NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski said the balance between being an athlete and speaking about politics is a delicate line to walk. Brendan Marks bmarks@charlotteobserver.com
NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski said the balance between being an athlete and speaking about politics is a delicate line to walk. Brendan Marks bmarks@charlotteobserver.com

Business

NASCAR walks a ‘delicate tightrope’ avoiding politics in Trump era

By Katherine Peralta

kperalta@charlotteobserver.com

October 07, 2017 4:05 PM

It’s getting harder nowadays for sports organizations like NASCAR just to stick to sports.

Even as they face the challenge of wooing an increasingly diverse and distracted fan base, politics keep trickling in.

The issue was highlighted recently with NFL players protesting during the national anthem. President Donald Trump brought new attention to the controversy when he reprimanded protesting players while praising NASCAR fans who “won’t put up with disrespecting our country or our flag.”

Like other pro sports, NASCAR faces a precarious balance between staying loyal to traditional fans, working to appeal to new, younger fans and appeasing sponsors who are becoming more outspoken on political issues, experts say. Any backlash from sponsors could be particularly problematic for NASCAR, which is already struggling with falling attendance.

Racing is a sport where corporate sponsors have an especially high profile – whether their names are printed on the hood of a car or if they’re the title sponsor of a major race, like this Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“Having the southern roots that NASCAR has, but with the growth that it has experienced and wants to continue to experience, makes it a very delicate tightrope to have to go through,” Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer said.

NASCAR, based in Daytona Beach, Fla., but with corporate offices in uptown Charlotte, is a private organization that sanctions and governs races. The sport is also made up of an array of race car teams, drivers and tracks such as Charlotte Motor Speedway, all of which have a heavy presence in the Charlotte region.

Last month, a handful of NASCAR team owners and executives said they didn’t want anyone in their organizations to kneel or sit during the national anthem, a movement started last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest racism and police brutality.

Drivers have been mostly quiet on the issue – except for Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s 14-time most popular driver who defended the right to peacefully protest. Earnhardt’s comments came in response to a tweet in which Trump lauded NASCAR fans who “won’t put up with disrespecting our country or our flag.”

NASCAR issued a statement last month calling the national anthem a “hallmark of our pre-race events,” but affirming the right to protest peacefully. A NASCAR spokesman declined additional comment.

Concord-based Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith told the Observer recently that politics and sports don’t go together well. But Smith, whose company operates Charlotte Motor Speedway, agreed with NASCAR’s position: “We respect our country and flag but also respect people’s First Amendment rights.”

In contrast, when Trump called on NFL owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who protests during the national anthem, Commissioner Roger Goodell fired back with a statement condemning Trump’s words as “divisive comments” that “demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL.”

So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won't put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag - they said it loud and clear!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 25, 2017

Any business that wades into politics risks alienating customers who hold varying viewpoints, said David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Marshall Sports Business Institute.

“When this happens, those in the sports business run the risk of compromising their revenue over time, whether it be from media contracts, sponsorship, or families coming through the turnstile,” Carter said.

Kyle Busch, front right, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning a NASCAR Cup series auto race Oct. 1 at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Del. Corporate sponsors, including M&M’s maker Mars, play an especially important role in NASCAR.
Nick Wass AP

Some companies speak out

Since Trump was elected, dozens of brands have been distancing themselves from him.

Retailers like Nordstrom and Belk dropped Ivanka Trump’s products, for instance. NBA star Steph Curry’s sponsor Under Armour, along with several other companies, left Trump’s manufacturing council this summer after he appeared to equate the actions of white supremacist groups and those protesting them in Charlottesville, Va. (Trump soon ended the council after that.)

“When you have a president who is willing to bring controversy to any aspect in American society, I think you’re going to have this kind of ‘where do we stand’ question raised (by corporations),” Bitzer said.

Jonathan Jensen, a professor of sports administration at UNC Chapel Hill, said most sponsors tend to avoid controversy.

“When you think about the risk-averse nature of sponsorships … anything that associates them with a sport that’s not part and parcel for their brand, they’re not going to want to get involved in that,” Jensen said.

Some brands, however, have taken bold positions successfully.

Soon after Trump was elected, Nike launched its “Equality” campaign featuring athletes like Serena Williams and LeBron James coming together against discrimination. Earlier this year, Nike also sent out a letter to its employees denouncing Trump’s travel ban. (The apparel maker is now the official outfitter of the NBA, which is far more outspoken on social justice issues than other pro sports leagues.)

Recently, some consumer brands that sponsor NASCAR have also been vocal on political issues. Microsoft executives this summer denounced Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program, or DACA. Also this summer, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan was among a group of executives who urged Trump to keep the U.S. in the Paris climate agreement.

But when contacted by the Observer about the national anthem issue, several major NASCAR sponsors – including Mars, YETI, Xfinity, Microsoft, Lowe’s, Monster Energy, Coors, Coca-Cola and Visa – either declined to comment or did not respond.

Bank of America Chief Technology Officer Cathy Bessant, a Charlotte-based executive whose company is the namesake of this weekend’s race, said the company supports “people’s rights to express themselves appropriately.”

NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski on Tuesday said addressing politics as a professional athlete can be tough, especially when considering that fans are sometimes just there to be entertained. “In general, it’s a very delicate balancing act, and one that we all walk. Sometimes we’re a little to the left, and sometimes we’re a little to the right,” he said.

Challenging times

The controversy comes at a time when some corporate sponsors are backing away from NASCAR.

Fortune 500 companies simply don’t find NASCAR as lucrative as they did in the past, and they’ve started leaving and spending less on racing, USA Today columnist Brant James noted this summer. Mooresville-based Lowe’s, for instance, ended its 11-year naming rights contract with the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2009.

A major reason for the corporate departure from NASCAR? Attendance has been declining rapidly. At Speedway Motorsports, which owns nine tracks, revenue from admissions fell 28 percent from 2010-2015.

NASCAR’s attendance decline has come as the sport’s leaders are trying to appeal to younger fans and get more minority drivers in cars (through programs like the Drive for Diversity program, which started in 2004.) Bubba Wallace, Danica Patrick and Daniel Suárez are among the few drivers who have helped broaden the diversity of drivers in an otherwise white, male-dominated field.

But Jensen, the UNC professor, says he hasn’t seen any data that NASCAR’s efforts have resulted in a more diverse fan base.

“The vast majority of the owners are white Republicans, and fan base is white Republican,” he said.

According to a new poll from Elon University, opinions in North Carolina on the national anthem protests vary based on background. Overall, 63 percent of respondents disagreed with Trump on the issue. That group was more likely to be younger, black, female or from urban areas. Conversely, the 30 percent who said they agreed with the president were more likely to be older, white, male or from rural areas.

Former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Mark Martin, left, speaks during a rally for GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, right, at the Cabarrus Arena in March 2016.
Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

NASCAR has been seen as aligned with Trump since early 2016 when NASCAR CEO Brian France endorsed him during a rally. (NASCAR released a statement afterward saying the endorsement was a “private personal decision by Brian.”)

Brand and reputation consultant Eric Schiffer said that to win in business, “you must know your customer.” That’s why a perceived connection between NASCAR and Trump might not be as problematic for fans as it could be for sponsors.

“I suspect there will be some (sponsors) that will get wobbly legs over the tie,” Schiffer said.

Staff writers Deon Roberts, Brendan Marks and Rick Rothacker contributed.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

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