Sean Brennen is the new public relations manager for Feld Motor Sports. Brennen takes over the position from Denny Hartwig, who was a long time friend of Racer X and served the same role for nearly 15 years. To say Brennen has big shoes to fill would be an understatement.
Doing public relations inside the sport of motocross can be a dream job for an enthusiastic racing fan. On the surface, the job appears cushy and fun. However, once you start peeling back the layers, it quickly becomes evident that there is more to it than just sitting in the press box, watching the races and handing out media passes.
The job requires incredibly long hours, lots of cold calling, extensive travel, and nearly constant pressure to make everyone happy. Balancing the needs of the sport with the proper blend of promotion, as well as keeping the riders and the factory teams happy, not to mention both the sector and non-sector media, is really hard work. But sometimes change is good, and Brennen is bringing a new and fresh perspective to the job.
Racer X: Give me a little bit of background on yourself. Are you a rider yourself?
Sean Brennen: Yes, I am. And with Racer X in particular, I was always a big fan! I grew up in Pittsburgh, so with you guys being based in Morgantown [West Virginia], it’s a very neat part of my history. We used to go to all the local nationals. High Point and Steel City were our local tracks. I rode my whole life and continue to ride. But my business background has been primarily in marketing and the music business. I started out in concert promotion in Pittsburgh and New York, eventually Nashville. Every time I would go to a race in supercross and outdoors it was very evident how similar the music business and the supercross/motocross business is. There are so many dynamics with developing talent and new talent, from putting on an event, concert promotion, all of those things. I knew at one point, boy, if I could just marry these two, well that would be a great opportunity. That opportunity came two years ago with Denny Hartwig. I was in the right place at the right time being in Tampa, Florida, already and Feld having the right opening that fit my background.
So you started as Denny’s assistant?
No, I was brought on as a PR manager for all motorsports. So I was fortunate enough to work on Monster Jam, supercross, and arenacross. Then with Denny’s departure obviously came the need and demand for more work on supercross. As you know with 17 races from January through May, it’s full throttle during that time. So I’m full-time on supercross now.
Tell me a little bit about some changes that you’ve made this year, some of the behind-the-scenes stuff the fans may or may not see.
The timed racing from the fan experience was a huge, huge change for us. In addition to that, we wanted our stars to be out front more often and be more visible for our fans. But obviously with things like the pit party and the ultimate experience for the fan, we are continuing to work on making things better and to enhance the entire show. Internally, we are working five years down the road from right now. We’re in 2017. We’re five rounds in, but we’re looking at 2018 and 2020 and 2023. Fortunately, based on how the company is structured, we are able to do that. It’s hard to get everything done all in one year. We’d love to be able to cram everything in but it’s just not possible, so we are spacing things out.
I think people don’t realize how hard it is to steer the ship and to make changes fundamentally. Just this year you started hosting post-race press conferences, which are a great addition, but obviously there’s been some challenges getting them right.
Yeah, press conferences—you know, every other sport has post-event press conferences. We always felt like this is something again not only for our press core, which we’re fortunate to have a real press core that follows this each and every week, every race, but also allowing additional opportunities for our athletes. So every other sport has it. From NASCAR to the traditional NFL, NBA, and baseball events. Our sport, we’re as big as them. We are filling these stadiums with fans. We go to different stadiums where we are able to fill in more people than an NFL team has a given game day. I think a lot of people don’t realize that. The post-race press conference was a combination of wanting to have a bigger, more organized voice but also really align ourselves with all of the other sports, which we are already from a reach standpoint and attendance standpoint and with everything else.
With Denny Hartwig moving on, you have some big shoes to fill. But when you make changes, you risk upsetting other people who may not like it. How has it been with the riders and the press conferences? How do they feel about it?
So far it’s been a work in progress. I think we went from zero to now we’re probably about eight. Any time you have change, and most importantly a change in an athlete’s schedule, there needs to be time to adapt to that. But I think the riders have done a fantastic job in adapting to the structure. At Oakland we had an early day race, so I don’t think time was a factor, but when the majority of our races start at 7:00 and they don’t end until 10:00 there’s always that, “It’s late. These athletes are tired.” For the premier class, they are just finishing their race, coming off of the podium. So it is a lot to ask and it will take time to really fetter out that schedule that everybody understands what the expectation is. So far the athletes from their standpoint, we’ve been able to provide and garner a lot more media for them. So of course from a sponsorship and team standpoint it has all been positive. But for the athletes in particular, coming right off that racetrack and the adrenaline running, obviously needing to eat food and having to adapt to that, it’s been a little bit of a challenge but I’m very thankful for them that they have all been part of the program and understand the bigger picture of what we’re trying to create.
