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Sports Business

Miles facing toughest challenge with IndyCar

November 21, 2012
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It’s great that new Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles wants to build trust between IndyCar’s front office and the paddock occupied by team owners and drivers.

That’s no easy task. It was Randy Bernard’s failure to appease team owners and drivers that largely led to his termination as IndyCar CEO in October. No one argues that isn’t important in a sport where no one seems to trust anyone.

But that bridge will lead to nowhere unless Miles, 59, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar Series boss Jeff Belskus can build an audience for the sport. Getting people to pay attention to IndyCar racing will be by far Miles’ biggest challenge.

The fanfare from Tuesday's announcement will quiet quickly unless Miles can do what those before him could not.

Bernard, a noted marketer in his own right, could do nothing to bolster the open-wheel series’ television ratings and race attendance. Live attendance this year was static and TV ratings were down. Way down. The series lost another $7 million to $8 million, adding to a total loss exceeding $250 million since the series started in 1996.

Before Bernard, Tony George had as little success attracting eyeballs to TV sets and people through turnstiles. Other series executives including veteran sports marketer Terry Angstadt and NFL marketer and IMG alum Bob Reif also failed to build an audience.

The job Miles is embarking on is much more difficult than getting a sports-crazy city excited about the Pan Am Games or the U.S.’s most popular sporting event, the Super Bowl.

And IndyCar doesn’t have the player personalities and international interest tennis had when Miles led the ATP Tour. This isn’t the golden age of Miles’ youth when Foyt, Andretti and Unser were household names.

If this isn’t the most difficult professional challenge Miles has faced, it’s certainly the most mystifying—and potentially frustrating.

The racing on the track, by all accounts, this year was good. Very good. Some argue IndyCar racing is more competitive and compelling than NASCAR and Formula One. This year’s Indianapolis 500 was absolutely glorious for people with even an inkling of interest in speed and checkered flags.

So the product is good. But sales are not. It sounds like a scenario that would make most marketers salivate. In IndyCar’s case, it might make them run for cover.

But running for cover isn’t Miles’ style. He has proved to be a good blueprint maker and problem solver. As importantly, he’s been willing to make unpopular decisions when he thinks it’s for the betterment of the sport.

In 2003, when Miles was CEO of the ATP Tour, he moved Indianapolis’ men’s professional tennis tournament out of its traditional calendar spot as a key U.S. Open tune-up. He said at the time the move was best for tennis. But as a result, the local tournament spiraled to its death in 2009.

His image with local government and economic development leaders is mostly sterling. Now he’s got the attention of the IndyCar paddock. I even heard from two IndyCar sponsors Tuesday who were pleased by his increased involvement in the series.

Now we’ll have to see if Miles can turn the heads of people who have long turned their back on open-wheel racing.

Prior to Super Bowl XLVI, Miles sat down with IBJ for a series of video interviews about his status as a problem-solver, power broker and go-to guy for big community initiatives. The first of those is below.

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