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One of the best-known sponsor-athlete connections in sports may be coming to an end.
For half a decade, Danica Patrick and Go Daddy have been synonymous with one another, marching together through ad campaigns both catchy and tasteless. Patrick has run every NASCAR race in her career sporting the distinctive neon green of Go Daddy. But perhaps that very familiarity is starting to wear thin, as there are indications the company is beginning to phase out Patrick from its marketing strategy going forward.
The distance between Patrick's image and on-track performance has always been wide, but the gap has only grown since she arrived in NASCAR in 2010 with a 10-deep throng of cameras tracking her every move. Sure, she came to NASCAR from open-wheel racing having only one victory on her resume, but for a sport starved for both cash and eyeballs, Patrick's combination of built-in audience and full-time sponsor was irresistible. It's why two of NASCAR's biggest and savviest names – Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – signed her up to drive for them in NASCAR's Sprint and Nationwide series, respectively.
And from a bottom-line perspective, Patrick has, to date, paid off. With Go Daddy fronting her ride every week, Patrick is one of the few drivers with a full-season sponsor. Not even notable drivers like Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards can claim that distinction. Patrick also carries a full-season sponsor when current and former champions like Stewart and Matt Kenseth have had trouble finding companies willing to pony up the cash for them.
Thing is, while Patrick continues to deliver the eyeballs and the interest (there’s no such thing as bad PR, right?), her on-track performance has stalled. In the Sprint Cup series, she has an average finish of 30th over seven races. In the second-tier Nationwide series, where she’s running full-time, she has an average finish of 19.8 and only two finishes in the top 10. You could say that Patrick is still learning her way around NASCAR – and her supporters do say that, frequently – but the numbers simply do not lie.
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Clearly, Patrick remains a valuable commodity, but her racing isn’t holding up its end of the deal. And like a rubber band, there’s only so far you can stretch Patrick’s career strategy before it snaps.
We might be at that point. On Thursday, a USA Today report indicated that Go Daddy, currently in the midst of strategic restructuring, might de-emphasize Patrick’s role in the company’s marketing going forward. This is not a small matter, from an advertising perspective: Patrick has appeared in more Super Bowl ads, courtesy of Go Daddy, than any other celebrity in recorded human history.
"The question at hand is: Is she in the Super Bowl or not?" Barb Rechterman, chief marketing officer at Go Daddy, told USA Today. "What we're trying to do is redefine sexy to be a small-business owner running a successful business. So we want to explore options of how we make our advertising new."
Patrick is by no means new. She has appeared in 22 Go Daddy commercials over the last five years. And the caveat that always trails Patrick – yeah, but what has she done on the race track? – is getting ever larger in the Go Daddy No. 7’s rear-view mirror.
Of course, it’s entirely possible, given Go Daddy’s history of bait-and-switch marketing techniques (“click here to see more!” adorns every slinky is-she-really-gonna-take-it-all-off ad) that this is one big gimmick – a work, in wrestling terms. Patrick is signed with Go Daddy through 2013, and her quote on the matter, helpfully provided by Go Daddy itself, does little to dispel this possibility:
"I absolutely hope I am in the new Go Daddy Super Bowl commercials,” she said in the statement. “I don't think it would feel quite like a Super Bowl if we don't do the commercials again this year."
Thus, you can see an entire campaign built around “No More Danica!”, can’t you? And if Patrick does “happen” to show up in a Super Bowl ad, boom … more light without heat.
NASCAR can be very forgiving of drivers who don’t stack up the checkered flags and trophies. Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains the sport’s most popular driver despite winning only twice in the last six years. But Patrick has neither Earnhardt’s early career success nor his sterling family name.
None of this is meant to throw dirt on Patrick’s career; she’s still young in a sport where drivers can run at a top-flight level well past 40. But she’s taken the sizzle-over-steak approach to its logical and inevitable end. Money, of course, is the driving force in NASCAR. But it’s not the only force. Running a good race isn’t enough. Every once in awhile, you need to win, too.
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