Archive for November, 2009

Thank You, Barney Oldfield, for Making Motorsports and Racing Popular in America… By the Way, You Kinda’ Remind Me of Paul Newman

NASCAR drivers today enjoy the money and fame that come with being athletes in one of the world’s most popular sports, but not without the efforts of the nameless many who came before them and those who survive in posterity on the walls and in the halls of museums and national memory.  Just like the NFL had its first heroes who helped bring football into the national spotlight and were instrumental in its supplanting baseball as the national pastime by the early 1960s (Vince Lombardi, George S. Halas, Jim Thorpe, Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, and Ernie Davis easily come to mind), NASCAR and American racing in general had its pioneers as well.  The particular athlete I write about today not only helped make American motor sports popular, but also played a vital role in making a certain American car manufacturer a household name.  Barney Oldfield’s exploits set the pace that others would follow in the decades to come, and Jacque Passino, Ford’s Chief of Performance at the time, poignantly said of Fred Lorenzen at his retirement from NASCAR Grand National competition in 1967 that “no man since Barney Oldfield has contributed more to the performance image of Ford.”  In the end, the race car driver helps not only the sport of racing, but also the auto manufacturer itself.

This week, we will take a look at the career of one of the most influential and important race car drivers in American history, Berna Eli “Barney” Oldfield.  Like in my previous article, I will use Mark D. Howell’s From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series for supporting facts.  As you read this article, compare Oldfield’s career to that of Paul Newman – there are many similarities.

Barney Oldfield’s success in the early half of the 20th century was a catalyst in Henry Ford’s success in business.  Ford followed Alexander Winton’s example of using motorsports to sell his cars and built the Ford 999 to compete with Winton’s “Bullet,” and it was Oldfield who piloted the 999 into racing history.  Racing cars straight out of the factory did not yield the results Ford expected, however, and with nearly 40 other manufacturers in America at the time, feuds and rivalries emerged from the dust clouds on the racecourse.  In efforts to construct cars that would win at speed record runs and even hill climbs, each manufacturer worked on designing high performance machines without regard for fairness.  Early sanctioning bodies like the AAA tried standardizing sets of rules, but it was not until the creation of NASCAR in 1947-48 that stock car racing – which up to that point consisted of running factory built cars with modified engines under the hood – in America was organized by a powerful governing entity.

As I stated last week, Barney Oldfield was America’s first popular race car driver.  Since he climbed into his Ford 999 and pushed it to its limits on numerous tracks throughout the first decade of the 20th century, Oldfield became a celebrity.  As an avid bicycle racer, he had never driven a car until his association with Ford, according to Howell.  Oldfield first gripped the steering wheel of his 999 in competition on a racecourse on 23 October, 1902.  Following him were several other cars, including the world’s fastest automobile, Alexander Winton’s “Bullet.”  He won against a field consisting of many seasoned drivers and competitors, and this early success instantly gained him celebrity status.  Only 2 months later, Oldfield “was breaking records set by Winton’s Bullet,” according to Howell, making the Ford 999 America’s fastest automobile.  His success firmly placed Oldfield and the Ford 999 at the center of American popular culture.  Oldfield’s bravery behind the wheel of this new technology captivated the minds and hearts of those who learned of his exciting accomplishments on the racecourse.

He would soon leave the Ford 999 for other more sophisticated machines that produced more power and speed.  On his way to becoming America’s greatest driver, Oldfield continued to break speed records and affirmed that as long as a car was built with careful attention to detail and used the best technology, it was capable of testing man’s limits as talented drivers turned the wheel and pushed the pedals at even greater speeds.  He raced against some of the richest Americans of the time, including William K. Vanderbilt and Henry L. Bowden.  Howell also mentions that by 1910, Oldfield had gained fame in Germany and was hired to drive the Blitzen Benz at Ormond Beach right through old speed records he set before in other machines.  As he piloted automobile technology at breakneck speeds through more and more records, cars became faster and more dangerous.  One of NASCAR’s primary duties was to implement and enforce measures that would protect drivers involved in competition.  It may be inferred that risks Oldfield took in the early days of stock car racing and his success made cars safer for not only competitors, but those who purchased cars from dealerships around the nation.

