ESPN signs Office Depot as sponsor for NASCAR coverage

ESPN is revving up its ad sales efforts as it returns to the NASCAR field this year.

The cable sports giant has already signed Office Depot to a marketing partnership involving NASCAR and is close to several deals to sell key on-air sponsorships.
NASCAR draws the second-highest rating of any sport on TV. Last year, its ratings on broadcast and cable were up more than 10 percent, but its remarkable six years of acceleration showed signs of slowing as ratings for the final 10 Nextel Cup races were down about 10 percent from the prior year.

Despite that, NASCAR was able to sign rich new television deals in December with Fox (including FX and Speed Channel), Turner Sports and ESPN/ABC, which is replacing NBC Sports in the driver's seat. The new deals will bring in $4.5 billion for the eight-year period, up 40 percent. ESPN is paying about $270 million a year for its part of the package.

John Mansell, a consultant with Kagan Research, notes that NASCAR ratings may have been hurt by some rainouts, but that even if ratings are flat, that's good in this environment. Bringing ESPN onto its team could help NASCAR this season. "Sports fans are so accustomed to turning to ESPN, much more so than say, FX," he said. "ESPN obviously has an experienced and very knowledgeable sales team.. That's all they do is sell sports."

NASCAR has no shortage of sponsors. Toyota has signed up this year, bringing imports into the game. Bank of America also signed on as the official bank of NASCAR in a deal reportedly worth more than $15 million.

Still, ESPN, which will broadcast the final 17 Nextel Cup races (several on ABC) starting in September, has gone to market early, said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN/ABC Sports customer marketing and sales. And it's been offering multimedia packages designed to help marketers reach race fans whenever they're thinking about NASCAR.

That strategy is designed to help ESPN gather a larger share of marketing budgets-not just television -and is similar to the network's successful approach to selling sponsorships for "Monday Night Football."

The Office Depot deal is a good illustration. The office supply chain had already been involved with NASCAR, running a promotion in which small businesses would enter a contest to have their logo put on the back of driver Carl Edwards' car. "Working closely with Office Depot and their agency, Prometheus, a part of OMD, we came up with a way to take that cool concept and take it up a notch," Mr. Erhardt said.

The promotion will start in February during ESPN's "NASCAR Now" pre-race show and other ESPN NASCAR programming. The network is shooting a co-promotional spot that will feature Mr. Edwards. Office Depot will also be promoting the small business contest in its own weekly circulars. Spots will air on ESPN and other messages will pop up in a variety of other media. The contest has its payoff during the Coca-Cola 600 in late May.

"It's indicative of how we're going to market," Mr. Erhardt said. "We're talking to the advertiser about how we believe NASCAR fans consume the sport. They're very loyal and they will obviously consume the races, they will consume what we do in print, online, the stuff we're doing with ESPN radio."

In addition to selling the kind of partnerships it has done with Office Depot, ESPN is also selling multimedia packages based on icons. Whenever ESPN NASCAR coverage show what's going on inside a car, a "nuts and bolts" icon will be displayed.

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