The Changing Face Of Sports
The sports landscape is currently changing faster than we can keep up with it. By the time you read this, it’s quite likely that more dominos will have fallen in the deathwatch of what’s left of the Big-12 Conference. The first shoe fell Thursday, when the University of Colorado announced they were leaving for the supposed greener pastures of the Pac-10. Then on Friday, Nebraska accepted an invitation to join the Big Ten Conference. Tomorrow could bring the final blow as the biggest prize in the conference expansion derby – the University of Texas – decides their own future, as well as the fate of the Big-12. If Texas bolts and takes one or more sister schools from the state of Texas, the Big-12 will, more than likely, cease to exist. So what does this have to do with the IZOD IndyCar Series, you might ask? Plenty.
What actually started this whole mess was when the Big Ten decided they should pursue Notre Dame in order to get their league up to twelve schools, so that they could host a conference championship game – which has proven to be a cash cow for other conferences. To date, Notre Dame has done nothing – but it got other conferences to become proactive and strengthen their position against whatever the Big Ten did. The Big-12 suffered from not having a TV network of any kind in place. Plus, unlike most conferences which distributed bowl and TV revenues equally among its member schools – Texas got a bigger share than others, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of the other eleven schools. This lack of harmony and TV coverage left the Big-12 extremely vulnerable for their members bolting.
There are many lessons to be learned here. First and foremost, don’t ever under-estimate the power of a strong TV contract. Second – don’t ever take your business partners for granted. In today’s economic climate, money trumps any loyalties and traditions.
The fallout from conference realignment will be felt for years. As geography books are re-written to explain that Colorado and possibly Texas somehow have a presence on the Pacific coast, other changes will occur as well. Most importantly is the amount of TV coverage that will be devoted to games that involve these new alliances. ABC/ESPN are directly involved since they have tie-ins to all three conferences involved. Does that affect the IZOD IndyCar Series? Not directly, since their coverage of our series is finished by early July. But it could affect their NASCAR coverage. As NASCAR’s ratings continue to fall along with IndyCar’s, ABC/ESPN could decide to eventually dump auto racing altogether.
Although some may be ecstatic at that prospect, that would certainly not be in the best interest of the IZOD IndyCar Series. As much as we all gripe about ESPN’s coverage of the series – it’s better than not having a network TV presence at all. For the NHL Stanley Cup Finals; some fans saw it as a positive that Versus had the ability to pull a little over a 3.0 rating, while others interpreted the number as troubling that a championship series between two top markets would bring such a low number.
Regardless of the outstanding job that the Versus crew does with their on-air product, what good does it ultimately do if no one is watching? Until a deal can be struck for IZOD IndyCar Series races to be on one of the main over-the-air networks, we’d better be glad to they are on ESPN, where they at least have some presence.
Case in point – last Wednesday, if you were to go to ESPN.com and check the headlines, you would have seen no signs that the potentially deciding game of the NHL Playoffs was to be played that night. I’m not much of a hockey fan, but I did notice the lack of a story in their headlines. But since the NHL has no connection with ESPN, there was nary a mention of the championship game.
Now I realize that the NHL doesn’t carry the same clout as the NFL, Major League Baseball or the NBA, which coincidentally are all ESPN properties. What I did find a little hypocritical about ESPN.com was that although you could find nothing about the Stanley Cup Playoffs while perusing their headlines – you would have to be blind to miss countless articles about FIFA World Cup Soccer. I understand that Soccer is a growing sport in the US, but are there really more World Cup fans in this country than hockey? Maybe so, but without doing lengthy research – my gut tells me probably not. For those that might think I’m narrow-minded (I can’t imagine), I did actually watch some of the World Cup match between England and the US. Trying to figure out the game and its appeal was bad enough – but what in the world was the deal with those horns constantly buzzing? It sounded like South Africa was under attack from killer bees. Anyway…the fact that ESPN is broadcasting the World Cup means that it gets the publicity, while the NHL is virtually ignored.
For the hard-core sports fan in the know, this destroys the credibility of ESPN.com and removes it from the list of sports news sites and makes it nothing more than a hype-machine of its family of networks. But for the casual sports fan that most sports leagues crave, including the IZOD IndyCar Series – this point is missed, as they rely on ESPN.com as their only source for sports news. ESPN.com didn’t become the most traveled website by accident. It is perceived as the ultimate news source for sports by many. That is why it is so vital for the IZOD IndyCar Series to have at least some presence there.
Last week, a co-worker and I did a presentation for a new client. They are a company that happens to be involved in sports marketing on a national level, although they are based in the Nashville area. One of their founders is British. Have you ever noticed that a British accent just makes some people sound much more competent? Whether he actually was or not – he sure sounded like he was on top of his game. Anyway…as we wrapped up talking business, I asked him if he followed IndyCar racing. He acknowledged that he did and was aware of the IZOD sponsorship. He said that aligning themselves with IZOD and parent company Phillips-Van Heusen was probably the single most important thing that the series could have done. He said the series now has instant credibility within marketing circles, while they were almost laughable before. This could end up paying bigger dividends than anyone could have imagined before. The IZOD IndyCar Series may be able to leverage the deep pockets and marketing prowess of Phillips-Van Heusen in promoting the series. That possibility didn’t exist a year ago.
So how will the ongoing story of the shift in College Football affect the IZOD IndyCar Series (and make no mistake – this is all about football. If basketball played much of a role in this, Kansas would have more of a say in its future)? Quite honestly, it’s too hard to tell. There are still many moving pieces and there may be many more schools to move, before the dust settles. There are only so many properties that ESPN has room for in their portfolio. The cost of televising college football is about to go up drastically. These schools aren’t moving just for a change of scenery. They expect to get compensated heavily for doing this.
Something may have to go from the ESPN catalog. If that something is the IZOD IndyCar Series, then they need to figure out a plan B and quickly. Thank goodness for the current leadership of Randy Bernard and IZOD. Every day, I become more and more impressed with what Randy Bernard brings to the table. Without him and IZOD running things, I’m not sure there would have been a plan B. Now, if one is needed anytime soon – I’m confident one will be found.