NFL, NBA and NASCAR fight for federal dollars

Fast cars, young — mainly — men and the U.S. military.

For years, America’s armed forces counted on that combination to boost recruitment, spending tens of millions of dollars to sponsor NASCAR teams and defending it as an unparalleled way to get its brand name in front of the kinds of young men who provide the backbone of the country’s fighting forces.

But with trillion-dollar deficits and defense cuts looming, NASCAR and other sports leagues are feverishly fighting this week to try to defend that spending in the face of a conservative-liberal coalition that says it’s time for the government to stop pumping taxpayers’ money into private sports teams — at least without more evidence that it pays off.

A vote in the House this week will go a long way toward deciding the fate of the funding, which amounts to tens of millions of dollars a year.

“We’re just trying to say, ‘Look, if you put your name on somebody’s car, show me the numbers,’” said Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican, whose support this year helped breathe life into the defunding effort. “I think as a conservative, we’ve got to measure our friends in the military with the same yardstick we measure a social program.”

The military spent between $80 million and $100 million in each of the past two years on sports sponsorships, including mixed martial arts and fishing. But with auto-racing teams getting the biggest chunks of that money, NASCAR has become the chief public target.

Sports leagues survived an initial assault last year when the House defeated two efforts by Rep. Betty McCollum, Minnesota Democrat, to strip military funding.

The first blow was dealt this year when she and Mr. Kingston tried again and won in the House Appropriations Committee.

Then last week, even before Congress has taken final action, the Army announced that it was getting out at the end of this year — ending a 10-year sponsorship of the No. 39 car, driven by Ryan Newman.

Facing that headwind, NASCAR and its drivers are publicly fighting to preserve the $21 million relationship between the National Guard and Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, and another deal between the Air Force and the No. 43 car driven by Aric Almirola in NASCAR’s second circuit.

In a letter Monday sent to House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and other top House leaders, NASCAR was joined by the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the Izod IndyCar Series in begging for lawmakers to keep money flowing.

The leagues said sports sponsorships are the “most efficient tool” in the military’s entire arsenal for reaching potential recruits, and pointed to the Army, which the leagues said collected 46,000 qualified leads of potential recruits from its efforts at NASCAR races in 2010. It was unclear how many of those leads turned into enlistments.

The Army seemed to disagree with the sports leagues’ conclusion. When it announced that it was ending its sponsorship of the No. 39 car after this year, it said the return on investment wasn’t good enough.

The Army told the Sporting News that it couldn’t calculate how much the investment in the No. 39 car was worth, saying recruitment takes more than a contact at a racetrack.

The taxpayer money doesn’t go to the leagues themselves, but to NASCAR teams that sign agreements with the service branches.

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