Nextel antes up $70 million to leverage Nascar alliance

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Gentlemen, start your sponsorship.

Nextel Communications begins the first year of its 10-year, $700 million deal with Nascar Feb.15, when the famed Daytona 500 kicks off the first of 36 races. Drivers will now be competing for the Nextel Cup championship instead of the Winston Cup.

In all, Nextel is expected to spend $30 million of the yearly $70 million sponsorship on media buys and promotion. "We're not going to out-Dodge Dodge, and we're not going to do over-the-top beer commercials," Nextel Senior VP-Marketing Mark Schweitzer said. "Our approach is going to try and relate to the fan. At the end of the day, we're still a wireless company looking to grow our subscribers."

Nascar and R.J. Reynolds parted last year when the tobacco maker said it could no longer afford its Winston brand to be the title sponsor of the league's top racing series. That ended a 33-year relationship that many say was the original-and best-marriage of sports and corporate sponsorship.

But Nextel has already leveraged its sponsorship in ways RJR, inhibited by the restrictions on tobacco advertising, could not.

Its national TV ad campaign, from Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, breaks Feb. 15 during NBC's coverage of the Daytona 500. Radio ads have begun in select markets. Outdoor ads have started with billboards in the Orlando/Daytona area. The company has also produced cellphones shaped like Nascar race cars, with the numbers and color schemes of the most popular drivers.

unprecedented

"You're starting to see a type of activation in support of our series that you've never seen before," said Brett Yormark, VP-corporate marketing for Nascar, which will launch its own brand image campaign on race day via Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin Agency, Richmond, Va. "I think it's fair to say we hope to get a little younger [viewer] thanks to Nextel. Everybody today grows up with a cellphone."

One TV spot in Nextel's campaign shows an RV Park, where fans on its walkie-talkies humorously try to find each other in the vast sea of recreational vehicles that dot the infield of many race tracks. Another spot shows a man in a long concession line, using his Nextel phone to speak with friends and loudly suggesting that certain drivers have moved ahead in the race, causing many people in line to rush back to their seats. The spots end with the tagline "Nextel. Proud to be fans."

"We hired Chiat/Day before this Nascar deal was signed," said Mr. Schweitzer. "So you'd probably wonder how a West Coast-based agency with a French CEO, a South African [worldwide creative director] in John Hunt, and a Brit in Shona Seifert [New York president] would get it. I mean, if you're drawing up a team for a Nascar agency, that's probably not how you'd start. But they have immersed themselves in this and done a great job."

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