Barney Oldfield became a sports hero, media celebrity, and cultural icon.  His manager and press agent, William Hickman “Will” Pickens, helped build Oldfield’s image in the eyes of newspaper and magazine readers all over America.  His experiences on the track even took him to Hollywood.  For about 35-40 years, he starred in musicals and racing movies, and in 1913, Mack Sennett produced the first movie that featured Oldfield as the main character on the silver screen.  Like today’s drivers, Oldfield became a celebrity because of his natural talents and learned skills.  He was not born into money, as his father was a Civil War veteran and his mother a blacksmith’s daughter: his was quite the working-class family.  Howell asserts that Oldfield was a “professional athlete who took his place within American popular folklore.”  One finds the prelude to his becoming a folk hero in Homer C. George’s observation, in which he states that Oldfield was “of sturdy but humble farming parentage, in a little loghouse three miles from Wauseon, Fulton County, Ohio.”  These are images so close to the American heart and they run parallel to traditional American symbolism.  Howell even goes so far as to say that Oldfield’s “personal story seems to have been torn from the pages of a Horatio Alger story.”  He also concludes that Oldfield’s story fits this stereotype as well as Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone’s histories.  All three stories are told from rural American landscapes and romanticize the rural experience; furthermore, they underscore the strong work ethic and individualism that highlight the American identity.

In 1996, driver Jimmy Spencer was featured on This Week in NASCAR in an interview held on the grounds of the Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum in Novi, Michigan.  Mark D. Howell spoke to him of Oldfield prior to the show’s taping and how he made Ford famous, “and Spencer smiled and replied, ‘Barney Oldfield… I know that name.  I’ve heard of him.'”  Certainly, Oldfield set the pace that all drivers and motorsports in America follow today.

As Howell so beautifully says of Oldfield, “he was an ordinary man with extraordinary talents.”  Thank you, Barney Oldfield.

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

I would like to thank Mr. Ric Johnson for his comment last week.  It motivated me to write this article and examine Oldfield’s career a little further.  Second, Mark D. Howell has my greatest thanks, for without his book, I would not possess the knowledge I have today of NASCAR and its history.  To anyone who would like to learn more about Barney Oldfield, Fred Lorenzen, and the history of NASCAR, I sincerely recommend Howell’s book, From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Lastly, as always, thank you for your readership and participation.

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Moonshine, Folk History, and the NASCAR Spectacle

What do the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 and Prohibition have in common?  NASCAR.

I bet that was the last thing you expected to read, but it is true.  Moonshiners created an antiestablishment culture that fueled stock car racing in America.  The Whiskey Rebellion was a battle between a government that asserted itself in an early attempt to prove its might and individuals who lived along and near the Mason-Dixon line and depended on whiskey to conduct business and engage in leisurely activities in the American wilderness.  The struggle between the government and alcohol reached another climax during Prohibition as moonshine smugglers tuned their cars to outrun police units on the open roads.  In Mark D. Howell’s From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, we learn that NASCAR’s spirit was born in post-colonial America and it manifested on Daytona International Speedway and all the other tracks that were built over the next several decades.  Its very existence and survival depended on the sport’s ability to become a focal point of American popular culture; undoubtedly, that it certainly did.  In this brief study of NASCAR, I will count on both my own experiences at the races and my recollection of material I read in Howell’s book as I composed the annotated bibliography for my thesis.

