Bullish on France
But Brian’s vision often differed from his father’s in that France thought bigger and broader from an early age. His first big coup came before he was chairman in a move that helped NASCAR take the final step away from a regional niche sport. France ended the practice of individual tracks negotiating their own television deals with NASCAR’s first national TV package in 1999. The deal with NBC Sports, Turner Sports, FOX and FX cable tripled the number of Cup races shown on broadcast television when the contract began in 2001. “Part of the evolution of being a regional sport and becoming national, getting international recognition, you have to elevate your game, and those are things Brian recognized from the very beginning,” Jim France said. “He’s done a masterful job of shepherding NASCAR through the changes. I don’t think there is another motorsports organization in the world that has all of the disciplines that NASCAR has, and a lot of them started before Brian took over the role from Bill, they were things he was working on before his current role.” Although racing is his business, France is a sports fan at his core. “I’m the biggest sports fan in the company,” he boasts, and claimed it wouldn’t be unusual to find him at a high school football game, professional tennis match or college basketball game. He cites Duke basketball as his favorite team, “I admire their coach immensely,” and has often been linked to so far unfounded rumors of interest in purchasing an NFL franchise. But it’s that passion for sports that can be found all over his decade as chairman of NASCAR. France doesn’t look at his sport as an auto racing series when he makes strategic decisions, instead he considers the big four professional leagues. It’s how NASCAR ended up with the Chase format in 2004. France saw it as way to add excitement when NASCAR goes head-to-head with the NFL, and he’s tinkered with the format since its debut, expanding the field, adding wild card berths and bonus points for “regular season” wins, in an effort to create what he calls “Game 7 moments.” For France, it’s part of the evolution of keeping NASCAR relevant in relation to the NFL and other sports, particularly as NASCAR’s televisions ratings and attendance have slid since the 2008 economic collapse.
The French are keenly aware of these “quality of life” attributes, and that fact explains, in part, why reform will entail a struggle. But I credit the French for their growing recognition that change must occur, and this change will occur against the backdrop of trying to preserve aspects of what they already have — rather than having to create these institutions from scratch. What tourists to France do not always see are the technology centers like Sophia Antipolis between Nice and Cannes on the Riviera; the world-class doctors, engineers, IT experts, and math professionals graduating from outstanding universities; the high productivity levels associated with the French workforce, notwithstanding vacation periods that Americans envy; and world-class companies such as Accor, AXA, Danone, EADS, Essilor, l’Oreal, LVMH, Michelin, Publicis Omnicom, Schneider Electric, and Sodexo. The Fortune 500 includes more French companies than any other European country, and the website www.lafranceestunechance.fr includes an impressive list of French success stories. Both England and the United States experienced similar periods of economic malaise in the mid-to-late 1970s. High inflation and unemployment coupled with a need for serious structural reform gave way to sustained periods of economic growth and prosperity. Many of those reforms were associated with strong leadership from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who were also able to change not only the economic climate but also instilled a sense of optimism about each nation’s future. The first stage of reform is to recognize the need for change. That is now well underway in France. Moreover, that growing sense of urgency contrasts with a sense of gridlock and complacency in the United States. At least France does not have the American campaign finance system that all but ensures paralysis until the next major crisis arrives.