SBJ/November 17 - 23, 2003/SBJ In Depth

RJR’s advice to Nextel? Build relationships

Before Ned Leary left his role as head of the Winston brand to become president of RJR's Sports Marketing Enterprises, he sometimes tried to get his predecessors to cut aspects of the Winston Cup program that seemed to lack value. He couldn't see how taking a race team to dinner or supporting a team owner's favorite charity helped sell cigarettes.

Leary quickly learned lessons that he said SME has offered up for its successors at Nextel.

"Once you're out there, you find out why those things are important," said Leary, who managed Winston's sports sponsorships through their last two years. "You learn that these guys don't really owe you a whole lot when it comes to doing favors for you, and that building those relationships was the grease that made this thing go round and round. You can't just yank out the touchy-feely stuff and expect everything to go smoothly."

Cliff Pennell, who oversaw the Winston Cup program for RJR from 1996 to '99, is amazed at how, to this day, pit crew members approach him in the garage on race weekends to thank him for the savings bond that RJR sent when their child was born.

"It's the little things like that that make the difference," Pennell said. "People remember us paying to build media centers or put in 20,000 more seats, but it was the little stuff that really made it work. That's just how that industry is."

Pennell said the sponsorship is overwhelming and needs to be taken in pieces.

"This isn't just about writing a check and showing up for the event. If Nextel were to do that — and I don't think they will — this would be a failure. They would not be happy with the results and NASCAR wouldn't be satisfied with the relationship."

— Bill King

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