Saturday, January 29, 2011

MEDIA: NASCAR's Sprint Cup and the PGA Tour at Crossroads

NASCAR’s Sprint Cup and the PGA Tour are two sports at the crossroads. Soon camera crews will be loading up and heading to Daytona then Augusta, and what can we expect? The big golf headline this weekend is “you know who is struggling.” What’s up with that especially considering what the current state of competition is? Zero wins and #68 in total earnings on the 2010 PGA Tour, such a golfer should enter play in 2011 with relatively little press, except this golfer is Eldrick Woods. As the 2011 season begins, how little is made of the golfers atop the leader board, but all attention is on the once mighty “Tiger” of lore who plays more like a malnourished stray cat these days.

Hence the dilemma for the PGA and the media covering golf, Tiger Woods once equaled ratings. Results have shown a huge plunge matching Tiger’s demise. While nowhere near matching the prowess of Tiger Woods, a similar phenomenon dogs NASCAR with the dramatic decline of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s career. Having not coming close to the championship chase and missing out on victory lane, results would show Junior just one of the pack in Sprint Cup, yet given his huge popularity and inheritor of the Earnhardt brand name, Earnhardt success and TV ratings go hand-in-hand. While cross-sports metaphors are overworked to an extreme, one could have called Jimmy Johnson, the Tiger Woods of NASCAR except the mild-mannered, somewhat snobby driver, creates little media excitement despite winning five championships in a row.

The PGA and NASCAR have much in common no matter how much golf might be identified as a sport for the well-to-do and NASCAR being a more blue collar and southern enterprise. The focus is on the golfer or the driver. Only rarely do caddies or crew chiefs get much notice except to the most loyal fans. Both sports are losing viewers. Advertisers and sponsors are harder to find.

Time will tell if Tiger Woods or Dale Earnhardt Jr. ever return to championship contention. If they did, would the viewers tune back in?

The course is clear, both sports need to work hard to rebrand themselves as their two most popular brand names no longer deliver. Both sports have had dynasties before, but much of the excitement came from great rivalries. Golfers remember a young Jack Nicklaus for instance taking on the established Arnold Palmer. How about David Pearson taking on Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt driving Darrell Waltrip insane?

In the PGA, Phil Mickelson is a fine golfer, a fellow with a great story to tell, but has yet to show the ability to dominate the sport and at his age he probably won’t. In that context, he’s just too nice to gather much attention unless he’s in a position to move Eldrick over which he succeeded in doing several times.

So how do the PGA and NASCAR rebrand themselves to pump up their audience? Would the same strategy work for both or does each one need its own strategy? The media loves to turn to the “young guns” as in who would be the next Tiger Woods or Jimmie Johnson, but until thise young guns start winning on a consistent basis, it doesn’t stir up much business.

To think it’s just two weeks before the engines roar at Daytona with the Daytona 500 the week follows. Soon after that, March Madness, and then the Masters. The Daytona 500 and the Masters hardly tell the tale of what the season ahead will bring for either sport. Both enjoy large TV audiences, many of whom might not watch another race or golf tournament; however, it’s very important for both sports to set the tone for the rest of the season and plant seeds of interest that will lure in viewers for future events. The networks involved in carrying these events are all too tempted to play the front runner game but will they recognize that hyping Tiger Woods and Dale Earnhardt Jr. could be at the expense of how audiences might tune in later on. Fans need to have more to look at that these two marque names.

The hard core fans have their favorites and could care less about the two glamour boys and perhaps even get irritated at the excessive attention the sports media devotes to them. However, there is no denying neither sport is getting the attention either one got in the not distant past. Sure, apologists will point to the economy and other such things, but what does it cost to plop down in front of the TV on a Sunday afternoon?

Leaders of both sports must accept the challenge they are selling a product – their sports. No one does it better than the NFL. The NFL sells the NFL. Fans are lured to follow as much football as the networks including NFL’s own network can throw at them. Even team loyalties not to mention individual players are second to the big spectacle of the sport itself. Could that work for the PGA tour? Could that work for NASCAR?

The problem with both the PGA and NASCAR is if they were to highlight major events, where would that leave the lesser events? The Kemper Open is no Masters. The Kansas 400 is no Daytona 500. For NASCAR fans, what does it mean that the first race of the season has the media tag of NASCAR's Super Bowl, an absolutely stupid analogy aside from the hype surrounding each event.

As a fan of both sports, I really don’t want to hear “Tiger” or “Junior” unless one of them is closing in on a victory. Hopefully, sports media will catch on. Both sports are far bigger than the fortunes of their most recognized big name guys. The media and the sports' promo guys need to catch on.


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