SBJ/November 26-December 2, 2012/Events and Attractions

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  • Austin F1: Driven to succeed

    Geoff Moore covered a lot of ground to ensure the U.S. Grand Prix ran smoothly.
    Photo by: TRIPP MICKLE / STAFF
    Early on Nov. 17, long before the first Formula One cars hit the track for qualifying at Austin’s new Circuit of the Americas, Red McCombs took a seat for a brisket hash breakfast in the Texas Capitol with 40 sponsors, business partners and prospective clients of Austin’s new racetrack and told the history of how motorsports’ most affluent and international racing series had come to Texas.

    “This was the hardest sell to the banks I’ve ever had,” McCombs said of the $400 million, 3.4-mile track outside Austin that brought Formula One racing back to the U.S.

    “My youngest daughter, she’s 53, she came to me and said, ‘Do you realize that when the first race happens you’ll be 85. Don’t do it. You’re going to lose all your money.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not spending my money. I’m spending yours.’”

    Everyone at breakfast laughed. Everyone except Geoff Moore, who was seated across the table from McCombs.

    Moore, the Circuit of the Americas chief revenue and marketing officer and a man McCombs calls “a great salesman,” usually loves hearing McCombs speak, but on this morning his mind wandered. It was the beginning of a make-or-break 36 hours for the Circuit of the Americas. More than 200,000 fans were expected over the next two days, and the quality of their experience would go a long way to determining if they would come back.

    The inaugural race drew more than 117,000 to the new circuit.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
    The sports industry is littered with first-time events gone wrong. From Austin, all you have to do is look up Interstate 35 to Dallas and think back two years to the Super Bowl for an idea of how disastrous they can be. It took some fans more than two hours to clear security that day, and once they did, some found that their temporary seats didn’t exist.

    Everyone involved in the Circuit of the Americas project knew they couldn’t afford similar negativity. With F1, they were importing a global sport that had failed in the U.S. so badly that it hadn’t even held a race here since 2007. The overwhelming emphasis from McCombs to Chairman Bobby Epstein to President Steve Sexton to Moore was on providing a great customer experience. It was the only way they could guarantee fans would return to the $400 million facility.

    Moore knew the situation all too well. He worked for the Dallas Stars for 18 years and was on the team’s staff when it opened American Airlines Center in 2001. A long line for the bathroom. A sign directing fans to the wrong place. A shuttle bus line that didn’t move. Any of those could make selling tickets to future events tough.

    “There’s a tipping point,” Moore said, “and if you cross it, people won’t come back.”

    ■ ■ ■

    Moore’s inaugural F1 race weekend started with a bad break. Literally. Early on Saturday morning, two hours before breakfast began at the Texas Capitol, the wife of his vice president of marketing called. She sounded upset.

    “Have you heard from Regan?” she asked.

    The last time Moore saw Regan Holley was at 1 a.m. when both he and Holley, the executive who was going to manage merchandise sales during race weekend, were wrapping up final preparations for Saturday’s event. Moore hadn’t heard from him since they both left.

    “He was in a car crash this morning,” Holley’s wife said. “He’s OK but he’s in the hospital. He broke his arm.”

    Moore was going to have to assume his duties.

    Later, as he waited for a helicopter to get him to the track after the sponsor breakfast, Moore leaned against a wall of a downtown hotel and sent a series of text messages to let people know he would be handling merchandise. One of the replies he received caused him to grimace. Circuit of the Americas misread demand and already was running out of product. Though things seemed to be going
    Race day with Geoff Moore: Top photo, chatting with McCombs Enterprises partner Bruce Knox; middle, a packed merchandise tent; and a champagne toast with sponsors.
    Photos by: TRIPP MICKLE / STAFF
    sideways early, Moore was unfazed.

    “We’ll handle it,” he said, shrugging. “Is there any other way?”

    Once he reached the track for Saturday’s qualifying, Moore focused on merchandise. He received a text around noon that merchandise lines were so consistent and so deep — six to eight people at all times — that cashiers weren’t able to break for lunch as planned. Temp employees working the three merchandise tents were hungry.

