Aflac driving toward new NASCAR contract

Talks taking place amid flagging attendance and viewership for racing sport; Deadline for new agreement with Roush Fenway, Carl Edwards fast approaching

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 19, 2011 

When NASCAR cranks up its 2011 Sprint Cup series Sunday at the Daytona 500, the big question for one Columbus firm will be will it -- or won’t it -- remain a major sponsor.

Supplemental life and health insurer Aflac is entering the final year of its contract with Roush Fenway Racing and its driver Carl Edwards and his No. 99 Ford. The three-year deal signed just as the Great Recession was gaining a grip on the nation, was worth a reported $26 million.

Aflac spokeswoman Laura Kane said this week the clock is ticking on negotiations with the racing team, with a mid-March deadline for an agreement to be reached.

“If we do not reach a deal by mid-March other companies will be able to negotiate for the opportunity to sponsor Carl Edwards and the 99 car,” said Kane, who declined to share more details on the process that is now under way.

But it’s a fair bet the company headquartered on Wynnton Road and famed for its humorous duck advertising campaign is looking to lower the price it pays for being a primary sponsor for Edwards or any driver.

NASCAR is coming off a year that has seen attendance in the stands slip and television viewership slide.

As for Edwards, he has won only two of 72 races under the Aflac sponsorship over the last two years, the victories coming in the final two events of 2010 in Phoenix and Homestead, Fla. That puts Edwards, a free agent after this season, under pressure and in negotiations himself just to remain with Roush Fenway.

The driver, in a recent Fox Sports article, noted he was not prone to believing in momentum. But after the wins at the tail of the last season, he is hoping to build on just that.

“The way we finished the 2010 season is the way we would like to run all the time,” Edwards told Fox Sports. “I feel the way our team is structured right now that we are set to have one of our best seasons.”

Promise or posturing? Only the rigors of a 36-race season will tell as Edwards, Roush and Aflac look to complete contract talks far before the season’s finish line.

Aflac itself has already signaled it may be willing to take a reduced role in its association with NASCAR, which fields stars such as Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.

Last month, the company said it was ending its three-year contract as the official supplemental insurance company of NASCAR.

“Like any company, from time to time, we make changes to our sponsorships,” Keith Farley, Aflac’s senior manager of corporate sponsorships, said in a Street & Smiths SportsBusiness Daily article. “We cannot discuss why those decisions are made because that would involve revealing business strategy.”

Another Columbus businessman and NASCAR sponsor said he would like to see Aflac remain in the sport, and believes the firm will, at least to some degree.

“I personally would like to see them stay around the sport,” said Bill Jordan, founder and president of Realtree, which created and markets a distinctive camouflage pattern used on thousands of products. “They’ve been well received. And I think it’s served them well from the standpoint of getting their name out there.”

Realtree has been an associate sponsor of Richard Childress Racing since 1996, when the late Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jr.’s father and a friend of Jordan, was winning races for the team.

Last year, Realtree became the primary sponsor for RCR driver Kevin Harvick and his No. 29 Chevrolet in the year’s second Talladega race. Jordan said that’s a possibility in a couple of events this year.

“We’ve been able to leverage a lot of our relationships, not just the name on the side of the car,” Jordan said. “Obviously, the business side of it is what we all get in there for.”

Specifically, being a NAS-CAR sponsor has provided Realtree connections -- and ultimately relationships -- with a number of brands. Chevrolet is the major one, while New Holland tractors, Zaxby’s and Snap-On tools also are part of the mix. A deal with Caterpillar also is in the works.

In fact, for hunting-based Realtree, the shotgun approach has worked, Jordan said. The marketing strategy includes heavy sales of merchandise via trailer rigs at the races. The company also is moving its longtime hunting show from ESPN2 to the Outdoor Channel this July, pairing Jordan with an array of NASCAR stars. The name of the program is “Realtree’s NASCAR Outdoors.”

“So the introductions that we make inside the NAS-CAR community is huge for us for the kind of business we’re in -- the way we can leverage these relationships versus television buys,” Jordan said. “On the social media side, we hook in with Chevrolet and New Holland. I do TV commercials, as well as my son (Tyler), for Chevrolet and also for New Holland. They put us up in lights.”

All of the contact with the racing sport and its businesses and people who make decisions for those companies make it all worth it, said Jordan, who has become friends with the drivers and attends six to eight races each year.

That’s why he doesn’t think Aflac will abandon the sport altogether even if the last two years haven’t been as successful in Victory Lane as the company might have wished. He sees them staying connected to a fan base that, like anyone else, needs health and life insurance.

“Like a lot of companies across the country with the economy the last three years, when they got into NASCAR, who would have thought it?” Jordan said. “It was one of those things that was hard to predict. But I know a lot of the Aflac people. I’m sure they’ve done well in leveraging relationships inside NAS- CAR that’s been beneficial to them.”

And like spring, a new NAS- CAR season brings plenty of hope in the eyes of the man who founded Realtree 25 years ago.

“I do know this weekend the Daytona 500 is sold out,” said Jordan, who leaves today for Daytona, Fla. “Hopefully, that’s a positive sign for all of us in the community. And I think it’s going to be well watched on TV.”

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