IRL CEO poised to go on offensive
Randy Bernard, the Indy Racing League's chief executive officer for all of 12 days, is spending this weekend in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where Sunday he will attend his first IndyCar Series race.
In 1995, Bernard founded Professional Bull Riders Inc., which grew into a national phenomenon that spread to several countries. His charge with the IRL is to similarly spearhead growth.
Bernard's new challenges include improving television ratings, finding more revenue and settling a sport divided by a choice over the design of future cars while one of its few U.S.-born drivers -- Danica Patrick -- explores NASCAR.
Bernard, 43, discussed those issues and more with The Indy Star this week:
Question: You lived and worked in Colorado and spent a lot of time traveling with PBR. Did people in your circle know much about IndyCar?
Answer: No, and that to me was very (revealing), not from the fact they should have known, but if you look at our demographic, it should be right up that alley. I had more people say, "Is that Formula One?" There's no true identity, and that's one of the things I had on my list (to accomplish).
Q: How can the IRL improve?
A: When you're going out with a message of how you're going to brand your entire series, it has to be very consistent, and I don't think we're doing a very good job, particularly from event to event. Each event has its own purpose right now, but that should be something we can clean up pretty quickly.
Q: Let's talk about TV. The IRL has five races this year on ABC and the other 12 on Versus, a cable channel that has barely half the reach of ESPN. Many call the 10-year Versus deal a mistake, especially now that Versus isn't on the DirecTV package. What are your thoughts on that?
A: It was a smart move (to sign with Versus). Comcast, which owns Versus, is the No. 1 cable provider in the United States. It has a huge cash flow and everyone knew they were going to buy a (TV) network. They tried to buy Disney, and it was just a matter of time before (CEO) Brian Roberts (bought 51 percent of NBC). Now we just have to wait until the merger (is approved).
Q: League officials have spent the past year making significant cuts to a budget that long has been in the red. You said the financial numbers were "pretty much what I expected." Are there more cuts that can be made?
A: I don't believe you win wars on defense; you have to be on offense. We have to bring in more sponsorship and more revenue. Sponsorships are part of it and sanctioning fees are part of it, but you're not going to build either one of those if you can't get your TV (ratings) and you can't get your stars (built). It's a pretty vicious circle.
Q: How could that affect IndyCar?
A: I'm optimistic there's going to be some network programming (of IndyCar) on NBC as well as on Versus.
Q: Comcast's acquisition could take a year or more. What about the interim, particularly as it relates to DirecTV?
A: First and foremost, we've got to get DirecTV. As of Jan. 1 there's a new CEO, so I'm more optimistic today than I was in December.
Q: A couple of other issues: How important is it to you to get more U.S. drivers in IndyCar?
A: If you read the blogs, I think it's (on) so many people's minds. The thing that's more important is, do we have the best drivers in the world? The concern is, "Are people buying their way into these cars?" Are they really the best drivers in the world? If American drivers are the best drivers in the world, they should be in IndyCar. If they're Brazilians, same thing.
Q: If the sport is split on the car choice for 2012, as it appears it is, do you feel comfortable casting the deciding vote?
A: I will be one step away from the experts that will actually make the decision. My job is to make sure there is a solid reasoning on why.
Q: Is it advantageous to be the new guy at this point?
A: The biggest advantage is there is no politics. If you ask the 45th bull rider in the world (if) I treated him the same as the No. 1 bull rider, I guarantee you everyone would tell you I treated them fair. I will do the same here. If you're a team owner, a driver or a sponsor, it's my job solely to build the league. I need to do whatever I can to make sure that's my No. 1 goal.