Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Rhetoric Heating Up In NASCAR vs. AT&T Cell Phone Feud

AT&T filed a motion this week, asking that its logo be allowed to appear on Jeff Burton's #31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

Burton is currently sponsored by Cingular Wireless, which was recently acquired by AT&T as part of its recent merger with BellSouth. AT&T intends to eliminate the Cingular brand, replacing with AT&T. NASCAR has repeatedly denied requests to change the signage on Burton’s car, saying that “rebranding” is prohibited under the sanctioning body’s contract with NEXTEL; major sponsor of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.

John Burbank, Vice President of Marketing for AT&T, released a statement Monday, saying, "We must bring this issue to resolution. The season is well under way, and so are our re-branding efforts. This filing is a logical next step in the process, and one we must pursue so that we can move forward with our paint scheme -- something our agreement with NASCAR allows us to do."

NASCAR fired back today, saying the sanctioning body’s decision to grandfather Cingular into the sport “was tied directly to the Cingular Wireless brand, and not the Cingular company.”

Attorneys for NASCAR say the sanctioning body communicated verbally with Richard Childress Racing, Penske Racing South (sponsored by ALLTEL) and other race teams as early as 2003 – while the NEXTEL contract was still being hammered out – informing them that there would be language in that contract limiting their ability to maneuver within the sport. NASCAR says they told the teams that their sponsors would be grandfathered into the sport, but would not be allowed to change their level of involvement, change teams, or change their names.

In addition, documents field with the court this week show that NASCAR President Mike Helton sent a letter to Cingular President/CEO Stan Sigman prior to SpeedWeeks 2007 at Daytona, explaining why Cingular would not be allowed to rebrand. Helton attached a letter sent by NASCAR’s George Pyne to Richard Childress on April 4, 2005 (more than a year before the Cingular-ATT merger was announced) in which Pyne wrote, "should Cingular be acquired by a third party, the Cingular brand is continually welcome as a team sponsor. However, should the company's name change, we will not allow any paint scheme or branding on the car promoting this new name.”

Attorneys for ATT claim in their most recent court filings that NASCAR failed to inform Cingular/ATT that rebranding would not be allowed. Based on the documents on file, however, it appears that Cingular signed two, one-year sponsorship contracts with RCR -- for the 2006 and 2007 seasons -- after NASCAR informed Childress a name change would not be permitted.

NASCAR had no legal obligation to communicate directly with ATT/Cingular in this matter, since Cingular/ATT has no official relationship with the sanctioning body. NASCAR’s relationship (and thus its obligation) is to Richard Childress Racing, and they seem to have fulfilled that obligation by informing RCR – on at least two occasions – that the rebranding of the Cingular sponsorship would not be permitted.

In the end, “who said what to whom” (and on what date) may prove to be moot points. Ultimately, this dispute will be decided by the specific language of NEXTEL’s contract with NASCAR. AT&T says there is nothing preventing Cingular from changing its name in the event of a merger or buy-out. NASCAR says the language is specific, and precludes Cingular from changing its name.

It is on that point – and that point alone – that the courts will most likely decide.

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