things play out.

    • Promotion is usually about 10% of real world marketing. In addition, promotion is the least of the leagues concerns because the league’s product is no longer compelling, the cost of operating isn’t sustainable and the marketing channel leaves so much to be desired.

  2. If I knew exactly what his job was, it would be easier to decide if he was the right man or not. If it’s just marketing, seems like an okay hire. Is that all the CEO does–marketing?

  3. Trick Dickle Says:

    I think the slimy, self-serving car owners are ready to pounce on this guy and try and get control of the series, the way THEY want it (and the way that best benefits THEM).

    Look for them to try and power-play this guy and try and bully him and the newby/uneducated leadership now running Indy Car. Hopefully Bernard has been warned about these guys and runs the sport the way it needs to be and not the way they want it.

    Should be fascinating to watch.

  4. George,

    This comment – “Today, there is far more competition for sports viewers than ever before and time is running out before open-wheel racing is completely out of the average viewers mind – if we’re not there already.” is about the most succinct summary of the current crisis in IndyCar. The sport has truly faded to the periphery of the national consciousness. I think that’s something that us diehard blog readers tend to forget.

    Here’s a good example. I was in a local bowling alley with the family this weekend, and noticed a poster on the wall next to the bar. It was a promotional poster from one of the liquor distributors advertising an upcoming event at the bar that they were sponsoring. It read: “Indy 500 NASCAR Race – Feburary 14th” I just shook my head. To the mind of John Q. Public there is little understanding of the differences between the Indy 500 and NASCAR. I don’t think it used to be this way. There was a time when race car meant “Indycars” and race car driver meant A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti, names that trascended the sport and were part of the national consciousness. But those days are gone. Long gone.

    The real challenge for Randy Bernard is to put the sport back on the radar map. I don’t pretend to know what it will take. Maybe it requires a life long involvement in motorsports, or maybe it requires a P.T. Barnum ability to sell the product. But one thing is sure, the sport is running out of second chances to turn itself around, or there could come a day in the not too distant future when that poster in the bowling alley might just prove to be prophetic.

    • Unfortunately, I think we have reached that point where Indy Car racing will never be back on the map the way it once was. It makes me sick to my stomach to say that. There are just too many other “sports” and way too many TV options for people now. It is a totally different world now with the youth of today not interested in not only Indycar racing, but other things as well. They like “drifting”,what ever the hell that is. I’ll give this guy a shot. We don’t have much choice anymore.

  5. Personally I don’t believe this guy has any chance of success at all.

    Think about the 100 million plus tv viewers and 1.7 million people who attended PBR events in a year. How does that compare to the total television viewership and attendance of the indycar series when you exclude the 500?

    Out of all of those eyeballs there was only enough league income to distribute $11 million to the league competitors. An average of a measly $13,000 and change per competitor!

    That kind of income won’t even cover TEAM payments for 10 cars, much less cover the massive operating costs that the league racks up covering everything from safety crews to television production.

    Quite honestly, I don’t believe that the league’s business model is in any way financially sustainable. I also don’t believe for a minute the the family will allow the league to continue to be the financial drain on speedway that it has been. Add to that the fact that the existing powers are already pigeon holing him into a new spec. car that will not in any way inspire the lost audience and I believe he is in a no-win situation.

  6. “Indy 500 NASCAR Race” is absolutely appalling, but doesn’t surprise me at all. You see that kind of thing all the time on ebay, for example. Years ago, at the height of the split, USA Today ran a picture of a CART car on the front page with the headline “Kenny Brack’s Ford gears up for the Indy 500.”

    People in promotions and the media have absolutely no clue. All they know is to reprint and believe everything Darrell Waltrip says, and that is apocalyptic in its stupidity.

  7. Tim Nothhelfer Says:

    I have watched the PBR with the wife many times over the years…. Good stuff.
    Anybody brave enough to get on a bull more than once, or tough enough to settle disputes with those that do can handle any man in the IRL…..
    (No disrespect to A.J.)

  8. George, Can you get a hold of Hobbson? He’s brooding in denial. As for Randy, as you so accurately recount, the creation of sports talk radio, ESPN, ESPN2, and a gazillion other sports oriented cable channels, created a void for content that needed to be filled. Do you really think that we’d have to suffer through women’s college basketball, curling, Roe-sham-beau, and other team sports where the team name doesn’t end in an “s”, if the networks weren’t desperate for content? Times are tough, and now you actually have to be good to survive-we’ll see if he has been trained properly for the task, or if the Old Bag and the sisters clamor for TG’s triumphant return to the throne, soon enough.

  9. This notion that ‘times are tough’ for sporting events is crazy!

    Think about the big sporting events. The NCAA just had a football season that was the best in history right across the board. Average game attendance was up. Average television ratings were up and they had more people watching the championship game than ever before.

    So far, NCAA basketball ratings have been as high as ever.

    The Superbowl just broke M.A.S.H.’s 27 year old record for the largest american audience.

    Hell, last Saturday’s ARCA race just set SPEEDtv records for viewers with 2.4 million people turning in. How many years has it been since Indycar had 2.4 million viewers for a race that didn’t take place in Speedway?

    The reality is that the compelling sports that interest viewers are doing better than ever. It simply hasn’t mattered that there is more competition, if you’ve got an interesting product the viewers and money is there.

    I think the number one issue for Indycar is that the people in power and the talking heads simply don’t have a clue what it was that actually interested the huge fanbase from days gone by.

    There is an enduring belief that popular drivers and close racing are the recipe for more than just fan interest, but that those are the keys to sustainable growth. Unfortunately those things are a result of an interesting racing formula, not a cause.

    The slow death of the Indy 500 is never going to be reversed until they do the one thing that interests the world… allowing the competitors to chase glory by building the fastest car they possibly can. This will never happen so long as there is an impotent, financially draining series that almost nobody watches holding the 500 back.

    It is disgusting that the few remaining fans are sitting around looking at concept cars that have been designed for every criteria imaginable with the exception of going as fast as possible. Dallara, Swift and Delta Wing have literally been told that a key design criteria is having substantial space for sponsors! We are pining to see multiple chassis on the track, but since these aren’t designed with speed as a key performance criteria, there aren’t any two that would even be closely matched enough that the slower one would be purchased by anyone.

    If they reduce the series to Indy, Long Beach and maybe 2-3 more races and open up the rules to a basic set of specs. they have a chance to return the 500 to glory.

    If Randy Bernard cannot figure this out, he has zero chance of success.

  10. I think the hiring of Randy might be OK. I don’t like the idea of an “outsider” and someone who has never seen a race leading this series(mostly because of tradition), but at the same time I am thinking positive. I know, its hard to think positive right now, but I am a huge fan of Indycar racing and the Indy 500 and I believe that the fans need to get on board or not be fans anymore. All the negativity is not helping. There is a difference between being a fan and having concerns, and just plain hating everything about the series. Randy has proven himself in the sports world as a capable CEO. The more I think about it, the idea of having someone with no connections might be the best thing. He has no ties to Firestone, Goodyear, Honda, CART or any owners and therefore should not have any agenda other than making the IRL a successful series. We’ll see of course, but give the guy a chance. I am Speedway native and resident and the INDY 500 is a very important part of my life.. I want my 500 back!!!!

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