    Moore reached out to Sodexo, the food provider for the facility, to see if they could make sandwiches on short notice. When Sodexo said no, he drove a golf cart a quarter-mile to a nearby Exxon Mobil and spent $400 on chips, energy bars, candy bars, soda and drinks for the staff.

    “We had to keep the people alive because they’re in the merchandise gulag now,” Moore joked after he delivered the food to the three tents. “It’s like prison. They’re locked inside those merchandise tents.”

    The high demand for race apparel was good news. It looked like they would surpass their goal of $1 million in merchandise sales. The bad news was some customers might leave without being able to buy what they wanted. Later in the day, Moore got a call at 4 p.m. at the helipad where he was waiting for a chopper to take him back to town for a sponsor dinner. Helicopters ascended and descended behind him as he paced back and forth with one hand pressing the phone to his left ear and the other covering his right ear. He looked distressed.

    In all the lead-up to the first-time event, Moore had underestimated demand. Now word had come that the merchandise provider, PXP, had already run out of some T-shirts.

    “Now I’m the idiot who didn’t order enough merchandise,” Moore said after hanging up. “We have to sell everything we got. I hate it.”

    ■ ■ ■

    A year ago, it looked like Austin might not get its F1 race. Epstein and McCombs had fallen out with partner Tavo Hellmund, who had a contract for the race, and needed to close a new, 10-year agreement with F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone. Construction was halted and the entire project was in limbo until early December when a new deal was secured. That left the track with 11 months to finish construction, sell tickets and find sponsors.

    Just a week before the race there was still a lot to be done. Team hospitality suites weren’t built. Sod hadn’t been put down. Wood chips hadn’t been spread over pedestrian walkways. Offices for F1 officials still had exposed wiring and no furniture.

    But as fans began to stream into the track shortly after 7 a.m. on race day, Nov. 18, no one could tell. Moore arrived that Sunday around the same time as the first fans, and there was already an issue waiting for him.

    The University of Texas band was supposed to board 11 buses and head out to the track to play as part of the pre-race show, but they didn’t have the credentials they needed to get the buses into the facility. He and the track’s event staff scurried to find the credentials the band needed.

    He broke away to the paddock where F1 teams prepare their cars around 9:30 a.m. It wasn’t long after he walked into the paddock that Ian Burrows, director of F1 Racing Group at Haymarket Consumer Media, walked up to Moore and beaming, slapped him on the back.

    “Slam dunk,” Burrows said. “Absolute slam dunk. Twenty-two minutes from the downtown Hilton to the paddock is just amazing. It’s Melbourne meets Montreal. From fans to sponsors to media to journalists, everyone is in love. This is going to be one of the signature races.”

    “Talk to me after we get 120,000 people out of here, and I may feel the same way,” Moore responded.

    Getting fans home after the race was the issue of the day. In its agreement with the city, the track promised that it would provide a shuttle service to get most spectators to the track, and it limited parking to 17,000 cars. Circuit of the Americas and its transportation agencies — TMS, Kimley-Horn and Associates, and Vasta & Associates — had spent more than a year designing a bus plan that could shuttle 100,000 people from the track in a span of three hours. It was the issue everyone was watching, and it was in the back of Moore’s mind all day.

    ■ ■ ■

    By the time the race began at 1 p.m., no unexpected issues had popped up, so Moore grabbed a golf cart and circled the track, checking on the merchandise tents and compiling a list of things that could be improved. He saw a woman struggling to push a man in a wheelchair and noted that disability access needed to improve. He drove past an exposed, dusty bowl that looked like a sinkhole near a concession stand and decided something needed to be done with it aesthetically. He picked up an elderly man struggling to climb a steep hill and listened to the man’s one word of advice.

    “This thing would be perfect if they just had shuttles between the turns,” the man said.

    “I’ll have to talk to someone in charge about that,” Moore said.

    After he dropped the man off at the top of the hill, Moore headed toward the paddock for the final laps of the race. He wanted to be available in case any F1 and team officials had any complaints. But no one had any problems,
    so he took a deep breath, hopped into a car and went to check on the shuttle buses.

