For only the second time ever NASCAR is searching for a new title sponsor for its No. 2 racing series, and the sport's chief sales officer is optimistic about finding a new partner before the current agreement with Nationwide expires after next season.
"I have no doubt at all," Jim O'Connell said when asked about finding a replacement. "There will be very strong interest in this series entitlement position. There will be interest from some great companies, a lot of Fortune 500 companies. We will find a great partner for 2015, just like we did with Nationwide. They were a fantastic partner. And we're excited they're staying in the sport, we're excited they're upping their investment in the sport. They're obviously shifting their funds a little bit away from the entitlement, but they did a fantastic job for us, and we look forward to bringing in another partner."
NASCAR announced Wednesday that Nationwide, the Ohio-based insurance company that's acted as title sponsor for the sport's No. 2 series since 2008, would divert its efforts elsewhere in the sport after next season. In the sixth year of a seven-year deal as entitlement partner of the Nationwide Series, beginning in 2015 the company will shift its marketing efforts to NASCAR's top level, the Sprint Cup Series.
"We've been in this sport 14 years," said Matt Jauchius, Nationwide's chief marketing officer. "We're not going anywhere."
NASCAR now searches for a new title partner for a racing series that's served as a breeding ground to many current Sprint Cup stars such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. Originally an offshoot of the old Sportsman Series, what began in 1982 as the Busch Grand National tour has grown into a circuit with its own 33-race slate and television presence. Through 25 races this year, the Nationwide Series is averaging 1.8 million viewers, and is often the second-most viewed motorsports event on television each week.
O'Connell said NASCAR has not yet begun negotiating with potential new partners, but has laid much of the groundwork including assembling a sales team and fine-tuning its presentation. While the economy is still in recovery, the search for a new title sponsor comes on the heels of NASCAR striking a new multi-billion-dollar television deal that includes events in its No. 2 series being broadcast on Fox Sports 1 and NBC networks beginning in 2015 -- the same year the new partnership would go into effect.
"We are 100 percent confident that we'll have a great partner for 2015," O'Connell said.
"I think it's a great opportunity for a company to become involved, whether it's someone who's already involved in the sport to become more integrated and more aligned, or for a Fortune 500 company that's not currently involved with NASCAR -- and there aren't that many of them -- to come into the sport in a big way," he added. "It's an amazing opportunity."
Although Nationwide is stepping away from series entitlement, the company is staying in the sport by shifting efforts into Sprint Cup. It showed some hints of that earlier this season, when it announced a seven-race deal over two years to serve as primary sponsor on the No. 17 car of two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., now in the Sprint Cup ranks. Its move to a more broad-based strategy is similar to what the company did in golf, where it shifted from the backer of the sport's secondary tour to the sponsor of Jack Nicklaus' annual tournament, in addition to increasing its television advertising presence.
"We felt like the NASCAR fan knows us certainly better than they did before we sponsored the series," Jauchius said. "That's why it's worked so well for us. But people like to see a freshness, and our approach to broadening the strategy, we just thought it felt like the right one."
That strategy will continue to include commercials featuring Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick, through at least 2015. Jauchius said Nationwide will be at race tracks with signage as well as hosting partners and customers, and likely have an increased digital presence that includes NASCAR.com. The company will also evaluate the possibility of extending its sponsorship of Stenhouse's car at Roush Fenway Racing as assets become available into 2015.
"Yes, we're transitioning from series sponsor to another role," Jauchius said, "but you'll actually see Nationwide even more present in the NASCAR ecosystem going forward."
Jauchius compared the move to a driver or crew chief progressing from Nationwide into the Sprint Cup ranks, and said it's all being done with the goal of increasing the company's brand awareness among NASCAR fans. Nationwide has also signed on as NASCAR's official auto, home, life, and business insurance partner through 2017, and will sponsor the annual Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award.
"I think that sends a tremendous message. It sends a message to the entire NASCAR industry that NASCAR continues to work for business," O'Connell said. "Nationwide is not only staying in the sport as an official partner ? but they've gone on record as saying they're going to up their investment, and they're going to shift their investment to Sundays in the Sprint Cup. But they're going to be spending more, and I think it sends a tremendous message."
For NASCAR, the task is now to find only the circuit's third entitlement sponsor -- following Anheuser-Busch and Nationwide -- in time for the 2015 campaign. Toward that end, O'Connell said there is no concrete deadline by which to have a new agreement in place.
"What I will say is this -- we'll have a fantastic partner for the 2015 season," O'Connell said. "Obviously there are some timelines involved in terms of all the things where the series entitlement partner is represented, and we need to be sensitive to that. But other than that, I don't like to put a timeline on things. We'll make sure we get the right partner, and we'll make sure we have it for the 2015 season."
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