Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Search For Stability

I find myself in the slightly rare position this week of agreeing rather heavily with a Robin Miller article. His latest, entitled “The Cult of Negativity”, takes aim at some of the rumors circulated by Sports Business Journal this week that a group of INDYCAR owners were actively working to purchase the Series. He’s right: this sort of rumor hurts INDYCAR, and needs to stop. But beyond that, INDYCAR needs to ensure that its appearance is one of a stable organization.

Fortunately, on the schedule side for next year, stability seems to be what we’re getting. For the most part, the schedule will look close to the same events and dates we saw for 2012, with nearly all events taking place within a week of this year’s date. For example, next year, Toronto shifts a week to accommodate Pocono. With Edmonton gone, there’s a gap between Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, but both those races again return in the same slot. Fontana appears to be the only event with a major shift, and that’s calculated. Stability? That’s a good thing. Keeping events in the same place, working on making them an annual event and destination for folks, and giving them an air of permanency inspires confidence, visibility, and most of all, customer planning.

On Jake Query’s Indianapolis radio show Monday afternoon, Randy Bernard expressed a desire to have 2014's schedule locked in as soon as possible, which makes sense. It only stands to reason you want as large a window as possible for folks to buy tickets and plan for your events. If INDYCAR is already working to lock down 2014 dates, and can follow through, that’s a good sign.

IndyCar has just finished an amazing 2012--
So why is so much garbage being brought out?
Away from the track, however, it seems as if whenever we get a dose of good news—such as the long-awaited return of Pocono--there’s a story in the wings about unhappy owners, interest in changing series ownership, or whatever other crisis—real or manufactured—is being circulated at the time. That gives INDYCAR the look of instability, when you’re talking about prospective sponsors peeking in from the outside.

Broadly speaking, IndyCar fans know they have a good product. They saw what the racing was in 2012, saw the level of competition, and know that they have some true talent mixing it up in a variety of venues. But what most fans—and I imagine, by extension, interested sponsors—want—is a surcease from continued chaotic negativity. Some of that is likely sensationalism from interests both in and outside the sport, some of it is the product of a subset of fans who seem to seek out the bad while disregarding the good, and yes, some of it is just a byproduct of a series going through the uneven process of trying to bounce back from over a decade of frustration and struggle.

Ultimately, most of us just want to enjoy racing, and have our unpredictability come on the track, not off of it. INDYCAR is taking steps to ensure that’s the case. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of factions both within and without that seem to need or want that air of instability. Taking a more proactive approach in shutting down or shutting out some of the continued bomb-throwers would be a fine first step, but some items—like continued rumors of an attempted owner coup, for example—can’t be simply ignored. A robust, positive social media presence is needed, not to let control of the narrative get away from INDYCAR. The next time there’s an uproar over owner disgruntlement, there should be a statement when warranted, and plenty of other news and features to focus the interest back on what’s important.

There’s so much to like about what’s going on with INDYCAR right now. If it can control the message, control its image, and refocus on the positive, while providing a sense of stability for the fans, then there’s every chance more folks will focus on that, not rumors and negativity. Not every interest out there is friendly to the Series as we know it--indeed, some are quite the opposite. The micro-news cycle can't belong to the embittered, "concern trolls", lackeys of the competition, or the openly hostile; it needs to be the domain of the Series, with the push coming from the Series and allied parties. Give race fans an increasing sense that all is indeed well, that current leadership has the confidence of the board, and that this is a sport with a definitive plan and control over its own destiny. Give supporters the confidence they need (and should have) to worry only about the drivers and races they love, not a will they/won’t they future of the Series. Again, that begins with stability, a firm hand, and plenty of outreach.

Remember this: if INDYCAR can’t define itself in clear and decisive terms, others will. In other words, snakes will remain snakes. Forget about the street/oval split, or cost of parts, or the other aspects of this sport we know will always be contentious. The most important thing IndyCar can do for its fans and future is project confidence, control the message, and offer a sense of permanent stability in its dealings. If it can do that, then the vacuum will be filled with positivity, instead of malicious rumors and negative headlines.

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