    The plan was to have 530 school, charter and city buses ferry people from the racetrack to three different locations — the expo center, downtown and the airport — after the event. The goal was to have 45 buses leave every 10 minutes, taking 13,500 people to their cars every hour.

    But when Moore arrived at the shuttle area at 5 p.m., that wasn’t happening. It was two hours after the race ended, and there were still long lines to leave the facility. People boarding buses had waited an hour and a half. Some were miserable. Some were OK.

    Moore was nonplussed. At other Formula One races, it can take four hours for spectators to get home. By that standard, an hour and a half
    More of Moore’s day: He enjoys part of the spectacle from the grandstand (top photo) and then deals with the logistics of getting 117,000 people home after the race, which required coordinating 530 buses.
    Photos: TRIPP MICKLE / STAFF
    to two hours was excellent. But there’s a different expectation among U.S. sports fans, and Moore knew they were beginning to push it.

    “Home, home,” Moore said, wrapping his hands behind his head and looking at the crowd. “Come on. Let’s get them home with the good stuff fresh in their mind.”

    A half-hour later, the lines had thinned to nothing. People were walking straight to the front and boarding buses. Moore was relieved. He climbed into his Audi Quattro and headed back to the track. Race day was done.

    More than 117,000 people had come and gone that day without any major issues. Sure, the facility had run out of merchandise and champagne. And yes, cell service was spotty. But the race was praised by almost everyone.

    Everyone except Moore. As he drove back to the track that evening, he said that Circuit of the Americas got a free pass this year. The weather was great, and everyone knew they had built the track in less than a year.

    This year, the staff handled it. Next year, the expectations will be different.

    “When they come back, they’ll expect better,” he said. “And we’ll have to give better.”

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  • Big Ten to partner with Fox Sports for football fan festival

    For the second consecutive season, the Big Ten Conference has decided to partner with Fox Sports in producing a Fan Fest around the conference’s football championship game.

    Dr Pepper is returning as the presenting sponsor.

    “Just about every major sporting event these days is about more than the time from the starting whistle to the final whistle,” said Big Ten Deputy Commissioner Brad Traviolia. “People are spending good money on tickets, transportation and lodging. We want them to have a good experience.”

    The event will be held at the Indiana Convention Center Nov. 30-Dec. 1. More than 30,000 people attended last year’s Fan Fest. “We’re expecting similar numbers this year,” Traviolia said.

    The floor is opening earlier this year, at 3 p.m. Last year, it opened at night after an invitation-only gala.

    People with championship game tickets get in free, as do veterans. Prices for those without game tickets are $8 for adults and $4 for children.

    Allstate, Nissan, Ford and the Big Ten Network will sponsor interactive exhibits and giveaways.

    — John Ourand

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  • McCombs goes from novice to bullish on F1

    Red McCombs had never been to a Formula One race before the U.S. Grand Prix came to Austin, Texas. It was a detail that many international journalists covering the event couldn’t understand — why would he invest millions to finance a racetrack for a sport he knew nothing about? On the day before the inaugural F1 race at the Circuit of the Americas, he spoke to SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Tripp Mickle and explained why he went from novice to bullish on F1 racing in the last year.

    You said that you had a harder time convincing bankers to support this project than anything else you’ve pursued. Why?
    McCOMBS:
    It’s never worked [in the U.S.]. I can understand why bankers would do that. I had some reluctance with my own personal area of investors because they felt there was so much risk. I had to reach down to the 35- and 40-year-old guys. The old ones didn’t want any part of it.

    Younger investors helped drive the venture, McCombs says.
    Photo by: NEWSCOM
    What is it that made you turn the corner and believe in this project?
    McCOMBS:
    The way I look at it, I don’t think it’s been very well promoted. I don’t want to tell other people the way to do their business, but I think as a spectator sport a lot of people don’t understand [it], and still they can’t live without it in these other markets in the world. I can’t believe a sports fan is that much different here than anywhere else.

