The Costly Silence of Apathy

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While Marshall Pruett has done an excellent job in laying out exactly what led up to Randy Bernard’s exit, the IMS board continues to be raked over the coals, and rightfully so, for the way the situation was handled. To be honest, the whole thing has provoked more fan anger than even I suspected. While monitoring Twitter and all the usual sites, I expected to see some support for the board’s actions. But until the Marshall Pruett articles, I saw none. Although the Pruett articles may have helped to justify what the board did, the way they handled it was still appalling. Interim CEO Jeff Belskus didn’t help matters by waiting until Thursday to come public with just more corporate gibberish. I understand that he is limited with what he can say for legal reasons, but he should’ve come public Sunday night or Monday morning.

In the meantime, we fans who were opposed to the way this firing was handled have two basic choices. We can either give up on a series that appears to have no interest in what fans care about and has no idea how to stay out of its own way; or we can decide to stick with a series that has given us so much joy, even though it can be very painful to be a fan.

My father once told me that when faced with a big decision; the choice that presents the tougher path is usually the right choice. Which is tougher in the long run? Giving up watching races on weekends in the spring and summer is not an appealing thought. On the other hand, continuing to follow the drama between selfish owners, a silent board and whoever the next sacrificial lamb with the CEO tag will be – is not an appealing thought either.

We are just a week and a day into the post-Randy Bernard era, and I’ve already made my choice – I’ll continue to follow the series and the Indianapolis 500 until they cease to exist. But there is a big difference between following the series and supporting it.

Growing up and in my early adult years, I was a pretty big baseball fan. I was never as crazy about it as I was football or open-wheel racing, but I followed it closely. I could not begin to count how many MLB games I went to between 1983 and 1993. Busch Stadium in St. Louis and Wrigley Field in Chicago were my most frequent visits, but I also saw many games in the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, the old Arlington Stadium and the Rogers Centre (SkyDome) in Toronto. I was probably what most would classify as a "casual fan" or slightly more than casual. After they lost the World Series in 1994 due to labor unrest, how many games do you think I’ve been to? None.

I never took a stand and said “That’s it! I’m done with baseball!” There was no conscious decision to stop attending games. It’s just the way it worked out. Consequently, I follow baseball from a distance. I check the standings about once a week, and may catch a weeknight mid-summer game if there’s nothing else on. This past World Series, I caught the last two innings of Game Two – and that was it. Twenty years ago, I was glued to every post-season game. This year – I watched about five innings of the entire post-season.

Needless to say, after watching MLB shoot themselves in the foot over and over, it became tiresome for this average fan. I just sort of drifted away in an apathetic haze. It’s one thing for fans to become passionately enraged about what went on last week. That’s a sign that they still care. It’s when indifference sets in that they have a real problem.

IndyCar needs to be careful of ticking off the better than average fan that usually attends the Indianapolis 500 and a couple of other races throughout the year. That pretty well describes someone like me. We buy the merchandise at tracks, we buy tickets to the Indianapolis 500 each year and we do our best to spread the word about the great on-track product. But when the series and the owners continue to repeat history by making the same mistakes over and over, it tests the staying power of even the most fervent fan.

Over the past week, I’ve seen some trying to downplay the board’s handling of Bernard’s firing by asking how many fans really care who runs the sports they follow? The NFL has had three commissioners in my lifetime – Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell. If they were to make a sudden change, I wouldn’t go ballistic because their sport is so successful that it’s hard to mess it up no matter how hard they try. IndyCar is much more fragile. They need consistency at that position. Major League Baseball has had a power vacuum since the mid-eighties and they have suffered from it – and they are in much better shape than IndyCar.

We will learn over time how many people will slowly drift away from IndyCar. Believe me, they lost some good fans after this past week, and it’s understandable. I don’t blame them one bit. The thing is, I think the greatest damage will come from those that have taken no stand. They probably haven’t decided where they stand right now. But their silence will be felt over the next couple of seasons.

The board has spoken and they have made it clear that they don’t really care about the fans. They take us for granted. Like the arrogance of the NHL – they assume that the fans will stick with them no matter what. Time will tell.

