How To Stage An Event
This past weekend, Susan and I shared a whole new experience – one that I never ever thought I would do or even want to do. We went to the Professional Bull Riding (PBR) event in Nashville. We had friends come into town that treated us as their guest. I’ve always been a little intrigued with the PBR and what it was all about, ever since IndyCar hired Randy Bernard away after serving as their CEO for fifteen years.
When Bernard was hired away, I considered it a curious hire since he had never been to an IndyCar race in his life. I wondered what in the world did bull-riding have to do with open-wheel racing. We were told that in the fifteen years that Randy Bernard was there, he grew that sport from practically nothing into a thriving showcase that was making money hand over fist. I was still skeptical.
But what I saw this past Saturday night left no doubt. Stay with me here, because this does tie back to racing – eventually.
First of all, I know absolutely nothing about bull-riding – except that cowboys ride large animals that are trying to throw them off. The whole thing sounded kind of silly to me, possibly like the way small cars with wings going around in circles sounds like to a non-racing fan. This is where I started drawing comparisons to IndyCar.
The sport of bull-riding does everything possible to educate new fans prior to the start and during the event. Granted, due to the nature of racing, it is hard to explain things to fans during the race. Most of the time, the PA system is inaudible.
There was only one “rodeo clown” in the arena, but he could pass for a professional stand-up comedian. Google the name Flint Rasmussen and see what you find. He is a former school teacher that has been with PBR since 2005. He did a magnificent job of keeping the crowd engaged during down times, so much so that you didn’t even realize it was down time.
One of the first things he did before we even saw the first bull was to ask how many were seeing their first bull-riding event. Most were like us – newbies. But rather than looking at us with disdain, he genuinely thanked all of us first-timers for coming out. Then he proceeded to explain about the sport and how everything worked. He interspersed fan education into his comedy routine throughout the evening.
Of course, there was also the event itself. Going in – I figured that after a couple of times of seeing cowboys thrown off of bulls, that the night would grow tiresome fairly quickly. How wrong I was! What these riders endured was fascinating – much like what IndyCar drivers go through at over 200 mph. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it. The event culminated with the Top-15 riders of the night “transferring” into the championship round, where they were to draft from a pool of the toughest and meanest bulls there. Then the winner of the event was crowned by judge’s points.
It was an enjoyable evening, but what got my attention the most was how much effort was put into making this a total event. The crowd and the organization embraced newcomers. They made sure that everyone knew what was going on at every minute and that the entire crowd was entertained. They never lost sight of the fact that the whole reason for their being was entertainment.
But what stood out the most to me was how they put on a textbook clinic in sponsorship activation. They had various activities at different booths set up throughout the concourse of the arena – all the while effectively pitching the many well-known sponsors that seemed glad to be a part of the event. There were also very creative sponsor give-aways involving the crowd throughout the event.
As I witnessed what a well-oiled machine this was, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what IndyCar may have become had Randy Bernard been given the freedom to utilize his contacts and put his promotional plan into place. I know that not every idea Bernard had was a good one. I freely admit he used poor judgment in some of his racing decisions – especially when it came to protecting Lotus at the expense of others. Although fans like myself were all in favor of double-file restarts, it was probably better to listen to the drivers on that matter. But when it came to how to stage an event and build a successful series with a lot of buzz, he was obviously right on track.
You would not believe the buzz that was created in Nashville last week. There were countless radio spots and TV ads promoting it. People I work with that would normally have no interest in such things were talking about it and were actually envious when they found out I was going. On Monday, they were full of questions about it. There was more buzz in town about a bull-riding event, than I ever saw for the eight years that IndyCar raced in Nashville. Some may scoff and say that’s because it’s the south. I would counter that with no, it’s promotion.
Randy Bernard took a sport that was a lot more obscure than IndyCar, and made it into something that people wanted to go to. It took him fifteen years to do it, but he did it. Cynics would say Bernard inherited an unfixable mess when he took the IndyCar job. I disagree. I think he inherited a product that was more entrenched with a long history than bull-riding. What he inherited was a great sport that was no longer relevant and needed something to get people talking about it again. He had a plan to get that done, but some short-sighted owners and a spineless board prevented it from ever seeing the light of day
Some say there is little cost to bull-riding compared to IndyCar. Do you think a DW12 is more expensive to own and maintain than a 2,500 pound prize bull? Think again. Those animals are pampered beyond belief. Converting each arena to a corral setting in one day is a monumental task. Transporting the livestock, and all the trappings that go with the show is also a massive undertaking – but PBR is one of the biggest cash cows there is, no pun intended.
This is not to lament the firing of Randy Bernard. That ship has sailed. He has been gone for almost two years and he’s not coming back. He is now entrenched in another career where he seems to be greatly appreciated. Instead, it is hoping that the powers-that-be at IndyCar swallow their pride and study some of the more successful entities out there on how to stage an event. They need to.
Other than the Indianapolis 500, which can stand on its own – attending an IndyCar race has more of the feeling of going to a county fair. It has a very stale, dated and somewhat hokey feel to it. The sponsorship activation is poor, merchandise is limited and everything from the information over the PA to the concessions gives the impression of sort of a half-baked effort. Granted, I have not been to that many tracks – but what I’ve described is typical of the ones I’ve been to.
IndyCar would do well to study the business model of Professional Bull Riding, from how they treat their fans to the way they handle their sponsors. Will they do it? Probably not, but they could learn quite a bit by studying what Randy Bernard started at the PBR. It’s a case-study in how to stage an event.