Even before NASCAR's most dramatic finish to a season, negotiations were underway to extend Sprint's title sponsorship of the Sprint Cup series.
But the culmination of the new points system implemented in 2011, the stirring Chase for the Sprint Cup championship won by Tony Stewart in the final race of the season, and the "Have at it, boys" mentality encouraged by NASCAR a year ago, made it an easy decision for Overland Park-based Sprint to continue the partnership.
That's why Dan Hesse, chief executive officer of Sprint, announced late Friday night at the Sprint Cup awards banquet in Las Vegas that the company agreed to extend its title sponsorship of NASCAR's premiere series through at least 2016. The original 10-year, $750 million agreement was to expire after the 2013 season.
"They have made a number of bold changes over the past 18 months, from adding Chase wild-card spots, to revising the points system, to allowing NASCAR drivers to be NASCAR drivers," Hesse said, moments before handing Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart a check for $5.8 million.
"This leadership creates an environment that allows the best drivers, crew members and engineers in the world to deliver racing excitement that captivates us every week."
Terms of the extension were not revealed. But both NASCAR and Sprint saw value, especially in a down economy, to continue their relationship.
"Sprint has been very successful in using our sport as a platform to enhance its brand and drive their business," NASCAR chairman Brian France said. "They have been a fantastic partner, and we are immensely pleased to continue with Sprint. This new agreement aligns perfectly with our aggressive five-year plan, which is focused on continuing to improve our product, keep our existing fans engaged, and reach new fans."
Besides the title sponsorship of the series, Sprint lends its name to the Sprint All-Star Race in Charlotte, N.C. Sprint became the title sponsor in February 2004, replacing longtime sponsor Winston and supports NASCAR in other ways.
Sprint brings 15 to 20 cell phone towers to each race as well as The Sprint Experience, a mobile, interactive exhibit that features driver appearances, driving simulators and other amenities at each track that entertain about 500,000 fans per season. Sprint also showcases Miss Sprint Cup, a fan favorite who boasts more than 1.2 million followers in the social media space on Facebook and Twitter.
"The Sprint Cup series is a sports partnership unlike any other in the United States," said Steve Gaffney, vice president of corporate marketing for Sprint. "It ties us directly not only to fans but also to the competition on the track.
"Besides the fact that in a highly competitive industry like telecom, it gives us a national stage with a major sports property, we also derive direct business from the NASCAR fan base. They are legendary in terms of their loyalty to their sponsors, and Sprint has realized that benefit in terms of NASCAR fans rewarding us with their business, and they're very valuable customers for us.
"As we were looking through the negotiation period and considering the relationship and the success we've had over the last eight years ... it probably wasn't an option for us not to do it. It's too important for us."
NASCAR's chief marketing officer Steve Phelps said the extension with Sprint could encourage other companies to invest in the sport, particularly at a time when several race teams are searching for sponsorships and some teams have shut down because of lack of funding.
"To have Sprint come back with two years left on our deal speaks to the success they've had with the partnership and it's a good indication of the health of the sport, the direction the sport is going in and will signal to others this is a great place to spend some money if you're trying to get a return on an investment from your sponsorship dollar."