NASCAR avoiding politics in Trump era

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

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

The issue has been 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 did not kneel.

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 failing 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 the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Bank of America 500 being held the other Sunday 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, Florida, 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.

Most drivers silent
Drivers have been mostly quite 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 to provide comment beyond that.

Concord-based Speedway Motorsports Chief Executive Officer 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 Goddell fired back with a statement condemning Trump’s words as “divisive comments” that “demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL.”

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.

THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER/TNS

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