After tracing its history to post-colonial rural America, one finds that NASCAR’s roots are firmly set in folk history.  When Prohibition was repealed in the early 1930s, bootleggers were left looking at their hot rods and wondering what to do with them.  Bill France created NASCAR in Daytona, Florida to organize what would become the true American motor sport and oversee that competitions were fair and drivers were paid.  Great names in early NASCAR history like Junior Johnson and Tim Flock had their beginnings in moonshine and helped establish the sport.  It was not because of its false glamour – which we owe to Hollywood and popular culture – that they worked in the moonshine business; rather, they did it out of necessity.  Drivers were romanticized in the papers (Barney Oldfield comes to mind) and were seen as the fastest humans on Earth.  Having grown from a culture that prizes individualism, independence, family, and God, NASCAR successfully branched out of Daytona to all corners of America.

Now, a NASCAR Winston Cup Series (now called the Sprint Cup Series) race is not just an event: it is a weekend-long celebration of speed, machinery, sunlight, fast food, big business, and camaraderie.  Certainly, it is not the racing Barney Oldfield knew over 50 years ago.  It is a dramatic sensory experience.  Over the race weekend, people who otherwise might have never spoken to each other – much less met – exchange stories on races they watched some time ago and talk about how no one drove like one driver or how no one will ever drive like another guy.  No other sport connects sponsors with fans like NASCAR.  For example, how often do you hear people consciously decide to change cellular phone providers because a company owns the naming rights to their favorite baseball team’s stadium?  Now, how many NASCAR fans would you hear vow to never shop at a certain hardware store because they sponsor the driver they absolutely hate?  That is one of NASCAR’s unique, intangible qualities.  It has its own culture of rituals, symbols, and images, as Howell puts it.

It has a very tangible side as well.  NASCAR involves statistics, gear ratios, engine sizes, spoiler angles, track lengths and dimensions, top speeds, milliseconds in the pits, money, and points for the championship.  It is quantifiable, and so invites careful attention to detail and appreciation for all the variables that must coincide and be defined for an athlete to succeed.  This is what the media gladly collects and uses to produce the magazines and TV shows that supplement the event’s presentation.  The drivers have their stories and share common backgrounds with their fans.  Drivers like Barney Oldfield – the first great NASCAR legend – and Dale Earnhardt were presented to the public by savvy promoters who made them marketing symbols that sponsors could pursue.  They went from being folk heroes to cultural icons during NASCAR’s gradual transition from an upstart racing league to the nation’s highest grossing sport.

NASCAR is the perfect blend of individualism, teamwork, marketing, and corporate competition.  The mass media and Corporate America have embraced the sport; in fact, the latter wins and loses on the playing field – the track in this case – with the athlete and can be the first among many (43 to be exact), unlike other sports that set only one competitor against another and the viewer knows that either one team or another will win.  All sports between humans have their beauty, but NASCAR is truly the ultimate American competition between individuals, teams, and corporations.  No other sport would move a child to say, “I like the yellow Ernie Irvan #4 Kodak Chevrolet… Mom, could you buy me the toy car?”  Even in a child’s untrained eyes, NASCAR makes the connection between athlete and sponsor so crystal clear.  “In many cases, you quickly identify with a driver, his sponsor, or the make of car he drives,” says Howell in his introduction.  The implications in that statement for revenue generation are remarkable.

Essentially, as a result of its rebellious past, intangible and tangible qualities, and an ability to easily connect fans with sponsors through sport, Sprint Cup racing has become a sort of cultural mythology.  The race weekends themselves are another story altogether.  They begin when the workweek nears its end and the last person leaves the stadium only hours before the first Monday minute.  No other sport enjoys such pageantry and fan involvement and can be truly considered such an ethereal “experience.”  Even if you have never followed NASCAR and attend your first race, don’t just enjoy the event… enjoy the weekend.

 

 

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

 

 

I would like to thank Professor Craig Lamay at Northwestern University for giving me the assignment that inspired me to start thinking about these topics.  Professor Lamay teaches the “Sport in the Social Context” course as part of the Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies’ curriculum for the Masters of Sports Administration program.  He is also Associate Professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Adjunct Professor at the Northwestern University School of Law.  Last but not least, thank you for reading and participating.

