Sprinting into trouble

Sprinting into trouble
By Jerry Bonkowski, Yahoo Sports
June 22, 2007

Jerry Bonkowski
Yahoo Sports
SONOMA, Calif. – What's in a name? It depends on whom you're asking.

For NASCAR and Nextel, stock car racing's most popular series reportedly undergoing its third name change in the last six years is no big deal. It's a business decision to promote the Sprint brand, which merged with Nextel in December 2004.

Sprint likely will phase out the Nextel brand, so renaming the series for the parent company makes sense.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

AT&T essentially did the same thing when it bought Cingular and has done everything by the book in seeking to change its name from Cingular to AT&T, yet NASCAR continues to scream that allowing a re-branded AT&T in the sport would cause irreparable harm to Sprint's brand, reputation and future.

So what's OK for Sprint isn't for AT&T?

Both Sprint and AT&T – the latter sponsors Jeff Burton's car – are making changes because it makes business sense. Yet in an era that has seen NASCAR TV viewing and attendance figures continue to drop, that NASCAR and Sprint are linked in a $100 million legal battle to keep AT&T out of the sport is a joke.

And if the reports are true that Sprint and NASCAR will re-brand the sport's top series, the timing, in light of the AT&T situation, is the biggest joke of all.

If anything, it only adds ammunition to AT&T's case that NASCAR is guilty of antitrust and fair trade violations. In fact, one judge already allowed Richard Childress Racing to replace Cingular with AT&T on the hood of Burton's No. 31 Chevrolet.

NASCAR's $100 million appeal/countersuit against AT&T is not going to sit well with many fans, particularly if it leads to the dismissal of yet another telecommunications company in the sport – namely Alltel, which sponsors Ryan Newman's Dodge.

Hello, United States Justice Department? Can you say monopolistic practices? How about restraint of trade?

But this isn't about cell phones or wireless phone service. It's not even about money.

It's about power.

NASCAR wants to protect the Sprint/Nextel brand by granting the company exclusivity as the series-naming rights holder. I wouldn't have a problem if that exclusivity was granted when Nextel took over in 2004.

But some wireless providers were allowed to stay in the sport. It's just now that those same providers can't change their names.

If Sprint/Nextel wants to change the series name from the Nextel Cup to the Sprint Cup, that's fine. Ever since the two companies merged, I felt it was only a matter of time before that happened.

And there's nothing wrong with NASCAR supporting a company it receives $70 million per year from until 2014. Protecting that investment makes sense.

But Sprint itself has been relatively quiet in this whole AT&T fiasco, apparently happy to let NASCAR fight the fight. Perhaps Sprint doesn't care all that much about AT&T's presence.

After all, the series (reportedly) will be known as the Sprint Cup. And every time someone refers to the proper name of the series, Sprint's involvement will be first and foremost.

But NASCAR is pulling out all the stops – and its checkbook – to try to rid itself of AT&T, which was so happy with the ruling that went in its favor and therefore felt its future in the sport so secure that it agreed to sponsor Burton's ride for another three years.

If NASCAR chairman Brian France was smart, he'd drop the appeal/countersuit immediately. If he doesn't, the outcome is only going to make him, NASCAR and Sprint look like hypocrites.

If Sprint wants to get the most mileage out of this deal, its best response would be none at all. Sprint could agree to let AT&T and Alltel and any other wireless sponsor earn part of a pie of which it enjoys the lion's share.

But if this whole situation isn't resolved now, it could fester for the next 6½ years.

And who knows what might happen in that time. Maybe AT&T will wind up buying Sprint.

That's all we need, another change in the series' name.

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Updated on Friday, Jun 22, 2007 6:17 pm, EDT

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