What I find amusing were those that went to every blog and mainstream IndyCar site to spew how they are done with IndyCar. They made sure that every comment started and ended with how they will never waste time on IndyCar ever again. I guess that explains why they took the time to go from site to site to vent. I understand the need to vent. I have done my share of venting over the past week.

But I think that those that go to the trouble to yell how much they are done, really aren’t. It’s understandable rage and anger. In none of my rants, did I ever say I was done with IndyCar. I knew not to make such a bold statement because I knew I couldn’t back it up. I’m one of those idiots they know they can count on through thick and thin. They know that no matter how much they kick us in the gut, that people like me will be tuning in to the St. Petersburg race next March and that next May 26th, I’ll be one of the faithful sitting in traffic on 16th Street inching along at dawn eagerly awaiting the feeling of going under that tunnel on race morning.

Most of those that feel passionate enough to scream how “done” they are will be there right alongside me. We may be more jaded, cynical and skeptical – but we’ll still be there. It’s those that don’t care enough to even vent that will end up doing the most damage when they just stop showing up due to their indifference and apathy. Their silence will be deafening.

George Phillips

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21 Responses to “The Costly Silence of Apathy”

  1. Ultimately, the only thing that matters to the board is money. Of course they have never cared about the fans. They do, however, care about the money the fans spend. In order to get the board’s attention, the fans will have to stop spending money. What is the biggest source of revenue for the board? Is it ticket sales? TV contracts? Merchandise vending? Food and drink concessions at the tracks?

    Some of these areas fall into the discretionary spending of the average fans, and can be successfully boycotted, without giving up on the sport. If every fan refused to buy any track merchandise, and brought a cooler with all the food and beverages they consumed during a race, that would be a start, although it would take a while for the effect to be felt since it would first have to hurt the vendors who would then complain to the track administration. TV revenues would be difficult to affect by boycotting, unless one had a Nielsen box on his TV.

    Like you, George, I will continue to buy my tickets for the Indy 500 as long as they race open wheel cars there, but my spending ends there.

  2. All I’m saying is that I am staying. I will voice my opinion, but I will still enjoy the sport.

  3. Wicklewoods Says:

    George – Suppose that you ran a business that financially supported the series in 2012.

    The “firing’ of Randy occurs.

    What would be the best investment of your advertising dollars for 2013 given the public reaction to Randy’s “firing” and the public relations/media manners of the Board that controls the series?

  4. After the last 20 years, I’m not sure there are any casual fans left to lose.

  5. Always a good read. I agree that the opposite of love is indifference, and indifferent fans just melt away. I further agree that’s a call we all have to make individually. Same thing happened with me and the NFL as with you and baseball. My investment in my favorite team at the time brought me more pain then joy, so I moved on — from the entire league. I catch a few quarters of football here and there, but otherwise my investment in their product is zero.

  6. I was always a pretty casual fan of Indycar. I bought hats and t-shirts and followed the series on tv and on blogs. I was looking forward to attending the Houston race this year. But the Hulman-George-Hatfield-McCoy family has just made me a whole lot “casual-er.” Unless they have a plan–and it’s fairly obvious they don’t have a plan–I just can’t get excited about supporting this family or their series financially and emotionally.

  7. TheAmericanMutt Says:

    I guess I just don’t get it. I read the pruett article devoid of the same confirmation bias as most fans and realized, hey, the man needed to be fired. He was only good at one aspect of his job, fan service, and while I feel that to be important, it can’t be the only consideration. It was handled terribly, and perhaps the board had no idea how beloved he was with the fan base, though this fan fell off of team randy as of his tweet about the owners trying to get him fired. It was childish and unproffesional, and if I had an employee do something along those lines, I’d start checking off how much he’s actually benefitting my series.

    You can say Randy was great with the fans, and he was, but on the other hand, ratings continued to drop, attendance continued to drop.

    You say, well Izod will now reevaulte it’s place in the sport, but they clearly were before this season. You say Firestone will reevaluate their place, but they were on the way out, and he didn’t help the matter.

