Originally created 12/16/04

NASCAR: Sprint-Nextel merger won't harm Cup series



CHARLOTTE, N.C. - NASCAR is not expecting any immediate changes to its top-tier racing series following the merger between telecommunications giant Sprint Corp. and Nextel Communications Inc.

But what long-term effects the merger will have on the Nextel Cup Series - including a possible name change - are unclear.

NASCAR chairman Brian France said Wednesday that the 10-year sponsorship deal with Nextel is not in danger of being dissolved, but he would not speculate on anything else.

"For '05, the merger has very little bearing at all because they will spend most of next year closing out the deal," France told The Associated Press. "Beyond that, they still need to figure out their branding strategy. Although we are just a small piece of their branding strategy, we believe we are a prime marketing vehicle."

France insisted that Nextel was up front with its desire to expand when NASCAR began negotiating the 10-year, $700 million title sponsorship deal that began this year.

Still, the merger has to be unsettling to a sport that had virtually no change during the three-plus decades that cigarette maker Winston sponsored its premier series.

When Winston pulled out at the end of the 2003 season, the name of the series and its coveted Winston Cup trophy were suddenly up for sale. Nextel won the bidding, and the name change to the Nextel Cup Series was one of many sweeping changes to the sport.

The only thing that is certain now is that the name will remain the same in 2005. Beyond that, France wouldn't make any guarantees.

"Ideally, we'd like to have as minimal change as possible," France said. "They are still working out all their details, so to speculate on anything more would be putting the cart in front of the horse."

Nextel officials also called it "premature" to discuss any possible name changes.

The $35 billion transaction announced Wednesday will create a company called Sprint Nextel with more than 35 million wireless subscribers.

Sprint would get access to Nextel's 15.3 million subscribers, a number that increased this year as NASCAR fans switched cell phone providers out of brand loyalty. It's estimated that Nextel's title sponsorship resulted in 40,000 sales of NASCAR-branded phones and a significant increase in other sales related to the NASCAR sponsorship.

Several officials within NASCAR said it was unlikely that the merger will end the title sponsorship of the series because to buy out the remaining nine years on the deal would be so costly that it would make more sense to simply stick with it.

A Nextel spokesman said there has been no talk whatsoever of ending the agreement with NASCAR.

"The NASCAR partnership has been one of the best branding and sponsorship decisions that Nextel has ever made," said Mike Mooney, a spokesman for Nextel's NASCAR division. "Both Sprint and Nextel are enthusiastic about the NASCAR partnership and are looking forward to building on the success of the first Nextel Cup season."

Still, there are already suggestions as to how to get the new name of Sprint Nextel involved. NASCAR's current 10-race playoff system, called the "Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship," could be changed to the "Sprint for the Nextel Cup Championship," sources said.