How To Stage An Event

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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.

George Phillips

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23 Responses to “How To Stage An Event”

  1. Hopefully the event did not start with some guy screaming…….”Bull riding fans…..ARE YOU READY!!!!!!!!!!!”

  2. Sounds like Indycar needs more clowns.

  3. I feel the same way about Monster Jam. They come to town and sell out both nights on a weekend in January WITHOUT network television because they use a PPV plan. They get the fans into it. The reason I know is that I have been taking my son for the past 4 years.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Between Monster Jam, Supercross, The Ringling Bros. Circus, Disney On Ice, etc. Feld Entertainment is a promoting, ticket-selling, fan-engaging machine. They even draw crowds for Arenacross and something called “Nuclear Cowboyz” (a freestyle motocross show).

      I’ve suggested before that Indycar would be well-served if Feld bought the series. I was not entirely joking. As with PBR, comparing them to Indycar has some apples-and-oranges elements, but both Feld and PBR have lots of ideas worth emulating.

  4. I hate to say it but this is one area IndyCar has long ignored fans. We have been clamoring for more for many, many years and for the most part we have been ignored. I haven’t been but it sounds like Andretti has made huge strides and is trying to get Milwaukee to be an EVENT. The fan village has improved and is always busy but you have to go to a single location to get involved. There is so much more that could be done all over the facilities so I guess you could say that at least there is plenty of room for improvement.

  5. Having seen it once, would you spend your money and go again? My guess is PBR is the kind of thing you do once, find it interesting, but may not go again. Its like a circus or a one time event.

    Indycar has so many advantages over PBR (if they would only take advantage of it). They are kind of a hybrid between something like the PBR and team sports such as football or baseball that have a “home team” and play a certain number of games every year. But to make that work they have to have a pretty set schedule which is consistent from year to year. They have failed miserably at that to this point.

    With the Indy 500 in their hand, they also have a great way to promote the drivers and the other events (races). Then there is the technology which really goes beyond either group. There is so much going for Indycar that its amazing they continue to struggle. Marketing is something they are stuggling with, but they also struggle with some of the basics.

    “but some short-sighted owners and a spineless board prevented it from ever seeing the light of day..” You hit on the problem. It took Randy Bernard 15 years to achieve what he did. This drive for the short term is not working but there is no evidence that the “plan” is changing. We fans know many of the problems and I have to guess those in charge do too, at least some of them. But current management seems to care only about the short term. And I am not sure that there is agreement of how to move forward in the long term. Hence the league treads water……

    • Actually, it is very addicting and I have gone to see many PBR events over the last few years. The Cowboys are just as friendly as most IndyCar drivers and always happy to sign autographs. The events are never the same twice and there’s always the thrill when you see someone ride a previously undefeated bull. I never thought I would get hooked on a sport like this. I’ve bought tickets up close, I’ve had tickets at Vegas in Nosebleed and they have all been great views.

      In 1992 21 people pooled $1K each to form the PBR. In 2007 (not 2015), PBR was so successful that each of those 21 sold their shares for millions. Here’s a great quote from one of the founders, Michael Gaffney:

      “When we hired Randy in 1995, that was the day things changed,” Gaffney said. “He is such a marketing machine, a visionary, and had full support of the board. When he presented to sponsors and brands, people listened.”

      PBR has an annual attendance (over all their USA events in 2013) of over 2 million; an annual TV audience of over 100 million and has feeder circuits in four other countries, all with TV deals. They sell out Madison Square Garden in NYC, as well as their annual event in Las Vegas.

      What has struck me at the events, besides the intense effort to involve new and old fans, is the sponsor activation. Every sponsor is mentioned at least twice. Major sponsors products are featured prominently at events: Ford trucks and Kawasaki utes are shown in clips with the cowboys, as well as being driven around the arena floor. A Dewalt tool package is given away to someone in the audience every show. Ditto that for the blue jeans, the silversmith who makes the prize belt buckles, Jack Daniels tshirts, etc all given away over the course of the show. Sponsor groups are mentioned and thanked for attending, etc etc.

      Frankly, its a clinic on how to do sponsor activation.

      Here’s an interesting quote from their current CEO, Jim Haworth:

      “Our sponsors don’t sign up because they feel good about it,” he said. “Today, you have to show ROI for any sponsor or they will not sign on the dotted line. We can show that ROI.”

      • The key quote in your comment? “…and had the full support of the board”. That’s something Randy never had at IndyCar, even during the early years. Unfortunately, his fate was probably sealed before he even moved into his office.

  6. Tony Dinelli Says:

    I remember emailing Randy Bernard to give him a sign of support when things weren’t going his way in IndyCar. In no way was I expecting to get a personal response but I did. He emailed back to thank me for my support of him and IndyCar. Emailed me, just a nobody fan from Tulsa, OK. I will never forget that; and I think IndyCar did a disservice showing him the door as quickly as they did.