Vince Lombardi’s Leadership and the Path to Wisdom

Today, I will discuss how Vince Lombardi changed the Green Bay Packers’ entire culture and made champions out of underachievers.  For this analysis, I draw from Peter G. Northouse’s book Leadership, Jake Emen’s article “Vince Lombardi: A Case Study in the Art of Leadership” (available at http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/292814/vince_lombardi_a_case_study_in_the.html?cat=9) notes from Professor Cooper’s class, and my own experiences.  In the end, we will discover how sports can change not only athletes, but the audience itself (my closing paragraph includes bits of wisdom I devised from Lombardi’s actions and words); in fact, it is my contention that there is a great deal of wisdom to be gained by taking a thoughtful look at the leadership philosophy that the greatest coach in NFL history embodied and exemplified.  Indeed, Lombardi led by example and emphasized discipline, fearlessness, confidence, vision and direction, practicality, responsibility, honesty, commitment, power, and integrity; also, he always had faith in himself and his players and is revered for his wisdom by football historians and fans alike.

Vince Lombardi turned a team mired in mediocrity into one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history.  By the end of the 1960s, the Green Bay Packers won 96 games and became the winningest team of the decade.  This was not automatic, though.  Lombardi knew that a significant change within the organization and in the hearts of his players was necessary to succeed.  He walked onto the practice field and instantly introduced a culture of discipline and fearlessness to a team previously led by an easy-going and soft spoken coach; in fact, he restructured a failed team culture of casual t-shirt wearing football players to professionals who projected a winning image and wore blazers and ties when traveling to another city to play a road game.  He invited any nonbelievers to “get the hell out” and his confidence in himself spread to his players.  Emen quotes Bart Starr, the Packers’ quarterback, as stating, “I think we’re going to begin to win,” soon after Lombardi’s arrival in Green Bay.  Lombardi’s authority, self-confidence, and discipline helped him seize leadership of the team and instill faith in his philosophy in his players’ hearts.  He never lapsed into unprofessionalism and his players admired him for it.  Most of all, according to Northwestern University professor John Cooper, Managing Partner at Milestone Partners, LLC, a leader must influence a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.  Lombardi accomplished that without a hitch and led them to multiple NFL championships and two Super Bowl titles.

Lombardi created a new atmosphere on the football field as well.  His solutions to opponents’ defenses were simple and required his players to think for themselves.  He placed great emphasis on punctuality and expected his players to arrive 15 minutes early to every practice.  Now, Northouse describes the style approach to leadership as being a balancing act between task behaviors (those that help group members achieve their goals) and relationship behaviors (actions that enhance a group member’s comfort within the organization), and even though Lombardi formed relationships with his players and some of them even grew to love him (though most feared him), he always focused on goal accomplishment no matter what the cost.  His honesty prevented him from giving compliments to players who did not deserve them even if it meant that it would lessen an underachieving player’s frustration, and his commitment to excellence made it absolutely impossible.  According to Emen, Willie Wood’s confidence all but disappeared completely after failing over and over again in practice.  Lombardi waited until just the right moment to give him a pat on the back for a job well done thereby restoring his confidence; again, Lombardi did not care as much about hurting people’s feelings as he did about winning.  In Wood’s case, we see how Lombardi used the right amount of pressure to bring out the best in his players.  To this day, Forrest Gregg bears the greatest compliment that coach Lombardi ever gave a player: public recognition as the finest player he ever coached.  It was an assertion Lombardi made much later in his life.  Lombardi never rewarded underachievers or anyone who gave less to the team than he did.  Because he gave so much of himself to the team, every single player pushed way beyond his own limits and learned something new about himself after each practice session and game.  He believed that coaching involved teaching, and that the only way someone will follow you is if you show them why your ideas work.  All in all, the Packers saw results on the scoreboard and their opponents gritting their teeth in frustration; after only one season, they believed in Lombardi’s philosophy and embodied it, for Lombardi himself was the living manifestation of the ideas he professed and taught.  He certainly led by example and relied on his wisdom and integrity to gain his players’ admiration.

