Last year Heather subscribed me to AutoWeek – this was after we moved part time to Miami and I spent a lot of time pointing out all the exotic cars we saw in our neighborhood. I never thought of myself as a “car guy” but apparently I am… In any case I’ve enjoyed getting the magazine which is unabashedly geeky about exotic cars, fun old antiques, and the whole spectrum of car racing.
I was peripherally aware that the various “leagues” of car races have a lot of rules – Forumula 1, Indy Car, Nascar – if you spend any time reading up on the minutiae of these various groups you discover something very interesting. Under years of pressure from various directions each one of these organizations has crafted impossibly byzantine rules and requirements for the teams that elect to race – specific engines, chassis, body and aero kits, fuel mixtures – everything you can possibly imagine that goes into making these cars go is specified down to the millimeter. As each new race season comes around the governing body lays down new rules and specifications and the teams and manufacturers scramble to conform at vast expense. The costs of fielding a team for any of these leagues is now in the multi-million dollar range – Formula 1 will set back a team and sponsor 10’s if not 100’s of million dollars.
Simultaneously, all of these leagues are lamenting the loss of audiences and tv/online viewership. One article I read from the Nascar leadership sounded word-for-word like listening to the directors of small theater companies – “we need to attract younger audiences…”, “we need to find ways to make racing relevant to a new generation….”
So …. I was just looking at this issue and realized that what is eventually going to kill off these leagues is dead-obvious. Competition. Real, raw, go for it competition. Here’s what I mean.
Look at the history of the last decade and you will see the landscape littered with the corpses of traditional organizations, institutions and ideas that have been trounced by a willingness to do a complete re-think. The music industry completely reinvented by the internet. The previously blockbuster institution of HeavyWeight boxing made almost completely irrelevant by a gutsier, more dangerous MMA and similar “bare knuckle” leagues. The nearly complete obliteration (still a work in process…) that is underway for traditional winter sports like downhill ski racing by the cross-breeding hybridization of the winter X-Games. The evolving phenomena of on the field NFL tactics being rewritten by the players themselves, who have grown up playing thousands and thousands of hours of Madden on their X-Box. The era of singular mass-media (re: TV) defining what audiences will like and watch is over.
There is an open-source element to all of these – a phenomenon of the rise of the disruptive, rule-ignoring minority rapidly developing and stealing away the audiences that the establishment assumed was loyal to a fault. They aren’t – audiences are fickle and when something better comes along now – something at the heart more real, authentic and intimate – they are going to make the jump. You might not like watching bare-knuckled guys hit each other in a cage match but you have to admit there is a certain visceral reality to it.
If I was the director of F1, or IndyCar, or Nascar (the most likely candidate) – I would stage a revolution. Throw out the rule book. Do an IndyCar season with the following rules:
- There will be a race track. You will go around it for 500 laps.
- You all get the same amount of fuel. If you run out that’s your problem.
- Your car has to have wheels and a motor. How many, how big, what shape your car is – doesn’t matter.
- Your cars need to have contemporary safety features.
- If you get to the finish line first you win.
Obviously this is simplistic – but my point is this. If you are going to stage a spectacle that you expect people to pay attention to, it better be authentic because audiences can smell artifice from a mile away and they are not going to come. If the game is rigged, we’re not interested. In a world of choices we can make as audiences the new media landscape is flat. I can go sit in the stands and watch the Indy 500 (which, I will admit, is exciting as it is… it could just be more so….) – or I can go participate in something where the gloves are off, the rules are simple, and real people are engaged in real time. Like the Race of Gentlemen on the beach in Wildwood NJ. Check it out – looks like fun, doesn’t it?
Is your industry, institution, or product losing its audience? Are people drifting away to something new, something more engaging and authentic. Are your rules, processes, constraints, regulations and traditions so overbearing that everything you do feels a bit fake, or has lost its flavor? You’re going to have to take the gloves off and throw the rule book away. Soon.