NRA Sponsorship Agreement Makes Sense For All Involved
Easiest joke in the history of NASCAR- “You can't spell NASCAR without the N-R-A.” Yet there's a lot more to this issue than cheap humor.
For the second straight week, the biggest story in NASCAR has nothing to do with the action on the track. Texas Motor Speedway announced that the National Rifle Association (NRA) will be the title sponsor for their spring race, replacing Samsung, in a contract that likely extends into the seven figures. Predictably, there has been an outcry from some those who disagree with the NRA's position on gun control. Yet NASCAR should (and did) look at the NRA the same way they look at any other potential sponsor's contributions. There is a place for the NRA in the sport no matter what your political opinion is.
The NRA is a lightening rod for controversy in today's political environment. The recent high-profile shootings in Sandy Hook, Portland, and Denver have brought gun control back to the forefront of the political arena. Having opposed virtually all forms of gun control for the last 30 years, the NRA receives more than its share of negative attention whenever an incident occurs. Their at-times stunning political ineptitude hasn't helped, making the organization seem to be out of touch with the dangers of assault weapons in modern day America. Just look at their recent ad campaign dragging the President's daughters into the gun control debate. They provide a near-perfect foil for those looking to caricature gun owners as political Neanderthals whose knuckle-dragging ways could cause more deaths.
But is it accurate? And does it matter?
The picture of the NRA frequently painted in the media ignores the reality of its rank and file. With well over four million members, the NRA is one of largest grass roots political organizations in the country. Despite their public perception, the NRA was an enthusiastic supporter of gun regulation for years- supporting better enforcement of laws on the books designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. They also have supported more and deeper background checks (albeit without waiting periods) on those looking to purchase firearms. In short, they are not trying to place machine guns in cribs or hand out Glocks on the playground. This is an important first step in considering whether or not NASCAR should allow the NRA to sponsor a Sprint Cup race.
Yet perception is reality as we've so often been told. And the perception of the NRA isn't going to help NASCAR in its never-ending effort to be seen as more than just a bunch of good ole' boys from the southeast, chewin' tobacco, drinking beer and turning left. Yet if this were the primary concern of NASCAR officials then why do we see country music acts featured at NASCAR races? Why the return to tracks such as Rockingham or Darlington, courses emblematic of NASCAR's past? Why has there been so much discussion of the Gen 6 car being a “return to the past” if the past is something NASCAR is trying to avoid?
The simple answer is that there's nothing wrong with building stronger ties to the types of persons who can and should make up your core audience. In marketing, this is known as cross-promotion. The concept is very simple; find two products whose consumers have similar demographic backgrounds, then promote the one product to the other's audience. In theory, those similar backgrounds lead to similar interests and purchasing habits. You take the audience from one and drag them over to the other thus increasing the strength of both products. While NASCAR appeals to a broad range of individuals, one cannot escape the conclusion that it shares an audience with your average NRA member.
Let's also remember that a sponsorship agreement is not the same as a blanket endorsement for all things the other stands for. Not every NASCAR driver or fan believes in the NRA agenda 100%; I somehow have trouble picturing Kasey Kahne behind a camouflaged blind. And virtually every Texas race ends with a driver looking ridiculous firing off a pair of six shooters that look highly unnatural in their hands (with some notable exceptions). The converse is also true; the NRA isn't wholly in sync with everything NASCAR does.
Instead, what the sponsorship agreement represents is pure advertising, nothing more and nothing less. NASCAR provides a platform for the NRA to reach millions of potential members in a single weekend. They recognized that NASCAR offers them a unique opportunity to reach people who are sympathetic to their viewpoint but may not have considered joining the NRA previously. Even if they don't, sponsoring a major sporting puts the NRA name in places it wouldn't normally be; when major media outlets cover the race, they will be covering 'The National Rifle Association 500'. There is very little to lose from their perspective as the sponsorship is relatively cheap (from an advertising perspective) and will gain them the kind of exposure that would normally cost significantly more. The NRA has an annual budget of well over $200 million; this is just a drop in the bucket for them and promises the possibility of immense rewards.
Meanwhile, NASCAR has a long history of sponsors that, from afar, may not seem to be a “good idea” for either the teams or the sport in general. More people died in alcohol-related crashes last year than from someone else's gun yet NASCAR has or has had a host of alcohol companies serve as sponsors (including the defending champion drive a car sponsored by Miller Lite). Before the Nextel/Sprint sponsorship, NASCAR's premier series had Winston as a primary sponsor yet tobacco kills more in a year than guns will kill in a decade. Controversy is also not a stranger to NASCAR sponsorship; GoDaddy.com has received enormous attention (positive and negative) for their racy ad campaigns. Casinos and professional wrestling organizations have sponsored cars. In terms of firearms, Gunbroker.com has been involved with the Camping World Trucks series for some time now and no great hue and cry arose. Heck, the NRA itself has appeared as a sponsor for both Stewart-Hass and Richard Childress Racing in the recent past.
So let's take a step back from the rhetoric. The Texas Motor Speedway had a hole in its sponsorship schedule. They went out and found a new sponsor that appeals to a large section of their fanbase to fill that hole. The sponsor is both familiar with NASCAR and yet fairly new to the Sprint Cup (and highest price) product. Instead of running the track and NASCAR down, how about congratulating them for bringing a relatively new sponsor on board? Is it because the NRA is sponsoring a race instead of an individual team? Or is it because of the politics involved by both the NRA and those covering them? As a wise man once said, difficult to see.
Finally, the worst coverage of this event has accused NASCAR of blatant hypocrisy when contrasting the NRA sponsorship with the recent Sandy Hook benefit car run by Michael Waltrip. It's as if the NRA was somehow in favor of the school shooting and NASCAR, by accepting their dollars, was guilty by association. No matter what your thoughts are on the political issues, it is undeniable that no one supports what happened there. Where we differ is how to prevent something like that from ever happening again. The deaths of those 26 innocent people has absolutely nothing to do with a company's effort to sponsor a NASCAR race. Attempting to link the two makes me sick to my stomach.