Lastly, Professor Cooper stated that self-awareness is a key component in effective leadership.  Keen self-awareness requires a high degree of wisdom (knowledge of life itself) and vice-versa: through insight, one’s experiences will reveal one’s strengths and weaknesses.  Through sports (in this case football), one can truly gain much wisdom by observing with a watchful and critical eye.  Each player on a football team has a specialized role, much like our own personality traits, values, and different forms of knowledge play unique roles in defining who we are.  Even if one does not aim to lead a team on the gridiron or a group of any kind, one must be able to lead oneself down a path to success.  In fact, the individual’s team consists of her values, knowledge, skills, and abilities, and she must know how to manage them in order to achieve ultimate success.  Like Lombardi was with his players, one ought to be with oneself.

It is discipline that will win the day.  A fear of failure quickly becomes a fear to try.  Self-confidence makes your goal the constant in an environment defined by variables.  It is only with a clear vision of one’s goal and a map with distinctly marked milestones that attainment becomes possible.  It is within the context of one’s own circumstances that practical plans must be drawn to delineate how a goal will be reached and when.  Responsibility is the difference between preparing for a struggle and struggling to prepare.  Honesty with oneself reveals one’s strengths and weaknesses, and only by employing and addressing them will one truly know the magnitude of one’s potential.  Commitment keeps one focused on the job at hand and will make success the only acceptable outcome.  With a powerful mind, heart, and spirit, a man is a gentleman and a woman a lady.  It is one’s integrity that, upon doing what is right, would make receiving any attention for it unattractive.

These are just a few lessons I can draw from Lombardi’s values (as listed in the first paragraph) and leadership style.  What lessons for leading yourself through life can you derive from his methods of leading the Green Bay Packers?

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

I would like to thank Professor John Cooper for showing me different theories on leadership throughout the course of the Fall semester.  They provide a structure for different sets of behavioral patterns and actions and allow me to recognize the practices that apply to specific situations.  A better understanding of leadership not only equips you to be a better leader, but also allows you to judge the actions of the leaders in your life with a heightened awareness of their needs and thought processes.  And as always, thank you for your support and readership.

Sports Marketing and Social Media

Much like the postal system a few centuries ago, social media changed the way people communicate in the 21st century.  Approximately 800 years ago, the Mongols created the first real postal service; in fact, it was the example the Pony Express followed when it first bridged the hundreds of miles that separated the Eastern United States from the frontier.  Now, early in the 21st century, those exhausting trips from one outpost to another have been replaced by cellular phones and the internet. Information is transmitted in an instant and no longer depends on traditional mass media like newspapers to reach large audiences.  This is the age of social media.

Sports leagues (in this particular example, the NHL) are exploring the potential benefits of using social media in their marketing efforts.  Steve Raquel, president of Illinois Online Ventures, LLC, spoke of the impact social media has made on the sports industry and how it is only just the beginning.  He was last week’s guest speaker at Dan Migala’s “Non-Traditional Revenue Generators” course at Northwestern University’s Sports Administration program.  Mr. Raquel affirms that social media offers the highest degree of engagement over traditional marketing media (e-mail, banners, etc.).  Social media like Facebook and Twitter offer an instant bilateral exchange of information between the league/team and fan.  Furthermore, as Professor Migala mentioned in class two weeks ago, information certainly leads to revenue.  So, social media is a new revenue stream for sports organizations who wisely utilize it to maintain a relationship with their fans, acquire vital marketing data, and enhance the fan experience.  The Philadelphia Flyers’ website (http://flyers.nhl.com) is a prime example of how an NHL team is using social media to improve their product and bring their fans closer to the ice.  In fact, social media could help teams keep their fans engaged during the off-season.

