Pros and cons aplenty if Bernard becomes IRL CEO
Back in high school, my father was a volunteer for the Professional Bull Riders’ official fan club. Whenever the series visited New England stops at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., and the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass., we’d always get free tickets thanks to his connections. After he was done with his pre-event shift at the injured riders’ fund booth (a five dollar donation got you a picture of yourself riding a life-sized, high-kicking stuffed bull), Dad and I would take our seats and watch the fun.
Even if you aren’t a fan of the whole Western lifestyle, you can like the PBR for several reasons. At the forefront is the danger factor, which occurs naturally when humans attempt to ride for eight seconds atop pissed-off, 2,000-pound-plus animals. However, instead of a down-home rodeo, the PBR manages to come off as a star-driven spectacle that’s good for mass consumption. Cowboys from Texas and yuppies from New York City can get hooked on what the organization delivers.
A product that lots of different people dig is what the Indy Racing League wants to be, so when you think about it, it’s natural that they’re going after PBR’s chief executive officer to take the same position with the open-wheel series. 42-year-old Randy Bernard has been offered the job and if his comments to The Indianapolis Star‘s Curt Cavin are any indication, the bull riding boss is seriously thinking this one over.
As I’ve said before, whoever lands the CEO job with the IRL is going to have a tough challenge to deal with. There’s the matter of sorting out the 2012 chassis/engine situation, which will evolve again when the Delta Wing chassis prototype debuts in Chicago on Feb. 10. Car count is starting to become a concern again as solid drivers like Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alex Lloyd are facing difficulties in landing full-time rides. And of course, the perpetual problem: How to increase the IRL’s mainstream presence through higher TV ratings and better marketing support.
Bernard has no motorsports experience. His bio on the Professional Bull Riders web site says that prior to joining the PBR in 1995, he served six years in the marketing and entertainment department of the California Mid State Fair. The PBR has grown nicely under his watch, but if he took the job with the IRL, he’d have to learn the lay of the land quickly. It would be essential to have a good team of people around him while he got acclimated to the league and more familiar with the issues that face it.
You also have to wonder how he’d react to the politics involved, which was a point Cavin made on his “Trackside” radio program last night on WFNI-AM in Indianapolis. There are so many elements with the sport, from manufacturers to team owners. But I also have to imagine that with the ongoing Dallara vs. Delta Wing debate, Bernard could find himself pulled every which way by people on both sides who may think he can be persuaded due to his lack of racing cred.
However, it’s clear that Bernard can do good work and perhaps, after 15 years of rule under a man that’s part of the Hulman-George family — the guardians of open-wheel racing in this country — the IRL could stand to get a fresh perspective from the outside. Hindsight helps me in this statement, but I get the sense that the sport has been run by “insiders” for such a long time that a changing of the guard was, if not necessary, then definitely inevitable.
The last 15 years got the IRL next to nothing in terms of presence amongst American sports fans, unless you figure in the rise of Danica Patrick. Why not go outside the box and find good people beyond the racing world that know how to grow and promote an entity and its stars? Bernard has shown that he can do that, helping the PBR go from a group of 20 bull riders that threw in $1000 each to start the company into an international sport with its own minor league, big-brand sponsorships, and national TV contracts with Versus (the IRL’s cable partner) and NBC. Will it ever be an NFL or a Major League Baseball? Probably not. But it is a solid organization that has found a pretty good niche for itself.
Still, you have to take the pros and the cons with Randy Bernard possibly joining the IRL. In my view, it’d be like riding an ornery bull in the PBR — plenty of risks, but, potentially, plenty of rewards as well.