Wednesday, November 30, 2022

They Did It Again

I've been a sportswriter for more than 20 years, and when I was just getting started I covered a lot of high school sports, including football.

Of course, back at the turn of the century, there were a few "old school" coaches still roaming the sidelines, and I enjoyed speaking to them because while they didn't always say things in the most correct of ways, they were always entertaining and fun to talk to.

One of those was a guy named Mike Curry. He had been coaching since the mid-70s and had won two state football championships in 1981 and 1986. He stepped down from coaching at Aurora Central Catholic High School in 2009 but stayed on to teach social studies -- in fact, both of my sons had him as a teacher while they were at ACC.

After a game, Mike would have you follow him to the equipment barn where he'd light up a smoke and tell you the truth about the game. If they played badly he said they did, and vice versa.

Once after a particularly tough game, I asked him about his team's turnovers that night, and his reply was something along the lines of: "we shot ourselves in the foot so many times tonight that we ran out of bullets".

As a fan of IndyCar for more than 43 years, that quote has come to mind many times over the years, when the series does something that shows that they were unable to get out of their own usual.

This quote resurfaced again last week when the Iowa Speedway weekend schedule was released. It was so glowing! Carrie Underwood, Zac Brown, Kenny Chesney and Ed Sheeran are going to be there! It's going to be even better than last year!

And in the small print? Oh yeah, there will be cars on track. Oh, and another thing, tickets are going to cost more than last year. A lot more.

As expected, there has been a lot of pushback. I know social media represents just a slight piece of the IndyCar fanbase, but from what I've read there leads me to conclude that many people who bought tickets this year will not be returning in 2023.

I truly believe that the 2022 Iowa experiment was a successful one in terms of fans and fans enjoyment, but in the back of my mind I always wondered how they were planning on paying for it. I now have my answer.

Marshall Pruett covered a lot of the bases of this topic, and you can read his piece here. I'm not going to say I disagree with many of the points Bud Denker brings up in their reasoning to move in the direction they are going. But my question are these: how does this grow IndyCar? How does it truly bring in new fans? How does this not feel like a music festival with races as the in-between entertainment?

As a race fan, it feels that way. It reminds me of back in 1998 when I went to a Cincinnati Reds game on Beanie Baby Day. A large segment of fans waited in line to get their Beanie Baby, handed over their ticket, got their Baby, then turned around and walked out. They got what they came for, just like people who pay to get into a movie, watch a trailer for a future blockbuster, and leave.

For what they are bringing in, yeah, the cost is a bargain. However, that's not IndyCar's niche. It's always been about great racing for a low price, kids getting in free and some of the best access to the people who make the sport great.

That's what most of us want! Put it one way: I love EDM (Electronic Dance Music) and so do both of my sons. During the Indy 500, some of the biggest names in the genre play during the race in the Snake Pit. I listen to the replays on our way home the next on Sirius XM, and they are incredible shows. 

Combined minutes myself and my two sons have spent in the Snake Pit to see these great acts: Zero.

We aren't there to see EDM acts, we're there to see the Indy 500. I don't begrudge anyone who feels the other way around, either. As much as I love football, if I were to go to a city during the Super Bowl and they were having a huge EDM show during the game, the show would be my choice instead of the game.

But the Indy 500 doesn't make very many people EDM fans, and EDM fans rarely become fans of the Indy 500. In the end they are two standalone events. And that's OK, because the race is the star of the show, everyone knows it, and because of that fact both can coexist peacefully.

I think what they are doing to make Iowa a big deal is nice, but at the same time I find it an insult to race fans, and IndyCar fans who have been loyal to the series. With no massive media, content, and money resources like NASCAR, this series has to be about the fans, and they should be the main piece to every decision.

Some may argue that maybe some of these people will come to the track and become race fans. Sure, but what is the rate of return on that? I've seen soccer games in Europe, they are amazing and a lot of fun. When I return to Italy next year I'm probably going to go to a couple more. But at the same time, I have a Major League Soccer team that plays an hour from my house and I have never gone to a game.

Honestly, I just have no real desire to.

Sure, the people who come to the concert may enjoy the race, and may come back in 2024. But how does that help the series? How does it help sell tickets, get TV ratings and sell merchandise? I feel like the weekend will help make more new fans of the musical acts rather than the other way around.

If this were the goal of every race weekend, as the great Ragin' Cajun' himself James Carville said in the movie Old School: "Have at it, hoss", I'd get it. But when it's cheaper overall to go to other races, where do you think people are going to go? When airfare, hotel and race tickets are cheaper to go to sunny St. Pete in the wintertime than the Iowa green desert in the summer, what's gonna be the choice?

If this were being done in Long Beach, St. Pete or Nashville, it would be killer. It would be the perfect combination of racing and music, something I would buy into in a heartbeat, because I'd come to town a day earlier or a day later and enjoy the local scene. It would be worth it to me.

But putting on concerts and saying: "hey, stick around for the IndyCar race!" just doesn't sit with me.

I've been beating on this drum and I'll beat on it until the head breaks. Then I'll put on a new drum head and beat onto it some more: this isn't it.

To grow the sport you need access, and you need to appeal to younger fans. It's gotta be done through social media, eSports, access and content. It's gotta be an aggressive approach from the top to the bottom, from the series to the teams to the drivers, and it's gotta be done with everyone getting on board. And if you aren't on board, someone will get on board for you.

My wife works for a company that makes restaurant and residential cooking equipment, and they have the belief that the company needs to be re-invented every several years. So they do it. It's time for IndyCar to re-invent itself, and that's been needed for quite some time.

Every IndyCar-related activity should be open to the public, or somehow get the public involved. Everything needs to be streamed, and every decision needs to be made for what is best for racing fans. Because in the end, your product is racing, and your most important people need to be your fans. 

Make everything big, then make it bigger. Did you ever see the movie The One Hundred Foot Journey? It's a total chick flick, but I like it, so shaddup. In the movie, when the Indian family opens their restaurant, no one comes in. But when they add lights and music, and the father dresses up in traditional Indian wear, makes his restaurant seem like a big deal, and stands outside coaxing people in, they discover that they love the place, and its popularity reaches or even exceeds the stuffy, Michelin Star establishment across the street.

Which says something. I've eaten food prepared by a Michelin Star's so good it's mind boggling.

Papa knew what he had inside was amazing, he just needed to get people inside to try his food. He didn't need Bollywood stars, or Yo Yo Honey Sing, Benny Dayal or Arijit Singh to be there, because they weren't the star of the show, his food was. That's even hammered home with Hassan's story arc, going to Paris and becoming a big star, then coming home because he wanted it to be about the food.

In the end, IndyCar is about the racing. The racing should be the star of every weekend, not a sideshow. I'm all for doing what it takes to get racing fans new and old through the gates, but not like this.

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