    Ultimately, every major sports league treats the fans as beholden to them, not the other way around. I never particularly felt any different during Randys tenure, and I’m not going to feel that way because bloggers had access to him.

    I too lived through the split. I too relexively distrust the owners, but it sounds like they had a legitimate case. They’re customers too, and (an admitedly weak analogy) lets say, hypothetically, that you negotiate a cable/internet package, a few months in your forced to pay twenty five percent more than you were told, and then a few months later the same, then more, then more, can you honestly tell me you wouldn’t want to see the person who signed you on to this fired?

    • Bernard’s Hollywood feelers led to a major animated feature with an Indycar theme. Street races are popular with major sponsors (Shell, Chevy) and fans in attendance. Chevy came back and provided engine competition. The new car–while parts costs were a problem–is racy and safe and popular. Many new sponsors joined with Indycar during Bernard’s tenure. With Andretti’s help the Milwaukee Mile still exists. A new version of the Triple Crown featuring three ovals is on for next season. There is some activation of young drivers in the Road to Indy. The series is more competitive than in recent years. To say all Bernard did was listen to fans is not true.

      Bernard may not deserve sole credit for what was accomplished during his reign, but he certainly doesn’t deserve sole blame for the negatives. The job is a thankless one–Bernard was caught between the economic constraints of the Sisters who were burned by Tony George’s excesses and the spoiled demands of egotistical owners and with the constant criticism of at least 50% of the fan base no matter what the decision.

      • the american mutt Says:

        Take a step back from vilifying the owners for a second and look objectivley at your examples. Milwauekke, saved in large part by an owner. Shell/houdton street race penske. Chevy penske. Rb didn’t bring izod, but they sure seem interested in leaving it under his leadership. Firestone too.

        • the american mutt Says:

          Ill give you uniting the orad to indy as a good example, however, as good as that was, indy lights is much worse off than it was three years ago.

          My point is, it sounds like, objectivly, he was largely bad at his job.

          • And I guess my point, Mutt, is that–considering all the different factions and agendas within the sport–he did as good as could be expected. But I suppose we’ll see how good or bad Bernard was about a year from now when we compare him to the next CEO of Indycar.

  8. I had a much longer post that I just deleted, but I get the feeling that nobody really wants to hear it at this point.

    Simply, I am one of the many who are (highly disaffected and) ‘done’ until it becomes a product I can support.

    I still enjoy the history of the sport a great deal, but the product I’m buying now is a sliver of what I enjoyed early in my history with the sport and I feel I’ve gone above and beyond as a fan to appreciate the product they provided through 2011. 2012 was a nice bounce up in racing product, but now I have little faith it will stay that way very long.

  9. Carburetor Says:

    I agree with this post–I think fan indifference is most dangerous if you are trying to build or sustain a series. Growing up I was a total sports junky and followed the NFL (AFL even before their merger), NBA, and MLB almost religiously. But over time, I became disenchanted with the spoiled brats that play in the NBA and let that go; have reduced my NFL watching/attendance to but my one boyhood favorite team; and have drastically reduced my interest in MLB. I grew so tired of the watered-down quality of open-wheel racing that I found other interests after being faithful to the Indy 500 for almost 40 years. When the series re-united my interest resumed and the fulfilled promise of finally getting a different car to look at after seeing the same one for about 9 years helped kindle my re-interest. But like others that have commented, I get tired of my fan interest being taken advantage of or unappreciated. When a business cannot seem to find it within themselves to try and improve their attitude toward their customers, they deserve, and eventually will, suffer or go out of business. There is probably enough interest in the Indy 500, that you could line up go-carts and still draw 150,000 people, but the overall series will end up dying. I used to attend Indycar races before the split at Phoenix and they routinely drew 40,000-45,000 for BOTH races held in the same season. By the time Phoenix dropped them, they had a difficult time drawing 15,000 for even one race. Make no mistake, fans/customers count unless you simply want a private club to go racing with. I wonder how long Verizon or Target or Go-Daddy are going to hang around if no one is watching….or even worse, doesn’t really even care.