  7. First, you’ll notice how fan-focused George’s descriptions were. Welcoming fans, educating fans, thanking fans for coming, making sure fans know what’s happening all the time, making fans laugh, making it a continuous show for fans without big breaks etc. … IndyCar, not so much. They do a little of that, of course, but it sounds like most everything at PBR event is designed to treat fans like they are royalty. What a shocking concept. Second, PBR doesn’t devote 97% of its effort to ONE event and then phone it in (virtually) to the other events. Third, I would LOVE to see what their version of a “sanctioning fee” (fee charged to arenas to host the event) is. I would also LOVE to see how much of the promotion is paid for by PBR. My guess all those ads and things George saw were at least partially funded by PBR, who probably gets a cut of the ticket sales and is therefore motivated to put butts in seats. Finally, what Bernard had going for him in PBR was all riders and stock producers buying in that fans are the very highest priority which enabled him to make these fan-focused moves. Heck, the riders even went along with Bernard making the bulls into rock stars. “COME SEE THE UNRIDEABLE TORNADO!” Even full of whiskey I can’t imagine IndyCar ever getting such total buy-in on making fan entertainment the undisputed priority.

    • If I am not mistaken, PBR books the shows and pays for the advertising. An all self-contained enterprise. Arena gets concessions and parking.

    • I’ll always disagree, Dog, that the 500 gets too much of Indycar’s attention. It deserves the attention for the history and the fact that 500 money keeps the boat floating. The other races do need more money and time and attention, of course, but not at the expense of the 500.

  8. I’m still bitter about Randy being fired. Bernard could have grown Indycar’s FANBASE. Mark Miles will/is making money for the Hulman family. But is he going to grow Indycar? Is he even interested in growing Indycar/producing interesting racing/pleasing fans? Ending at 1am on Labor Day weekend and opening the season potentially in Dubai implies an answer there.

  9. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Excellent post George and one that makes me again realize how deluded the long-time/hardcore base (yours truly included) when we think that Indycar does an OK job with the fans. They simply do not in my opinion.

    The drivers being open and engaged with the fans as much as they are does more than anything else the league does combined, but I’m beginning to think this is more a function of the driver’s and team’s efforts, not the league.

    Indycar has not truly moved the needle for the positive in sports any significant manner in decades. DECADES.

    2011 was the start of what may have been the last great chance for growth, (for which planning needed to be done in ’08 or earlier).

    Instead it’s more of the same with nothing new of significance for the fans.

    For a long time Indycar has struggled with it’s reason sport vs. entertainment. It seems increasingly difficult to be both in this day and age.

  10. Old School IndyCar fans are holding the sport back. They are stuck in the past and are the loudest (how loud can a new fan be?). People will die off and the sport will change next generation. Baseball is using the same business model. For the new fans, check out (DVR) Formula e this weekend on FS1.

    • How is that working for baseball?

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      I would consider myself on old-school fan who loved the 60-70s era and don’t think I hold this sport back one iota. Quite the contrary actually. I think you’ll find few care as much as about the success of the sport as those you describe. That maybe the primary reason we’re still here through the last 20+ years.

      Simply, the world and economics changed immensely since the mid-70s and auto-racing is no different, perhaps more sensitive. Indycar always represented ‘go fastest’ and ‘go fastest’ always equated ‘more $$$’.

      Once the economy forced the paradigm change, nearly all of top-level auto-racing became a cost-contained/rolling-billboard/entertainment-based model more than ever. No longer is Indycar seen as the frontier of speed and technology.

      I believe the TV viewership data and ticket sales would support that the fans’ perception saw the Indycar product as no longer featuring ‘latest technology/cutting-edge/speed records/thrills’ so there was no reason to watch.

  11. Mrs.Oilpressure Says:

    I’m still upset that I didn’t get a Bushwhacker the Greatest Bucking Bull of All Time’s farewell tour t-shirt. Seriously. Loved the event.

  12. George, as usual, you make many good points here.
    However, I can’t let this pass without saying, if animals are involved it is not a sport, is is exploitation and cruelty!

    • Exploitation because we have enough sense to use and train animals? Cruelty? These animals are in heaven compared to others in the wild. If they could, they would probably pinch themselves for their luck!

  13. Great points, George. I was a Randy fan and wished he would have had a chance to build on what he started. Not to be. Now I just read on my Racer Magazine app that IMS is back in the black and Miles is saying it is because the season ended early. It is a little early to make that conclusion, isn’t it? I haven’t had a chance to look at the full article from Sports Business Daily, but will later today. I agree with many of you that ending the season during the holiday weekend and at 2:00 a.m. eastern time is pretty stupid.

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