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.
This week's fight will come on the annual defense spending bill, which hits the House floor Wednesday.
The measure includes a provision that Mr. Kingston and Ms. McCollum won in a committee vote that prohibits sponsorships of sports leagues — but that provision may be subject to parliamentary objections on the full House floor. If that happens, the two lawmakers instead will offer an amendment to shift $72 million in funding. That's $80 million the services had estimated they would spend this year on sponsorships, minus the $8 million the Army has said it won't spend on the No. 39 car.
NASCAR backers say it's a major mistake to withdraw money from a league whose fan base anecdotally seems to closely track the same demographics as military recruits. Those fans also are known to be loyal to their brands — so much so that some report shopping in only one home-improvement store over another, based on their favorite drivers.
The league released a report Tuesday that found nearly one-fourth of all Fortune 500 companies have sponsorships with NASCAR teams.
NASCAR spokesman Jon Schwartz said lawmakers won't be making a dent in the deficit.
"It doesn't save taxpayers any money because it doesn't include a reduction in spending by the military. It reallocates marketing dollars away from this valuable channel," he said. "Singling out sponsorships is like telling a carpenter he can't bring a key tool to the job site. Leaving decisions like these in the hands of a few members of Congress is misguided."
The National Guard Association, an outside group that lobbies on behalf of former and current Guard members, pleaded for the funding, saying it was a way to reach potential recruits "where they live and play."
On the other side of the ledger, a group of veterans last week called on the Marine Corps to end its association with Ultimate Fighting Championship, saying some of the mixed martial arts organization's fighters engage in anti-gay and hate speech.
Government money hasn't always been welcomed by sports leagues.
In 2007, the NFL rejected a recruitment ad that the U.S. Border Patrol wanted to run during that year's Super Bowl as part of its crash hiring spree to fill out the agency's ranks as President Bush sought to beef up border security.
At the time, the NFL said the ad "mentioned terrorism" and the borders, and a spokesman said the league wanted to stay as far away from an immigration debate as possible.
Mr. Kingston said their intent isn't to end all involvement with sports and that he hopes military branches continue to set up recruitment booths.
He said the league had a year — since the first efforts in 2011 — to bring hard numbers to make their case for why the investment was worth it, but said they never had the hard figures he was looking for.
"If I'm in this budget climate where for every dollar spent, 40 cents is borrowed, if you're spending $5 million, you ought to be able to show a congressional oversight committee or appropriations committee what you get for that money," he said.
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