Military feeling heat as sports event backers

House vote closer; $80 million defended as recruiting

WASHINGTON – So far, congressional efforts to put the brakes on military sponsorship of NASCAR races, bass fishing, pro wrestling and other sporting events have gone nowhere.

But the effort could gain new life as pressure builds for lawmakers to rein in federal spending.

The military, which regards its sponsorship of sporting events as a valuable recruiting tool, is expected to spend at least $80 million this year on such efforts. But a growing number of lawmakers say the spending should stop in the face of budget deficits.

An effort to end the funding narrowly lost in the House last month, by a 216-202 vote. The measure drew strong opposition from lawmakers from NASCAR country. The National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association were among the sports leagues that wrote to House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to oppose an end to the funding.

Still, the measure drew more support than it did a year earlier. And Mary Catherine Ott of the National Guard Association of the United States said Thursday, “We anticipate having to have this fight again next year.”

During the recent debate, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., called himself “as pro-military as they get” but teamed up with Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., to try to end the funding. Noting that his district has plenty of NASCAR fans, he told colleagues, “They’re saying to me, ‘We’re pro NASCAR, but we realize the situation in America today is that for every dollar we spend, 40 cents is borrowed.’ ” McCollum has questioned whether the spending is an effective recruiting tool.

Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., responded during the debate: “We have a volunteer military and they have to advertise for recruits somewhere. Do you think they should advertise at the philharmonic? Or maybe you think they should advertise at the ballet. We could surely get some burly, mean paratroopers if we advertised at the ballet.”

The Army recently announced that it was ending sponsorship of a NASCAR team after a decade but will continue to sponsor National Hot Rod Association drag racing and the Army All-American Bowl, a high school football game.

John Myers, director of marketing for the Army Marketing and Research Group, said Thursday that ending sports sponsorship would “limit our ability to do our job, which is to recruit high-quality young people.” He said the Army was ending its NASCAR sponsorship after deciding it could get more bang for the buck elsewhere, but noted that sports sponsorships are “not just putting the Army logo on the car” but opening up broader opportunities to reach potential recruits.

The Army National Guard proposes to reduce its sports sponsorship from about $54 million this year to about $25 million in the coming year, according to the National Guard Association of the United States, a private group that lobbies for National Guard members. The Army National Guard currently sponsors a NASCAR race car driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr., as well as pro wrestling and other sports.

“Recruiting for our all-volunteer force isn’t what it used to be,” the group’s president, retired Maj. Gen. Gus L. Hargett Jr., said in a statement last month. “Only one in every four young people is even eligible to join. And television advertising no longer carries the payoff it once did.

“Today, you have to know how smart, fit young people think, where they live and play, and go to them.”

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