Comcast sponsorship of Carl Edwards a lesson in perception is reality
Earlier this week, Joe Gibbs Racing announced that Comcast would sponsor Carl Edwards for four Sprint Cup races later this season. It's a sponsorship that JGR never should have asked for and one that NASCAR never should have accepted. The cable giant just began its multi-year run as the title sponsor of NASCAR's second-tier national series. No matter the reality, a title sponsor backing a specific car gives ammunition to conspiracy theorists who already believe the sport is as predetermined as the WWE. The perception simply isn't worth the cost.
Carl Edwards has a long history of splitting sponsorship costs among a number of companies over the course of the year. Fastenal, Subway, Aflac, Kellogg's, Ford, UPS, 3M and Cheez-It all graced his hood in 2014 alone. With the switch to Joe Gibbs Racing, 2015 looked to be the year where his rotating door slowed down. Arris signed on for 19 races while Stanley Tools added 12 more. Select events were still open but it seemed likely that the existing agreements in place would handle the shortfall (particularly for Subway, a long-time Edwards partner with a track record of activating that sponsorship).
The Comcast deal is an interesting twist. Less than a year ago the company signed a $200 million deal that turned the Nationwide Series into the Xfinity Series. The idea was to attach the Xfinity brand to a sporting event with a national reach. Comcast has a poor reputation with many in the general public who for years have ranked the company near the bottom in terms of customer service and pricing. By attaching themselves to NASCAR, Comcast clearly hopes to better that public perception. Sponsoring a specific team is another step toward the same end.
And NASCAR normally loves new sponsors. Teams need companies willing to foot the bill for the high cost of racing. Sponsors are the very lifeblood of the sport. The economic meltdown of 2008 drove many companies to slash their advertising budgets and NASCAR was an easy target. Declining ratings and attendance made spending millions on sponsorship there far less attractive than it was a few years before.
Yet it also puts NASCAR in an impossible position. If Edwards runs well this year, particularly in races where Comcast is on the car, there will be many who think Carl has an unfair advantage. After all, it's NASCAR that inspects the cars, NASCAR who officiates their on-track moves, and NASCAR who defines the difference between unacceptable behavior and “Boys, have at it.” They're also the same ones cashing a $20 million check annual written by Comcast. It's a clear conflict of interest and the same reason by Sprint sponsors the Cup series but no individual car.
Read through the comments on any NASCAR column and you'll likely find the reason why. The series has many who believe that the sport plays favorites. They believe that NASCAR favors certain teams and drivers and that the sport is fixed. Chad Knaus and the #48 team are often at the center of these accusations. Despite the fact that he's been suspended by NASCAR twice before and been placed on probation multiple times, many believe Jimmie Johnson's championships are the result of NASCAR looking the other way. Why? Because the sanctioning body favors Hendrick Motorsports. Of course, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is also a member of HMS and he has yet to win a Sprint Cup title. The conspiracy theorists somehow overlook that fact.
There are plenty of other perceptions attached to NASCAR. Perhaps the most widely accepted one is that race officials are prone to throw a yellow flag for debris on the track if the racing has become dull. The accusations of “phantom debris” echo even louder when drivers such as Earnhardt or Danica Patrick find themselves the first car one lap down. The caution flag enables the first car a lap down to rejoin the lead lap and resets the field back into double file order for the restart. Popular drivers with a chance to win and side-by-side racing are plusses for the audience so NASCAR must be doing something nefarious. The criticism sticks even when cameras find objects on the racing surface.
The accusations are symptoms of a larger problem. Many fans simply don't believe what NASCAR tells them. The series operates in an environment of zero transparency where even its rule books are a closely guarded secret. No matter how many press conference Brian France holds or how many times its defenders speak, the perception is that NASCAR isn't always on the level.
That kind of perception is one that no sport can encourage. Fans need to believe that what they're seeing on the field, court, or track is real. It's why betting on sports is the cardinal sin; by throwing the 1919 World Series, the Chicago White Sox gave the world an example of just how much credibility means to sport. Even betting on your own team to win can damage that credibility; after all, if Pete Rose didn't think enough of his team's chances to win that he'd bet on them, why would anyone else? Fans simply will not long support a league if the results are fixed. Even the WWE knows this which is why they call their product “sports entertainment”.
History may have made NASCAR believe that this was no big deal. From 1982 through 2007, the tier two series was sponsored by Anheuser-Busch. The beer giant also sponsored various Cup drivers during that time frame including former series champions Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott. The company also served as a title sponsor for numerous races during that period. No one considered those sponsorships to be a conflict of interest and little attention was paid to the possibility.
However, NASCAR's credibility and its needs are vastly different than they were. Teams regularly accused one manufacturer or the other of having a competitive advantage but never due to a sponsor. The rule book was also far smaller and teams had a great deal of latitude in how to build their cars. Far more of those teams were one or two car outfits and the sanctioning body had far more power as a result. Most of all, NASCAR's leadership was both respected and feared. When Bill France spoke, everyone listened. No one would dare accuse him of favoring Richard Petty or Bobby Allison- even if they thought he was.
Catch classic Petty action on DVD from Amazon
Today's NASCAR operates in a completely different environment. Instead of a handful of reporters following the circuit on a weekly basis, thousands of voices are heard every week. Those voices are not easily controlled and the internet gives anyone with a keyboard a chance to be heard. Moreover, current CEO Brian France simply does not command the same respect that his father did. He's reviled by many in the fan base already thanks to his breaks with tradition. That feeling makes it far easier to believe that he would do things that leaders before would not. They already believe France manipulated the series championship by instituting the Chase; why not favor a car whose sponsor is cutting eight figure checks?
As is often the case, NASCAR comes out looking the worse. JGR and Edwards are doing what teams do- finding companies willing to sponsor races. Comcast is activating their NASCAR sponsorship and doing so with an experienced pitchman. But NASCAR should have known better. If Edwards wins one of those four races, some will loudly proclaim that talent wasn't the reason why. That's a perception that NASCAR cannot afford to become its reality.