BLAKEMAN: Sports sponsorships allow armed forces to compete

Military, not Congress, knows what drives its market

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Last week, the House Appropriations Committee voted against an amendment to the Department of Defense authorization bill that would have prohibited branches of the U.S. armed forces from investing in sports sponsorships. The act specifically singled out sponsorships of “professional or semi-professional motor sports, fishing, wrestling or other sports.”

The supporters of this amendment have yet to adequately explain why only sports marketing efforts should be prohibited, as opposed to marketing efforts elsewhere. Will Congress next tell our armed forces that they cannot use Facebook or sponsor musical or other cultural events?

While the amendment prohibits sponsorships of any sport, it’s clear that the amendment’s supporters are focusing on the military’s marketing efforts in NASCAR. Army and National Guard logos adorn the hoods of race cars driven by Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr., respectively. As top competitors in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, both cars get a significant amount of visibility and air time during race broadcasts on Fox, TNT, ESPN, ABC and Speed.

Keep in mind that those race telecasts are averaging 7.1 million viewers in 2012. There’s also the exposure the military gets with the more than 100,000 fans attending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races 38 weekends a year and the hundreds of millions of impressions they get in print and online annually as a direct result of being NASCAR sponsors.

Undoubtedly, NASCAR has the most brand-loyal fans in all of sports. According to independent research, 3 out of 4 avid NASCAR fans say they will purchase sponsor products and services, which is why more Fortune 500 companies are involved in NASCAR than any other sport.

If sports sponsorships didn’t work, why would so many of America’s top companies devote millions of dollars every year to sports leagues and teams? In fact, if we limit the tools that our military can use — tools that are available to the private sector — we may actually be putting our armed forces at a disadvantage.

Our military is all-volunteer, meaning that our military must find, recruit and retain soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen through multiple means. Sports sponsorships offer the military a conduit to the millions of young men and women who are sports fans.

The military retains companies from the private sector to assist in marketing to these young men and women. In fact, some of the world’s top advertising agencies count branches of the military among their clients. These companies create advertising, buy media and build channel plans that include sports sponsorships. It is one thing to discuss cutting the size of the military’s marketing budget, but to arbitrarily prevent them from using one legitimate marketing tool over another reeks of congressional overreach. It even raises questions about unnecessary government limitations on speech.

There’s no doubt the public deserves a greater return on those investments in sports, starting with ending television blackouts and lowering ticket prices. But this is a matter of marketing, not subsidizing. To simply prevent the military from spending money on sports while allowing it in other activities seems misguided and shortsighted.

We all trust our armed forces to protect the security and sovereignty of the nation. Shouldn’t we trust them to find their own best way to market to our young men and women?

Brad Blakeman is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a member of the executive board of the Sports Fans Coalition.

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