Sports teams and leagues, however, are not the only sports entities using social media to develop their brand.  While several athletes around the NFL connect with their fans through popular social media (Nick Barnett of the Green Bay Packers, Larry Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs, for example), no athlete in either the NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA, etc. is using social media like Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson aka. Chad Ocho Cinco.  His home page (http://www.ochocinco.com/home/) has links to his Twitter feed, his own Chad Johnson fan shop, and an “app” you can purchase for the iPhone that would enable you to view “exclusive behind-the-scenes” content of the loquacious football player’s daily life.  Teams and leagues are using links to social media and exclusive content (primarily on Facebook and Twitter) to increase the value of their web sites (raising their CPMs) to advertisers and enhance their brand.  When an athlete like Chad Johnson uses social media to connect with a large, loyal following of fans and enhances his own brand, it may represent higher offers from the Bengals and other teams when his current contract expires; after all, Chad johnson fans will follow him from one team to another.  If he goes, a proportion of his fans would go with him.  Lastly, his Ocho Cinco News Network aims to connect directly with the fans and provide them with instant access to players and news from around the league.  Social media is no longer just a way to post silly pictures of your friends; rather, it is both a new tool in brand development and a new revenue stream.

This is not to say that there is no conceivable downside to using social media to enhance your brand.  Mr. Raquel mentioned that some of the upsides of social media are that it enables consumers and brands to engage quicker, it humanizes a brand, it is viral (information could spread at an almost exponential rate), and feedback on an experience is instant.  He also emphasized that while social media is a great marketing tool, it requires commitment and consistency on the part of the user.  To engage your audience then suddenly leave them in a sort of electronic silence could hurt the brand and make its presentation appear unprofessional and sloppy.  Also, the audience’s response could be either positive or negative, and if the latter is the case, then that negative view of your product could spread exponentially as well.  Lastly, because of this last point, the brand gives up certain control.  Essentially, popular opinion rather than a marketing department’s attempts to present a product in a certain way could significantly contribute to the public’s perception of the product itself.  Organizations in the sports industry must proceed with caution and careful attention to detail in order to avoid inconsistency or negative feedback that could damage its reputation.  Since social media requires such careful attention and constant vigilance, sports organizations would be wise to either hire dedicated staff to maintain and execute their social media initiatives or hire an agency that specializes in social media to manage their content.  An example of how unwise use of social media can hurt a brand is the latest news from the Larry Johnson camp (see ESPN’s commentary on http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=4596288 regarding his outburst and how it has hurt the Chiefs’ brand and most of all, his own).

All in all, social media is a new creative tool that marketing departments across the sports industry could use to connect with their fans.  As Mr. Raquel mentioned in his lecture, “the fan is the sport’s lifeblood.”  Because of its popularity, social media is instrumental to fan development.  While there are certain caveats that go along with a marketing initiative fueled by social media, a front office staffed with conscientious and knowledgeable individuals headed by an effective leader or a firm that specializes in the execution of such initiatives can safely implement such plans with confidence.  We are seeing it already in the NHL and even players themselves are developing their own brand through social media.  By the time Joe Namath lead the New York Jets to victory in Super Bowl III in 1968, his charming personality and showmanship brought the NFL to “prime time” and indirectly helped Rune Arledge succeed with his new, weekly sports spectacle, Monday Night Football.  At about this time, football became America’s first sport.  Social media in the hands of social and charismatic athletes and the efforts of foreward-thinking teams/leagues will take sports beyond prime time and closer to fans’ daily lives.  In an era of declining ticket sales, social media could be the new frontier.

 

 

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

 

 

I would like to thank Professor Dan Migala for his keen insights and thorough lectures on non-traditional revenue generation.  Congratulations are also in order, for he was just named Vice President of Partnership Solutions for the San Diego Padres.  Also, Mr. Steve Raquel’s presentation titled “Social Media in Sports” provided inspiration to create this blog and a deeper understanding of social media and its potential.  Both Professor Migala and Mr. Raquel inspired me to write my own blog and think about issues in sports and put my conclusions in writing.  Lastly, I would like to thank you for reading and participating in this ongoing discussion on sports business.

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