NASCAR: No early exit expected for title sponsor Sprint

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CHARLOTTE – The last time NASCAR needed a title sponsor for its premier series, the existing company was replaced with four years remaining on its contract. But executives aren’t expecting a repeat with Sprint already having announced its impending exit after the 2016 season.

“Do I think (Sprint) will exit early? No,” NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps told MotorsportsTalk after NASCAR played host to the opening news conference Monday of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. “Do I think we’ll find someone for ’16? No. Only because we want to make sure the process is really followed smartly.

“Trying to rush through to find something for ’16 … although on one hand, people might say, ‘You get someone new, (and) they’re not a lame duck’ or whatever term, I don’t think that’s the right approach. And the good thing is since Sprint is very engaged, they are honoring their commitments to us, which are extensive. So I think we’re in a good spot.”

Sprint officials have indicated they fully will honor the remainder of its deal, and NASCAR Chairman Brian France said Monday after his annual State of the Sport address that he didn’t expect Sprint would be replaced early.

NASCAR and Sprint entered into negotiations about the title sponsorship last fall, and the wireless communications company announced its departure in mid-December with two years left on a three-year extension that was signed in 2011.

Sprint was rebranded as the title sponsor in 2008 after its merger with Nextel, which signed a 10-year deal estimated at $70 million annually to replace R.J. Reynolds’ Winston brand starting in 2004.

RJR revealed in January 2003 it had requested an exit from its deal (which ran through 2007) if NASCAR could find a replacement. Less than six months later, Nextel was unveiled in a splashy New York news conference as the successor for the following season.

The economic climate isn’t as strong for NASCAR funding a decade later, but Phelps said the candidate pool was less of a factor than finding a suitable fit. Phelps said it took about a year to land XFINITY, which will replace Nationwide as the backer of NASCAR’s second-tier circuit this season.

“I know what this process is going to look like,” Phelps said. “Getting XFINITY on board, we were very regimented, because it’s not just about money. It’s about finding the right marketing partner for the sport. It’s about brand alignment for our sport and for their brand, so it’ll be a very thoughtful process.”

Phelps wouldn’t disclose any potential candidates but said “we’ve had a number of calls saying, ‘Sure, we would like to take a look at this.’ ” NASCAR also hasn’t limited the search to any particular categories.

“We’re trying to stay as broad as we can at this point,” he said. “Given the investment that it will require, you’ve already started to narrow your field. A local company selling widgets is not what it’s going to be. We need a company with significant resources, particularly on the marketing side to be able to really look at this.”

Phelps said Chief Sales Officer Jim O’Connell will be leading the search for a new title sponsor, but NASCAR’s executive team would be involved heavily.

“It’s a big undertaking because it’s such an important position in the sport,” Phelps said. “There’s a lot of weight on the whole organization’s shoulders. Everyone is going to have a touchpoint to this.”

“We do have time to find someone, and I firmly believe we will find someone. We’ll find the right partner for us.”