It was another NASCAR race to the finish, but it wasn't at the track. It was on Capitol Hill, where in these economically tough times some members of Congress didn't think it was a smart idea for the military to be spending millions on professional sports sponsorships as a recruiting tool.
The focal point of the debate was the $26.5 million the National Guard will spend this year to sponsor Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car. The Guard argued it was money well-spent given how Earnhardt's popularity gets it more value and exposure for its brand beyond what it is paying for the contract.
Late Thursday night, in a close 216 to 202 vote, the House of Representatives struck down a bipartisan amendment that would have cut $72 million from next year's $608 billion defense spending bill slated for professional sports sponsorships used to help with military recruiting. The military services sponsor a wide range of professional sports, including bass fishing tournaments and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but it was the National Guard's sponsorship of Earnhardt's car that drew all the attention.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., had sponsored the amendment that would have cut the military's sponsorship of professional sports, but would have allowed the military services to sponsor amateur competitions and high school events such as the Army's All-American Bowl. Wednesday night's vote was much closer than last year's 281-148 vote, an indicator the fiscal argument to end the sponsorships is gaining traction.
During the floor debate Wednesday, McCollum said the sponsorships don't work and, "that's why the Army has dropped it."
Last week the Army announced it was ending its 10-year involvement in NASCAR-this racing season it was sponsoring Ryan Newman's car in a contract worth $8.4 million. While NASCAR has a huge fan base of 77 million fans, Army data indicates that only 5 percent of them fall within the key demographic of men aged 18 to 34 it targets for Army recruiters. Army officials said it made more sense for them to invest their marketing resources in other professional racing circuits like the National Hot Rod Association where they were reaching their intended audience at a cheaper cost.
The Air Force is spending $1.6 million this year to be a limited sponsor of NASCAR driver Aric Almirola's car in a deal that allows it to be the car's primary sponsor in a handful of races this season. As the primary sponsor the Air Force logo is prominently displayed on the car's hood and sides. The Marine Corps ended its NASCAR sponsorships in 2006, the Navy did the same in 2008.
The National Guard said it would continue to sponsor Earnhardt's car because of the media exposure that Earnhardt's popularity generates. Maj. Jamie Davis, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau explained that the National Guard is all about its soldiers and airmen being involved in their communities, "and by seeing other people who are involved with that, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., it kind of helps reinforce that it is community based."
In May, Lt. Gen. William Ingram Jr., the director of the Army National Guard, told the Senate Appropriations Committee that its sports sponsorships are all about "branding and being associated with a national brand."
He said that when the National Guard's target audience watches sports on TV, "and they see Army National Guard. It's a national branding opportunity that is a great value."
McCollum countered Wednesday, "This was not supposed to be about branding, it was supposed to be about recruiting." She argued that that National Guard had not generated any actual recruits from the Earnhardt sponsorship and said it would be "irresponsible and outrageous" for Congress to keep funding the program.
But resistance to the amendment was strong from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, who argued that, as a volunteer force, the military services have to use their advertising revenue as they see fit.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said Wednesday that it was "inappropriate" for Congress to determine how the National Guard should spend its advertising dollars.
"Let's face it," McHenry said. "When we start micro-managing programs to recruit National Guard members, we've slipped into the absurd."
Some at the Pentagon shared that assessment, a Defense official said the legislation was "a solution to a problem that doesn't exist."
This official said, "The armed forces don't need to be told which advertising vehicles, media or arenas that we should or shouldn't participate in." The official noted that the services work with major advertising agencies to get expert recommendations about the best ways to reach their target demographic as well as "influencers" like parents, coaches and guidance counselors.
Though the Army will no longer be sponsoring NASCAR, it will still have a presence on the racing tracks of the National Hot Rod Association, where it feels it gets more bang for its buck.
Advertising at hot rod events is three times cheaper for the Army than it is at NASCAR. And it provides access to the young racing fans that are its target audience. Last year, through the NHRA's Y.E.S. education program, the Army was able to talk to nearly 13,000 students about military careers, more than five times the number of students they were able to reach through NASCAR.