Talk to me a little bit about the endemic versus non-endemic media. You guys do a lot of stuff for both types. What is the approach toward dealing with two very different needs? A guy like Steve Giberson of Vital MX and our Racer X guys have very technical and specific questions versus a guy from USA Today or the San Francisco Chronicle.
They are different approaches. We are growing this sport. Supercross 2017 is in a fantastic spot right now, but we realize that there is still a lot of growth with this sport. There is mainstream audience out there that hears a little bit about this fantastic sport. They see Ryan [Dungey] winning an ESPY award and there’s curiosity coming from other sports. ESPN, USA Today … they’ve had a lot of challenges with motorsports writers in general as well as general media and slashed travel budgets. There are always logistics that you’re trying to get around. We’re fortunate to have a very passionate endemic core. So the needs are a little bit different with needing different access to the teams and to our athletes, which we try and do with our media days and the post-race press conference. But then again, moving our media day to Friday from a logistical standpoint, that has been fantastic on the teams. We have a lead rider come in on Thursday that is available for all of the general media. Obviously we’re still targeting local sports and things like that, but it’s really designed to have one advanced lead rider to do in-studios for radio, TV, print, all of that. And then have Friday for the main media day at the stadium where we have a full track access, completely branded, ready to go, where the athletes can really put on a display for a general audience but also our endemic audience as well. So it is a big shift, but there was a lot of strategy as to why we’ve moved and created these additional media opportunities for both general market as well as endemic.
Best part of the job and worst part of the job?
The best part of the job, I am in a perfect position that I get to work with the athletes, I get to work with the teams, I get to work with the impassioned endemic media. So I really do get a full scope view of everything. I touch just about every area of the sport, which is pretty fantastic. One of my favorite things to do is, I love the track walk with the riders and just listening to them pick their lines and talk about rhythm sections. It’s the first time for them from a strategy standpoint they’re really thinking about their game plan for the night. One of my favorite things.
Second favorite thing is just being in these magnificent stadiums where there is such a history with sports teams and franchises and all of that. I just love walking the tunnels underneath and thinking about all of the other great sporting moments that have taken place in these buildings.
The worst part of the job, that’s a tough question. I love to travel but I will say that the traveling— especially going from East Coast to West Coast five weeks straight—that can beat you up a little bit. I love the travel so it’s kind of a dual question because I love it but at the same I wouldn’t say I hate it, but what I do hate is that the airlines have really, really condensed. There is not a plane anymore that you even have a middle seat available. So I guess that’s the worst part of the job. It’s not really our sport—it’s the airlines. They have jam packed every plane!
Tell me about the Ride initiative and what you guys are doing with that?
The Ride initiative is really an exciting initiative that Feld is doing, and is in collaboration with all of the manufacturers. Basically, we are trying to grow the grass roots participation. We realize that starting out in the sport might not be easy. If you grow up and you want to play lacrosse or you want to play baseball, there’s major chains out there that you can go into a Dick’s Sporting Goods and get what you need. Well, we’re trying to make it as easy for parents and kids to understand where they can go, but most importantly what they need to purchase. So the right bike and the size bike, but in addition to that, all of the safety measures that this sport has already in place with helmets and goggles and pants and jerseys and neck braces and boots, and why you cannot shortchange any of that. So in addition to pointing out all of the right gear, the right bike, we’re also pointing them to dealerships in the local area around every supercross event where they can go and buy the right bike, buy all of the gear, and then we also list local tracks that we can recommend where they have places to ride.
Where is this information? How do you see it?
We have videos that we’re playing inside the stadium. They’re also available on SupercrossLive.com. But we also have Ride fliers that we are passing out to all of our fans as they are exiting the building. So we’re trying to make it as easy for anybody new to the sport, understanding that there is education. There’s inspiration. We’ve had some great, great buy-in from Jeremy McGrath and Jeff Emig. Our video series really brings to light that this is a family activity. Supercross is obviously a sport, but riding in general is quality time with the family. That’s part of the aspect that we’re really trying to highlight, that baseball, football, if you bring your child up through those, at a certain point as dad and mom you are sitting in the bleachers, but with riding you get to participate with your children and that is really just quality, quality family time that we’re trying to emphasize.