Eco­nomic gloom eas­ing in NASCAR

But thrifty spon­sors want more money

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS -

DAY­TONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — With the NASCAR sea­son revving up at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way this week, com­pa­nies still have a chance to as­so­ciate them­selves with the sport’s most pop­u­lar driver, Dale Earn­hardt Jr.

And they can do so at the rel­a­tive bar­gain-bin prices found in NASCAR’s sec­ond-tier Na­tion­wide se­ries.

In hap­pier eco­nomic times a few years ago, the pos­si­bil­ity of such a deal would have trig­gered a stam­pede of po­ten­tial spon­sors trad­ing paint with brief­cases as they raced from the board­room to the track.

But as of this week, the Earn­hardt fam­ily’s JR Mo­tor­sports team had spon­sor­ship con­tracts in hand for only 12 of 35 races for its main No. 88 car; the team has struck sep­a­rate deals for Dan­ica Pa­trick to run a part-time sched­ule in a sec­ond car.

Earn­hardt Jr.’s sis­ter Kel­ley, who leads the team’s spon­sor­ship search, is frus­trated but not sur­prised at how dif­fi­cult the process has been.

“When you are knee-deep in it and talk­ing to your spon­sors, I am not sur­prised, if you lis­ten to them talk about what they are up against,” she said. “They want the re­turn (on in­vest­ment). We as a sport, I think we’ve had some checks and bal­ances of what they are pay­ing for — how much it is to spon­sor one of our cars ver­sus the re­turn they get.”

Eco­nomic woes haven’t com­pletely chased cor­po­rate Amer­ica away from NASCAR. There are some signs that in­ter­est is pick­ing up af­ter spon­sors cut back sig­nif­i­cantly or left the sport last year.

But in sharp con­trast to the gogo mid-2000s, when top teams reg­u­larly reeled in eight-fig­ure spon­sor­ship deals, com­pa­nies now are de­mand­ing more for less.

“It’s still a fab­u­lous in­vest­ment, and JR Mo­tor­sports gets more at­ten­tion than a lot of Cup teams do,” Kel­ley Earn­hardt said. “But we’re hav­ing to change the way we ap­proach it.”

That means tak­ing a crash course in learn­ing to use so­cial me­dia such as Face­book and Twit­ter for spon­sor­ship ex­po­sure pur­poses.

“It used to be you could talk about (tra­di­tional me­dia) im­pres­sions and TV rat­ings, but now they want ac­tual phys­i­cal peo­ple they can touch,” she said. “Now we sit in meet­ings with po­ten­tial spon­sors and talk about Face­book and Twit­ter. They ask, ’How many Face­book friends do you have?’ They want ac­tual bodies to touch.”

NASCAR chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer Steve Phelps says it’s only nat­u­ral that com­pa­nies want more for less in to­day’s eco­nomic cli­mate. And Phelps sees bet­ter things on the hori­zon.

“Ev­ery­thing was (about) the econ­omy last year,” Phelps said. “Now the con­cen­tra­tion is clearly on racing. That’s where the fans would want it to be. We’d ob­vi­ously want to see it there. You can’t ig­nore the eco­nomic im­pact of what was hap­pen­ing last year. But it’s flipped — if it’s not 180 de­grees, it’s 160 de­grees.”

It’s a sense of guarded op­ti­mism Phelps ac­knowl­edges the sport “just didn’t feel” head­ing into last sea­son.

Driver Jeff Bur­ton says some driv­ers, team own­ers and spon­sors pan­icked in 2009 — with good rea­son, be­cause no­body knew where the sport’s fi­nan­cial free fall might bot­tom out.

“I think last year, ev­ery­body was kind of shell-shocked a lit­tle bit,” Bur­ton said. “I think now that ev­ery­body’s had a lit­tle time to step back and un­der­stand the sit­u­a­tion that we’re in a lit­tle bit bet­ter, I don’t there’s quite the fear that was here.”

Au­tomak­ers Gen­eral Motors and Chrysler faced ur­gent ques­tions about their very ex­is­tence last year and were in no po­si­tion to in­crease their fi­nan­cial sup­port of the sport. Racing teams con­sol­i­dated and con­tracted. Spon­sors cut back or went away. At-track at­ten­dance slipped, as did TV rat­ings. NEW ORLEANS — Only a Su­per Bowl victory pa­rade could up­stage Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Car­ni­val floats car­ry­ing Saints play­ers, coaches and team owner Tom Ben­son rolled past tens of thou­sands of ju­bi­lant fans in down­town New Orleans on Tues­day, two days af­ter the 43year-old fran­chise won its first NFL cham­pi­onship.

Play­ers, wear­ing team jer­seys in­stead of tra­di­tional Car­ni­val masks and cos­tumes, tossed beads into the crowd and signed au­to­graphs for throngs of scream­ing fans. Ben­son shouted “ Who Dat!” into a mi­cro­phone from his perch atop a float. Head coach Sean Pay­ton blew kisses and held the Lom­bardi Tro­phy over his head.

“ This is wilder than Mardi Gras,” said Frank V. Smith, 55, a life­long New Orleans res­i­dent who

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