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Racing protects sponsors

Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2001

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Fox now realizes there's nothing more sacred in racing than a sponsorship. The television network stepped into stock car racing with the same mentality as the National Football League, and that simply doesn't translate to a sport where its athletes wear fireproof underwear and there is no 10-minute ''cooling down'' period after a game.

Drivers are known more for their sponsors than their car makes or political parties. Richard Petty drove the STP car. Dale Earnhardt drives the GM Goodwrench car. Tony Stewart drives for Home Depot. Rusty Wallace drives for Miller Lite.

When Fox omitted the names of 13 sponsors during the driver introductions for Sunday's Budweiser Shootout all-star race at Daytona International Speedway, Corporate America went to NASCAR, not Fox, for answers.

It was NASCAR that offered its races to the highest bidders. It was NASCAR that dumped the very networks ESPN, CBS and TNN that took the sport from the dusty bullrings of the South and gave it a Madison Avenue polish. Fox, NBC and TBS gave the racing series a $2.8 billion deal for the next six years, then the networks went to work in recouping their investment.

Stop No. 1 was shaking down the sponsors of each race team. Buy a commercial in the broadcast or have your Dupont Refinishes-Quaker State-Pepsi-Fritos-GMAC Chevrolet simply mentioned and graphically displayed as a car without signage.

NASCAR apparently didn't have all the details worked out when it turned Fox loose at Daytona International Speedway. After all, it's too easy to be caught up in counting the loot from the deal. International Speedway Corpora tion, which owns Daytona, will make about $845 million from television during the next six years.

What caught everyone off guard is that Fox's greed surpassed NASCAR's greed. For more than 50 years of racing, nobody ever thought about challenging the sanctioning body's ability to create and protect its share of the pie.

Fox eventually relented and will show the sponsors' decals in future graphics. The network said it would concentrate in other ways to make back its money.

It's clear one method will be the name of the race. If a sponsor doesn't pay ''mention'' money in the future, the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 easily could be changed to something as vanilla as the Darling ton 400 on television.

Sponsors' names have become an issue with all forms of journalism lately. A handful of newspapers never use a sponsor's name, but they have no problem using the names Orlando Magic, Washington Redskins and Chicago Bulls. What they forget is those names are the corporate names of for-profit companies. Washington Redskins is no different that printing the words Oreo Cookies, Interstate Batteries, Pennzoil and McDonald's.

Fox, a for-profit company, asked for and received free publicity from other outlets during the past year for buying into NASCAR's future. Should we send them a bill?

Clearly there is a fine line between showing a car's true colors and becoming a corporate shill. A Senior PGA Tour event several years ago at Melbourne, Fla., was called the Fairfield Properties/ Barnett Bank Senior PGA Tour Classic presented by Pontiac. The name was too long, and it stepped over the line of decency if there is such a thing in the relationship between sports and the media.

Most media outlets restrict their mentions of sponsor names to the first reference and to the primary sponsor. It's not likely you'll ever find anyone mention Mead Paper and Lennox Air Conditioners as secondary sponsors for Rusty Wallace.

What's needed is a balance. The mention of sponsorship names might stretch the integrity of the media's ethics, but no more than using team sports names. After all, racing fans think in terms of sponsorships. What car did David Pearson drive? That's right, the Purolator car. Why not continue to deliver a story at their level?

And for anyone who counted, this story featured 34 sponsorship mentions of companies whose sole purpose of existence is to make money. Including Fox. Send a check.

REACH Don Coble at doncoble@mindspring.com.



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