NASCAR's search for sponsors may not get any easier
Four days after tires, tempers and tension ran high at the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, the buzz continues about the sport's future direction.
NASCAR has issued an apology for the tire and competition woes that occurred at Indy, and teams and officials alike look forward to moving on this weekend at Pocono.
"I don't feel real good about it right now," said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton during a media teleconference call Tuesday. "It's difficult, it's hard. We do beat ourselves up. But, you know, that's what makes us one of the best motorsports in the entire world. We take it personal. When we see things we know we can fix, we're going to go fix them. That's what we're going to set out to do. We're going to put this behind us."
But for NASCAR marketing directors responsible for obtaining sponsorship, it's not going to be quite so easy.
In a year defined by economic woes, negative press does nothing to assuage perspective companies to put their name on the side of a race car. By SI.com's count, only 28 full-time teams have confirmed, full-time primary sponsorship for the 2009 season as of July 31. Among those missing from the list are some of the higher-profile programs in the sport: All three Michael Waltrip Racing programs, both Yates Racing teams, at least two Dale Earnhardt, Inc. teams, Gillett Evernham's No. 10 car, both Petty Enterprises machines and the famed Wood Brothers No. 21.
While the number will surely increase, for the moment that's well below the 43 needed to fund a full field of competitive entries for the 2009 season. Furthermore, in the last few years, NASCAR has seen a litany of longtime sponsors choose to either leave the sport or seriously reduce their participation.
Tide, Yellow Transportation, Dodge Dealers, Burger King and Domino's Pizza are just some of the higher-profile companies who have made their way through the exit doors. AAA will join AT&T and Alltel in that department following the 2008 season, the latter two companies pushed out due to the "grandfather" clause prohibiting other cell phone companies to be a primary sponsor in a series sponsored by Sprint.
And while these corporations are leaving, it's been a struggle to see them replaced. Old Spice joins Office Depot on Tony Stewart's No. 14 next year, joining AFLAC as the only companies to significantly increase their involvement for '09. At a cost of $26 million to sponsor Carl Edwards' No. 99, AFLAC's deal illustrates just how expensive the process has become. Becoming a primary sponsor is no longer as simple as one guy from a small company cutting a check for the whole season. Teams are now dealing with Fortune 500 boardrooms, an extensive process that ends with a sizable chunk of marketing budget focused on the sport.
Of course, the more money you spend, the more you focus on what you're spending it on. And as the intensity of the spotlight increases, NASCAR's struggling under the weight of some negative publicity. Attendance is down this year, and the $225 million lawsuit involving Mauricia Grant remains unresolved. An extension has been filed in that case, and NASCAR's response is expected by the end of August; but at the moment, it remains the elephant in a room now filled with plenty of other issues to juggle. The last thing the sport needed was for its second-biggest race to be plagued by faulty tires and questionable decisions.
A number of Cup teams are courting sponsors who are on the fence about their future involvement. Target, NAPA, UPS and the U.S. Army are just a few of the companies taking a step back and looking at how to best invest in the future of the sport. What's worrisome is that they'll be looking for solutions as to how NASCAR's going to fix its problems now, not later. But according to Pemberton, the answers as to how to improve things like testing and the Car of Tomorrow won't come until after the season.
"One of the things that we have learned, we need to test the current cars, the cars with the current engines, the best horsepower, and you need to test with the best drivers that you can," Pemberton said. "Next year will be a different set of circumstances, and the test policy will be a little more wide open where teams can hit the places they need to hit. But right now, we're not going to change where we're at."
Unfortunately, companies looking to sign on the dotted line don't have until November to see what's going to happen with this sport. Investments need to be made now for the coming season, and that means reaction, fan support and the racing on the track will be closely watched for the next few weeks. Some marketers may need to see the sport moving in a positive direction in order for them to be significantly invested in its future.
"There is nothing worse than coming away from a race and knowing that the result wasn't even close," said Pemberton. "It wasn't even close. It wasn't even in the 25th percentile of what we're capable of doing and what we do, week-in, and week-out."
Starting this weekend, NASCAR needs to be operating at 110 percent. Because at this point, it may not be able to afford weathering another mistake.