NASCAR Dialing Wrong Number with AT&T Lawsuit

NASCAR has enjoyed tremendous growth in popularity, television audiences, and sponsorship revenues over the past decade. The growth seems to have hit a bump in the road (make that track) as a combination of higher prices for race tickets and gasoline are negatively impacting attendance and leading many race fans to stay home and watch on TV. Check that, they're not watching on TV either, as ratings for NASCAR Nextel Cup races have been down from 2006 for almost every race so far this season.

If NASCAR didn't have enough worries with fan interest, it finds itself entangled in a major sponsorship controversy. NASCAR is fighting to keep AT&T from being a sponsor of driver Jeff Burton and Richard Childress Racing. Burton was sponsored by Cingular Wireless, but when the brand was replaced with the AT&T name the company naturally wanted to shift its association with Burton and RCR to the AT&T brand. NASCAR has 700 million reasons to keep out AT&T as a team sponsor, as in the $700 million, 10-year deal NASCAR has with AT&T rival Nextel. Sport properties should take steps to protect their sponsors from having to fight for the audience's attention. After all, breaking away from media clutter is one of the attractions of sponsorship as a marketing communications vehicle.

It is admirable that NASCAR is vigorously defending the value of its property and seeking to protect category exclusivity for Nextel. However, preoccupation with this issue could be more harmful than helpful. Despite Nextel's established association with NASCAR, the fact remains that many NASCAR fans are AT&T customers. Taking aggressive measures to shut out fans' wireless provider may be received negatively. Management focus would seem to be better utilized by examining how to rekindle fan interest in attending NASCAR races and watching races on TV. Otherwise, NASCAR will continue to lose a point of difference it has enjoyed over other professional sports: its intimate relationship with the everyday fan. Other major leagues are viewed as having "sold out" to the interests of corporate sponsors and media partners. While NASCAR may still have an advantage when it comes to fan access to the sport, it could easily lose that advantage if becomes too distracted with sponsorship issues. Link

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