NASCAR continues its baffling public ignorance when it comes to its sponsorship issues

CHARLOTTE, NC – JANUARY 19: Steve Phelps, chief marketing officer for NASCAR, and emcee Danielle Trotta speak during the NASCAR Marketing and Communications Summit on January 19, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NC – JANUARY 19: Steve Phelps, chief marketing officer for NASCAR, and emcee Danielle Trotta speak during the NASCAR Marketing and Communications Summit on January 19, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

This is getting old.

NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps insisted that NASCAR doesn’t have sponsorship issues Sunday morning before the Cup Series race at Pocono. He blamed an “industry” that likes to focus on the “negative” and said it was a “misconception” that the United States’ biggest auto racing series was facing sponsorship problems.

“You know, I think there’s a misconception out there that sponsorship in NASCAR is not doing well, and that’s not true,” Phelps said. “We have more sponsors in this sport today than we’ve ever had. We’ve got almost half the Fortune 100, almost a third of the Fortune 500. It’s a lot of large companies who are in the sport not because ‑‑ it would be really cool to go racing. It’s because it works … So people tend to focus on oh, my gosh, sponsor A left and sponsor B left, and for us, it’s like, okay, well, C, D, E and F also came on board as brand new sponsors. And then a plethora of others have renewed or extended for a period of time.

“I think this industry tends to focus on the negative. I’m not really sure why.”

Phelps comments line up with a talking points email that was sent to various outlets that cover NASCAR — including Yahoo Sports — in the days after 5-Hour Energy’s announcement that it was ending its sponsorship of Martin Truex Jr. at the end of the 2018 season and leaving the sport entirely.

The counter to the news of 5-Hour’s departure along with the loss of Lowe’s — the only sponsor seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson has had and another company leaving NASCAR at the end of the 2018 season — is that companies like Wyndham, John Deere, ITSaavy and Worldwide Technology are entering NASCAR. Or, in the case of John Deere, re-entering the sponsor realm after a long absence.

That is undeniably true. But it’s also undeniably true that the number of races that those four companies are sponsoring wouldn’t amount to a full slate of 36 races if they were all for the same team. Lowe’s has been a full-season sponsor of Johnson since he arrived in the Cup Series. 5-Hour Energy is a co-primary sponsor for Truex in 30 races in 2018. If you halve 5-Hour’s commitment to 15 races and do a little rounding, the departure of Lowe’s and the energy drink is a loss of 50 races of primary sponsorship.

Those four aforementioned companies arent even close to that. The adage that quantity doesn’t equal quality is extremely applicable here. If sponsors like Lowe’s, 5-Hour and Target — three of the most recognizable primary sponsors in the Cup Series — weren’t leaving, NASCAR wouldn’t be left grasping to tout extensions by companies like Shell and FedEx.

Apologies for being negative, Steve.

That adage is also why Phelps’ Sunday comments and NASCAR’s talking points are easily dismantled. It sure looks good to tout that NASCAR has a bunch of Fortune 500 companies — and it does — but when you consider that the sport has 43 official sponsors including an “official outdoor sponsor” and an “official private aviation partner” you can see why sponsor numbers are inflated.

In the case of Yeti and NetJets — the companies that fill the aforementioned categories — they aren’t major sponsors of any of the team’s at NASCAR’s top level. And those teams are the lifeblood of the sport. While NASCAR can have over 40 official sponsors, many NASCAR Cup Series teams are piecing together sponsor deals or running races with cars sponsored by companies associated with the team’s ownership. It’s not a sustainable business model, no matter if NASCAR says everything is fine or not.

NASCAR is only as good as the quality of its teams and drivers.

None of this is new if you’ve been following NASCAR for a while. It’s telling that NASCAR is still facing the same questions it did all the way back in 2008, when a New York Times article detailed the challenges facing it after the economic recession of the mid-2000s. In that article, NASCAR CEO Brian France admits that spending cuts at big companies have affected NASCAR.

To avert a collapse of the sport, analysts say, Nascar must push through sweeping changes to its business model, like reducing sponsorship rates, cutting back the number of races and trimming the distances of some of them. For example, a handful of premier races would run the traditional 400 or 500 miles, but the rest would become 200- or 300-mile events.

Some analysts say Nascar should take cues from the N.F.L. and explore placing sponsor dollars in an official pool, with each team receiving an equal share. They also suggest a salary cap.

Mr. France has announced that there will be no preseason and in-season testing at its tracks next year, saving teams an estimated $1 million a car. He is also toying with the idea of cutting back the number of team members who can come to the races, which would save each team an additional $500,000.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that passage was written 10 days ago, not 10 years ago. NASCAR is a decade, a title sponsor and a changing of the generational guard removed from that NYT article. But damn, it’s still relevant, even as the series’ average audience is 48 percent lower than it was in 2018.

But hey, everything’s fine!

How does a sport still face many of the same questions it did in 2008 in 2018? Maybe it’s by refusing to publicly admit there are fundamental flaws like Phelps did Sunday. It wasn’t long ago that he was holding a news conference to announce that Cup Series title sponsor Monster was leaving at the end of the 2019 season and NASCAR was changing the way it did sponsorship for the Cup Series in 2020.

That change is likely because NASCAR knows it can’t get what it once did for the title sponsorship. Monster paid a fraction of what previous Cup Series sponsor Sprint did.

That price is OK, as long as there’s a willingness to admit that the mainstream popularity NASCAR enjoyed in the mid-2000s is getting further and further in the rear-view mirror and costs are adjusted accordingly. But there have been no big efforts from NASCAR to help teams curb costs and no admittance that the sport is getting further and further from its recent heyday.

Until those two things happen columns like this are going to get more and more tired. But as long as those in charge of NASCAR are unwilling to admit that the blue sky is in fact blue, they’re going to keep getting written.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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