Still Unsure About Randy Bernard
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.