LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — NASCAR COO Steve Phelps said the impending departures of Lowe’s and 5-hour Energy have shaped a skewed perception that the sport is suffering from sponsorship woes.
Phelps offered bullish assurances on the health of sponsors in NASCAR that fund everything from naming rights, to the three national touring series, to the majority of a driver’s race schedule.
“People tend to focus on, ‘Oh my gosh, Sponsor A has left and Sponsor B left,'” Phelps said Sunday at Pocono Raceway. “For us, it’s OK, C, D, E and F also came on board as brand new sponsors.”
The losses of Lowe’s and 5-hour both surprised the industry because of their longtime connections to NASCAR. Lowe’s has sponsored seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson since his rookie race in 2001 and 5-hour sponsored 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr.
Truex’s success wasn’t enough for 5-hour to keep pumping the millions of dollars needed to help fund the 78 car and Lowe’s said it made the decision to invest elsewhere in the marketplace.
But the exodus of top-flight corporate sponsors — paired with sagging TV ratings, dwindling attendance and complaints about a tired schedule — have buried the sport in bad news.
“I think this industry tends to focus on the negative,” Phelps said at a sponsorship announcement. “I’m not really sure why.”
Phelps spoke at an event celebrating the name change of the national series known as the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series to the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series in 2019. The deal ends in 2022.
Camping World chairman Marcus Lemonis said his company was a third of the size when it entered its relationship with NASCAR in 2009 and attributed a chunk of its growth to the title sponsorship.
“There’s this notion that sports sponsorship has sort of lost its way,” Lemonis said.
NASCAR said 28 percent of Fortune 500 companies have invested in the sport in 2018.
“It’s a lot sexier to talk about a Lowe’s or a 5-hour Energy leaving,” Phelps said. “Somehow, the dozen companies that come into this sport are not talked about as much. It’s kind of how this industry works. I would like to see the industry be positive because there are so many positive things going on.”
Phelps said dozens of new companies signed up in some form in 2018 and the sponsor pipeline for ’19 is “bigger and wider and better than it’s ever been before.”
He said NASCAR champions losing primary sponsors without immediate replacements are not indicative of the overall health of the sport.
“Their business model is changing, too. They’re under some pressure,” Phelps said. “I think they’ll be back at some point. It’s just not going to be for ’19. 5-hour, they’ll tell you this, they’ve have had a great time using NASCAR as a vehicle to get their brand out there probably better than any other sponsorship they’ve had. Their business is changing, too. Do I think they’ll be back at some point? I do.”
Monster Energy, the title sponsor of the elite Cup series, has a deal in place through 2019. NASCAR has considered moving to a tiered sponsorship level beyond that would give companies certain perks dependent on their financial commitment.
“We’re trying to make it easier for sponsors to come in and participate in this sport in a way they want to,” Phelps said. “It’s not easy changing a sponsorship model after 70 years.”
It’s not easy changing viewing habits, either. NASCAR’s TV ratings are in steady decline and last week’s rain-delayed race at New Hampshire (2.5 million viewers) was the 15th race this season to see double-digit ratings declines.
“Our digital and social numbers are very robust and growing,” Phelps said. “We’re going to put a lot of effort into seeing if we can get these ratings turned around and in a positive direction. We’ve seen a bunch of overnights in the last three or four weeks that are moving in the right direction. That said, we have a lot of work to do.”
Phelps said he knows some fans have soured on the Big Three of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex dominating the season (the trio have won 16 of 21 races) but there is a new generation of stars on the way. It just wasn’t Sunday: Busch won his sixth race of the season.
“We’d love to see some of these other ‘Young Guns’ get their first win,” Phelps said.
And as those drivers emerge, the France family should be along for the ride.
NASCAR Chairman Brian France said Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that his family is dedicated to its racing properties despite a report the business is for sale.
“They’ll continue to be committed to NASCAR and they’ll continue to be in NASCAR for a long time,” Phelps said.
France, though at Pocono, has largely been invisible on race weekends.
“Brian does things from behind the scenes,” Phelps said. “That’s his way. That’s always been his way. I don’t see that changing. There are plenty of folks that are more visible.”
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