Sports

Trump Wins Nascar. Golf's Turn to Decide.

Sports looking to diversify their fan bases may want to tread carefully.

Racing into politics.

Photographer: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Trumpmania has hit the sports world. And it presents a dilemma for groups trying to expand their fan bases.

On Monday, Nascar chairman Brian France endorsed Donald Trump for president at a rally ahead of Super Tuesday. France appeared on stage alongside Trump with four drivers also supporting the candidate: Hall of Famer Bill Elliott; his son, Chase; David Ragan; and Ryan Newman.

Nascar was quick to clarify that the endorsement was not an official position, but rather a "private personal decision by Brian," but you'd have to be fairly gullible to believe that. France's grandfather, Bill France, Sr., founded Nascar, and Brian France remains the corporate face of the sport. The Frances are known as the "First Family of Nascar," and are nearly synonymous with the organization. Moreover, the presence of Nascar drivers past and present seems to bolster the implication made by Trump himself that the support came from the entire "Nascar brand."

That could be problematic from a business standpoint -- when was the last time you saw a sports league officially endorse a political candidate, replete with player ambassadors on the podium? Individual commissioners, executives, owners and athletes contribute to campaigns all the time, and nobody has an issue with France publicly supporting whomever he chooses. But this felt like a league-wide endorsement, a strategic call to Nascar's particular demographic that happens to overlap with many fervent Trump supporters.

According to Real Clear Politics, Trump voters are "a bit older, less educated and earn less than the average Republican," with a third of them earning less than $50,000 a year and only 11 percent earning six figures or more. In 2013, Nielsen reported that nearly half of Nascar fans are 55 and older, 94 percent are white, and 35 percent earn $40,000 or less, with 14 percent pulling in at least six figures.

So wading into politics isn't likely to alienate a huge swath of current Nascar fans -- or, by extension, sponsors. The one business partner who has been outspoken against Trump has already said it won't end its relationship with Nascar. Yet Camping World chief executive Marcus Lemonis, whose company sponsors the Camping World Truck Series, had this to say:

Last July, Lemonis wrote a strong letter urging Nascar to change the venue for a postseason awards banquet sponsored by Camping World and Xfinity that was to be held at Trump National Doral Miami resort. This came after Trump's comments calling Mexican immigrants drug dealers and "rapists." Lemonis, who was born in Lebanon, criticized the "recent and ongoing blatantly bigoted and racist comments from Donald Trump in regards to immigrants of the United States."

This time around, however, Lemonis won't be pulling his more than $5 million annual sponsorship, part of a deal that runs through 2022. As he told SportsBusiness Daily, his main objection to France's endorsement was the use of disproportionate influence and access by a businessman to support a candidate in a way that might polarize fans.

That in itself is a business statement, given Nascar's need to expand its fan base beyond its current homogeneity. The association's Drive for Diversity program is now in its 12th year, and has recently seen some success in promoting minority drivers such as Kyle Larson, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Aric Almirola. Nascar supported the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina's capitol grounds and has banned the use of the symbol in any official capacity, but has refused to bar fans from flying the flag at the racetrack.

France himself called it an "offensive symbol" and pledged to "go as far as we can to eliminate the presence of that flag." Following the tragic shooting at a black church in Charleston, the Confederate flag wasn't exactly polling as well as Trump. 

Another sport that has been vying to expand its minority reach will have a decision to make on its future with Trump: golf. This week's WGC-Cadillac Championship is being held at Doral, after months of pressure on the PGA Tour to find another host. Doral is located just north of Miami, which has a significant Hispanic population, while the PGA Tour's globalization push includes tournaments in Mexico, throughout Latin America, and the Middle East. In July, the PGA of America announced it was pulling the PGA Grand Slam of Golf from Trump National Los Angeles before deciding to cancel the tournament altogether.

The most high-profile Trump snub comes from the R&A, golf's governing body based in Scotland, which in December decided to remove Trump Turnberry from the Open Championship rotation. (This seems to make good on the suggestion by one member of Parliament, during the UK's extraordinary debate to prohibit Trump from entering the country, to answer the candidate's antics "not with a ban, but with the great British response of ridicule.")

In lieu of sponsor pressure, the onus is on individual tournaments and leagues to distance themselves from Trump if they decide he threatens to alienate fans and hurts their business prospects. That's likely not the case with Nascar. But wealthy golf fans are seen as aligning more with the Republican establishment than the fringe supporting Trump, and with Mitt Romney joining the chorus of GOPers denouncing him, it could create an interesting divide on the links. It also presents a dilemma to a sport that has a mixed record of dealing with discrimination while trying to expand. With the country continuing to become more diverse, both Nascar and golf need to keep in mind the future far beyond November 2016. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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