    If they are, then we have other avenues for the use of our facilities. We’ve got six major events signed. We’re going to operate 365. We don’t depend on Formula One. We think it will work very well.

    What makes you so confident?
    McCOMBS:
    I think it will be a home run because with this you don’t have to have a facility where the cost of operating things like heat and air are so high, you don’t have that as much. We’re an open-air facility. It doesn’t cost a lot to build. It doesn’t cost a lot to operate.

    When you look at our facility, very little of that is permanent. But all of those other areas — tent-like things — those are all temporary. But they have a permanent feel. If we find they work better down here than up there, we’ll just take them down and move them.

    What’s the biggest challenge in your mind?
    McCOMBS:
    The biggest challenge is to get the dogs to like the dog food. We’ve got to do a better job of explaining to people how it works. What is the trials? What does it mean to have the best time circling the track? What does the grid mean? Our fans don’t know that.

    Looking ahead to next year, what will need to happen to make this a success?
    McCOMBS:
    Well, next year, we’ve got NBC, so forget it. It’s a different ballgame. That’s a whole different ballgame. They like it. They know how big motorsports are. They paid a lot of money for it. They want to make it work. What you’re seeing right here is like an hors d’oeuvre.


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  • NBC intends to give ‘big event’ treatment to U.S. Grand Prix next year, Miller says

    Longtime NBC Sports programmer Jon Miller left Austin bullish on the network’s coverage plans for Formula One that begin next year.

    So much so that he said the network wants to treat the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, which will air on its broadcast network next year, with the same “big event” approach it uses for the Kentucky Derby.

    Miller was one of seven NBC Sports executives who traveled to Austin for three days around last week’s race. The network recently scooped up the rights to F1 in 2013, ending the sport’s 17-year run on Speed.

    By the end of the race weekend, Miller was so impressed with the event he already had decided to increase the programming window for the U.S. Grand Prix to four hours so that NBC could offer an hour of pre-race, two hours of race and an hour of post-race coverage. He also met with F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone about getting more access for celebrities at the event because NBC wants to cover the lifestyle aspect of the sport the same way it does at the Derby.

    “We want to make this the most important day in racing in the U.S.,” Miller said.

    During the weekend, NBC Sports Executive Director Sam Flood and Ken Goss, NBC Sports vice president of operations, spent time with the F1 production team. Miller said the network will rely on the world feed that F1 provides for most of the races but will use its own broadcast team of Leigh Diffey on play-by-play and David Hobbs and Steve Matchett as race analysts.

    The company plans to air four races on its broadcast network: the Canadian Grand Prix from Montreal in June; the U.S. Grand Prix from Austin; the Brazil Grand Prix from São Paulo, which ends the season; and either the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November or the Monaco Grand Prix in May.

    “We’re leaning toward Monaco,” Miller said. “It’s a huge event in the sport but there are a lot of other factors here.”

    In addition to the races, NBC plans to offer shoulder programming on the drivers like it did with “IndyCar 36,” a half-hour feature on drivers that aired before races and re-aired during the week. It also will have its owned-and-operated stations, cable channels and regional sports networks feature the sport.

    It was that opportunity — as much as anything — that spurred F1 to cut a deal with NBC.

    “We’re excited by what the entire group can bring,” said Ian Holmes, F1’s head of media rights. “It’s all about getting our sport in front of people who haven’t been exposed to it. F1 is not NASCAR. It’s not Indy. It’s different, and we want to expose that to people.”

    NBC Sports sales executives Jay Marsac and Steve Margosian, who were both at the race, said they are beginning to approach advertisers about F1. They believe categories like financial services, technology and telecommunications will align well with the sport.

    “It’s a property that fits well with the larger portfolio — the Olympics, the English Premier League, the Tour de France,” Marsac said.

    The sales pitch will mostly be about lifestyle. They’ll sell deals across sports and they’ll sell F1 alone. They’ll look for people in the financial services category, technology and telecommunications. Margosian said, “All of those guys currently don’t have a position in this sport and we think they’d like to.”

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