Fixing IndyCar, part 4: Connecting with fans

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on December 18, 2012 1:51 pm
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Link back to:

Fixing IndyCar: An introduction

Fixing IndyCar, part 1: Defining the sport

Fixing IndyCar, part 2: Creating heroes

Fixing IndyCar, part 3: Healing from within

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Let me begin this installment by repeating something that’s been pointed out to me several times since this series began and that is absolutely true: the IndyCar paddock is one of the most open facilities anywhere in the sporting world. Imagine everyday fans being able to cruise through the locker room before a Cowboys game or take their kids for a stroll around the ice before a Red Wings game — or even find the same access to the equipment and the drivers of the Formula 1 paddock. It simply does not happen.

The way that the Series and its teams embrace fans new and old with things like tweet-ups, driver meet and greets, and even letting kids climb into their cars for photos contributes greatly to fan investment in the sport. This is one of the best things IndyCar has going for it, and it must absolutely be celebrated.

However, there are a great number of ways in which the IndyCar paddock — and Series administration in particular — screw up their interactions with fans on a shockingly regular basis, and these things need to be repaired if IndyCar is going to be respected as a top-tier sport in America. If they go unchecked, fans will turn around and leave as quickly as they come in when they discover how deeply the organization as a whole undervalues their contributions — and, more importantly, their entertainment dollars.

This post isn’t going to mince words, mainly because I have a lot of information to cram into a small amount of space. It’s also going to come across as a sort of Airing of Grievances (‘tis the season, after all). I’ll issue my customary Canadian apology up front, but I don’t think it will help me this time — someone is bound to end up annoyed.

I’ll take the hit, though, in the interest of the greater good. Few things would do more to allow IndyCar’s current fan base to get excited about the sport and want to share it with others than resolving these simple issues.

Here they are, in no particular order.

- The ongoing issues with Timing and Scoring must be resolved. When Joe Fan sits down to monitor a practice session from home, what is the primary information he’s looking for? He wants to know who’s fastest, and he wants to know which drivers are faster and slower than his driver. Speed is what this sport is about from top to bottom.

That said, Timing and Scoring should Just Work. No exceptions, no excuses. Nothing makes IndyCar look more low-rent than when a fan takes time out of his busy weekend to check on practice times only to find that the wrong driver names are listed, the results aren’t updating properly, or — as has happened occasionally — the connection from the track isn’t working at all.

Every other major racing series on the planet gets this right. You should, too. And you shouldn’t need pats on the back when it happens. It should work so well so consistently that no one even considers that it might not. Anything less is completely unacceptable.

- Video streaming needs to come back. The TV contracts won’t let IndyCar stream stuff live that’s also being shown on TV. That’s been made clear, and most people will accept it, if begrudgingly.

But several times over the past couple of years, fans have appealed to IndyCar asking why the sessions that aren’t shown on live TV couldn’t be streamed. They never got an answer. Through some deeper investigative work, a few cunning folks contacted the TV partners and were told that they weren’t the problem and there were no contractual barriers to off-TV sessions being streamed.

Fans were forced to conclude, then, that IndyCar had decided that the cost of setting up streaming isn’t worth the return. How powerfully backward this thinking is! If a team is in place that can set up a system and make it Just Work (just like Timing and Scoring and every other online tool should), then the cost of doing this shouldn’t be terribly high — the cameras need to be in place for the at-track video feed anyway. People don’t pay attention to your sport to watch Pac-mans. They tune in to watch race cars. And not only are you creating deep animosity with your fan base by disconnecting them from your race weekends over a small budget cut, but you’re also taking away an opportunity to introduce race cars to potential new fans at no cost — or even for a live session to go viral if it gets really interesting.

And by the way, while we’re on the subject of appeals being ignored…

- Don’t ignore fan questions. The example above is a key one. Here’s another.

This year, IndyCar set up a YouTube channel and started posting full-length videos of the television broadcasts a few days after each event. Fantastic, right?

We Canadians were particularly excited because we were being screwed around by TSN, the TV entity up here that held IndyCar’s rights contract until the end of this past season. If they pre-empt IndyCar and our PVRs miss the broadcast yet again, we thought, at least we’ll have a way to catch up a few days later.

That pre-empting inevitably happened, and Canadians tried to access the YouTube channel only to find that nasty “This video cannot be viewed in your country” message. Groups of us flocked to social media and begged and pleaded for an explanation. What did we get in response? Nothing.

I only learned the true answer in an unrelated email with an IndyCar staffer who made a flippant comment about television rights (but by then, most people had concluded that on their own).

This is no way to treat your most dedicated. Even if the answer you have isn’t the one people want to hear, you still need to let them hear it. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away; it only breeds and festers resentment. The department is called “public relations” for a reason.

To take this concept one step further: one thing I hope IndyCar takes away from its time with Randy Bernard at the helm is that a policy of openness is paramount to fostering fan interest. People who love a sport want to know every detail about its inner workings, and things like explanations of penalties feed that appetite nicely. IndyCar’s policies in that regard this past season were refreshing. Things like that can contribute to fan investment. I sincerely hope that is able to continue under the new administration.