  10. Here’s the deal: had Randy (or somebody with an “outsider’s” perspective) not made the decisions that have been made over the last 32 months, what would we currently have?

    1. We’d probably be going into year #11 with the Dallara IR03, and into year #8 of an all-Honda field. We’d probably also be coming off of another year where Penske and Ganassi won 80-90% of the races, due to their magic set up books.

    2. Milwaukee (and several other fan-requested races) probably wouldn’t have happened at all in 2011 or 2012, and it’d probably be off the table for 2013.

    3. Experimentation with doubleheaders/heat races/etc. probably wouldn’t be happening, and we’d have the same old on track product as always (see #1 again).

    4. Firestone would still have doubled their price 2 years ago, and the Series would be vulnerable to another such doubling of price (or even complete withdrawl by Firestone), since no alternative would be on the horizon (it would appear that the drivers and team owners aren’t really interested in talking about that side of the Firestone coin).

    5. Upcoming Dreamworks movie? A figment of all of our imaginations, as we drift off to sleep with nightmares of Sly Stallone and Kip Pardue dancing in our heads.

    6. I won’t even touch the social media savviness, since that stuff was just a bonus with RB.

    We’d be right where we were in 2009/2010. Remember those seasons? Anybody wish we were still there? Meanwhile, what did firing Randy actually accomplish, other than to highlight the fact that this sport insists on hitting the front office “reset” button every 24-48 months in perpetuity, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense to do so? That’s no way to grow your sport in the media’s and national public’s consciousness. That’s why this is so frustrating to me. If the sport’s team ownwers and management can’t learn that, then they are have to get real comfy with sub-1.0 TV numbers and dwindling crowds at the track. Insisting on bringing in another new guy to fix all the things that the last guy couldn’t in 2-3 years (which will be a lot, and mark my words, this whole scenario is going to repeat itself, probably sooner rather than later) is going to result in even further diminishing returns, when we should have all hands pulling in the same direction to glorify and polish what we have.

    I just wish that my favorite sport were capable of learning even one lesson after years and years of shooting itself in the foot over and over again. It breaks my freaking heart.

  11. billytheskink Says:

    One of the best bits of writing I’ve read on this whole sorry situation.
    Apathy is what shrunk the fanbase during the split, and it’s what will kill this sport if things don’t change.

    It has been my experience that few things make potential fans more apathetic than an angry, woe begotten core fanbase (the Chicago Cubs are the one notable exception to this). Who can blame them? I wouldn’t want to start following a sport or team with a perpetually angry fanbase, out of fear that following that sport or team would make me angry as well.

  12. the american mutt Says:

    Good points gekk, though I suspect wed have a new car anyway.

  13. the american mutt Says:

    Uultimately, the first rule of responsibility is everything is your fault. Love it or hate I ts the effin truth. Had china happened I don’t think we’d be having this conversation. Its. Hard for any board to shrug off such a loss with no built in guarenteed money. At least they could have built in a recoup of travel expenses.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I think the problem that a lot of fans are having is that this first rule of responsibility was the effin truth for Randy Bernard, but not so much for his predecessors. That’s the perception, anyways.

      • TheAmericanMutt Says:

        It’s an unfortunate side effect of being family, ceo, and board member. They did essentially fire George too though.

  14. the american mutt Says:

    On the subject of apathy, again, rb has had nothing but indifference from this fan since that tweet in may.

  15. hadrianmarcus Says:

    I passionately follow horse racing and auto racing…two sports that are slowly fading into a shadow of their former greatness. Horse racing is cursed with breeders, owners, race tracks…all acting in their own best interests…and rarely unified in doing for the betterment of the sport in general or for the fans that support it. Each year, the sport sheds about 5-10% of its existing fans through apathy or death. Indycar is the same. Everyone wants their little piece of power and no one is caretaking the sport in general. What is particularly sad is Indycar actually had a trace of momentum recently. If I was a sponsor, nothing could motivate me to step into the drama-filled environment of Indycar. And both sports have been pushed from Network TV to ESPN to finally second-tier sports networks. Good luck building a fan base and good luck keeping the aging one you already have.

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