And taking yet another step: silencing some of your senior staffers on social media is a very bad idea. It’s not a secret that several people were told to stop answering fan questions online this season. Again, that’s not going to make the questions go away — it’s only going to make it seems like no one cares that the questions exist. Getting a direct answer to a question from an insider, even if it’s not the answer anyone wants, is an extremely exciting experience for a fan. Taking away that opportunity for engagement is yet another example of backward thinking.

- IMS Radio needs to make some policy adjustments. If IndyCar is going to insist on having T&S and IMS Radio as its only links to fans during online-only sessions, then IMS Radio needs to be tasked with doing its job extremely well to compensate for the lack of visual connection.

Right now, for the most part, that’s simply not happening.

When observers at home are tuning in for a practice session, they want to know what’s happening in that session at that moment, not what so-and-so said on Twitter and what Ed Carpenter had for dinner last night. I’ve made this argument before, so I’ll save some time and link it here.

On top of that, consider this scenario, which is a true story that has happened to several friends of mine several times: A west coast fan wakes up at 5:30 AM to follow the morning warm-up on race day. Bleary-eyed and with energy drink in hand, she fires up IndyCar Race Control and finds… nothing. No T&S, no audio, no messages — just the standard “No cars on track” graphic. Frustrated, confused, and still half-asleep, she hops on Twitter to see if she can figure out what’s going on, but no one else is sure, either. Finally, a team PR rep thinks to pop online and say, “Morning warm-up is delayed; the medical helicopter can’t land due to fog.” The fan complains vocally on Twitter and wanders off to feed her cats with a defeated sigh.

Now, imagine instead that there had been a clear graphic explaining the delay on T&S and that IMS Radio had gone live at the scheduled session start time to provide on-the-ground updates. Would that not have been a much more considerate way to treat our poor, tired, highly dedicated race fan? (That delay fill time, by the way, would be the ideal time to discuss Ed Carpenter’s dinner, not when cars are on track and there’s data to analyze.)

It’s stunning that we even need to say this stuff out loud. But IMS Radio doesn’t exist so that the commentators can listen to themselves (I don’t think) — its only reason for being is fan outreach. It’s in IMS Radio’s best interests to examine its flaws and get its act together to better serve its listeners.

If the counter-argument to this is that IMS Radio serves both at-track and at-home listeners, by the way, then it would be worth analyzing whether the two tasks need to be split up to best serve each audience.

- Pay attention to the online community. This one is a bit self-serving, so I’ll keep it brief. Your fan base has dwindled enough that people like bloggers, forum posters, and Twitter users have far greater reach among your fan base than we would in most other sports. Many of us aren’t feeling particularly well-engaged lately. Ignore us at your peril.

- Rebuild the fan club from the bottom up. The fan club — oh, how deeply the fan club sucks!

Right now, people are being charged to be a member of the fan club and are getting very little in return — the box full of useless crap with logos all over it doesn’t count — and then they’re being charged again to do anything useful within the fan club once they’re members.

The only redeeming quality of the fan club at the moment is that it comes with a subscription to RACER that would cost roughly the same on its own, and any self-respecting IndyCar fan should probably be reading RACER anyway. But that doesn’t make it okay to rip the membership off in every other conceivable way.

Look, guys: when you’re a sport operating in the red and in a marginal position this may be hard to believe, but the fan club should not be treated as a revenue stream. It should be a method for prostrating yourself before the few dedicated fans you have left and bending over backwards to keep them engaged and invested.

Here’s one possible approach: a two-tier system. Tier one would be free to join, and it would come with less up-front swag and no RACER. But it would come with the travel and merchandise discounts, and IndyCar could introduce free passes to, say, driver meet-and-greets or pre- and post-race ceremonies — with a second pass included, of course, so that new people can be exposed to some of the more exciting aspects of the sport. If space is a concern, hand out wristbands or make it clear that there will be a cutoff at the gate. (There’s something to be said for making these perks seem exclusive.) Have a random draw for a free pace car ride at each event for someone at the tier one level. Send out a hero card to any fan who checks in at a race, just to say thank you. None of these things would cost IndyCar much money, but they would do enormous things for building goodwill, growing the dedicated fan base, and helping people share the sport with their loved ones.

At tier two, it makes more sense to charge a fee for membership and offer the RACER subscriptions, hats, paddock passes, etc. But better perks could be offered such as draws for two-seater rides, small-group breakfasts with drivers, one-on-one garage tours with engineers, pre-race grid access, tours of Race Control, and other things that would be of interest to longer-term fans. Again, the idea is to make people feel valued for caring about IndyCar, and the more they care, the more they should feel valued.

I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas out there — this is only one. But just about anything is better than what exists now, which involves fans paying a whole lot of money for next to nothing.

It’s unlikely that many of these changes will be made or the pleas heard, unfortunately — they haven’t been up until now, and there’s not much reason to believe things will change. But if the environment was right, these adjustments would go a long way toward repairing the relationship between the fan base and IndyCar. The Series needs to learn how to do right by the people it has before it will be properly positioned to bring new people in and be able to retain them.

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In the next and final installment of Fixing IndyCar, we will look at how IndyCar can tell the world about its revamped product and how we’ll all know that these changes have been effective.

In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comments section below. How do you feel IndyCar treats you as a fan? Does the Series do anything well or not-so-well as it works to retain your interest?

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