GoDaddy decision could spell trouble

Danica Patrick doesn't have a sponsor yet for 2016, but she owns plenty of marketing power even while her performance remains a work in progress. Look at her Twitter following: @DanicaPatrick has almost 1.2 million followers.

That's power in this marketing age, where one tweet can reach more than a million people. Dale Earnhardt Jr. still hasn't cracked a million followers. Patrick's dog has nearly 5,000 followers.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see GoDaddy totally pull out of NASCAR, a decision effective when its contract runs out with Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of the season. The decision, announced Wednesday, was not totally unexpected by industry insiders. But it's probably worse for NASCAR than it is for Patrick herself.

GoDaddy's departure should rattle the sport's foundation. Few thought GoDaddy would remain sponsoring 36-plus races a season. But a complete pullout has to turn the stomach of even the sport's most seasoned marketing executives.

The decision ends a relatively short -- six years -- involvement for GoDaddy as a primary sponsor in motorsports. While GoDaddy signed Patrick as a spokesperson in 2007, it didn't start sponsoring race cars until 2010 with Patrick in both IndyCar and select NASCAR Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series events, as well as Mark Martin in Sprint Cup. When Patrick made the full-time move to NASCAR in 2012, GoDaddy dropped Martin while sticking around for two more years in IndyCar with James Hinchcliffe before leaving that series following the 2013 season.

GoDaddy's decision could be interpreted either as a statement that Patrick's performance hasn't risen to the level necessary to keep pouring millions of dollars into her stock car career, or that NASCAR just doesn't have the marketing muscle needed to justify such an expenditure. But the company's chief marketing executive denied it was either.

"It is a statement about neither [of those]," GoDaddy CMO Phil Bienert responded when asked whether Patrick's performance or NASCAR's marketing profile were deciding factors. "It is a statement of where GoDaddy is in the growth of our company and the evolution of our brand. ... It has been a phenomenal vehicle for us to grow our brand, but where we are today is we are an established [brand] in the domestic market. We are a growing brand internationally.

"At the end of the day, the business decision to be made based on the data is we're no longer in that brand-growth stage in the United States where NASCAR has been such a great vehicle for us," Bienert said.

GoDaddy has followed the public relations playbook of how to drop out of NASCAR: Announce a shift in strategy while also touting the worthiness of the initial investment. Chevron did just that when it ended Texaco and Havoline's sponsorship of Chip Ganassi Racing in 2008; the same was true for Office Depot when it pulled its sponsorship of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2012.

Even if GoDaddy speaks the truth -- the company says that its NASCAR sponsorship helped build the little-known company into one that 81 percent of people are familiar with when asked -- skepticism could prevail because it's the same tune, different company.

And keep this in mind: When GoDaddy dropped its IndyCar sponsorship, it cited the high costs. GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving told The Associated Press in October 2013 that the return on investment didn't make fiscal sense to remain in that series. "IndyCar is the most expensive acquisition vehicle we have," he said. "It was pretty expensive on a per customer cost."

The one difference this time around is that GoDaddy will try to negotiate a personal services deal with Patrick. They like having her in commercials. They like having her at events that speak to small business owners. And she's an internationally recognized athlete. But they apparently don't need a moving billboard on race weekends.

GoDaddy certainly couldn't ignore the performance. Patrick's foray into stock car racing has had its few bright spots, along with a lot of struggle. No big surprise there, and, frankly, GoDaddy should not have expected much more. Unlike IndyCar, the telemetry system during a NASCAR race weekend is a driver's seat-of-the-pants feel, and she is still learning to understand what the car is telling her -- and what she needs to feel to make the car go faster.

Patrick hasn't come close to running in the top 10 on a consistent basis but appears possibly on the verge of a breakout year. After not even cracking the top 25 in the final standings in 2013 and 2014, she sits 16th after nine races this year with two top-10 finishes already. She appears more confident making moves. Maybe most importantly, she has shown the ability to work with crew chief Daniel Knost to turn so-so cars into top-10 equipment. In the past, a difficult-handling car would turn into a weekend-long struggle for Patrick. This season, she and Knost have figured out how to improve frustrating machines into drivable race cars that achieve respectable finishes.

Patrick probably doesn't need to win races to draw sponsorship. But she likely has to show progress. With 16 drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, if she can just knock on the door, remain in contention and run in the top 20 every week, it would help curb the perception held by some that she doesn't deserve a ride with one of the elite teams in the sport.

Sometimes even winning isn't enough to keep sponsors. Aflac scaled way back despite Carl Edwards finishing second in points in 2011. A year after Tony Stewart beat Edwards for that 2011 title, Office Depot dropped out of the sport amid its financial struggles, forcing Stewart to find a new sponsor for half the season. Earnhardt, NASCAR's most popular driver, has in the past three years seen PepsiCo reduce its sponsorship and the National Guard drop its sponsorship entirely.

"We're always disappointed when, for one reason or another, a company changes course," NASCAR chairman Brian France said Wednesday on SiriusXM Radio's NASCAR channel. "That happens. Recently they just went from being private to a publicly traded company and I'm sure that changes a lot of their budgets and strategy and that is just how that goes."

That is the NASCAR response: It's business. And businesses make decisions. And NASCAR boasts that one in four Fortune 500 companies and one in three Fortune 100 companies have some involvement in the sport. The number of companies involved is growing, as well, and NASCAR announced series entitlement sponsors for two of its national circuits last year.

But what does it say to a prospective sponsor -- whether it looks to sponsor a race team or is one of the sponsors NASCAR currently courts to replace Sprint, which is bailing after 2016 -- that a company with one of the most marketable drivers in the sport wants out?

Every time NASCAR seems to have a feel that it could be doing more than just treading water -- fans and drivers for the most part appeared to embrace the new Chase last year -- something like this happens.

Not including the rain-marred race weekend at Richmond, Sprint Cup ratings are down by 2 percent while viewership is up 1 percent, according to figures cited Wednesday by Speedway Motorsports Inc. in a shareholders' conference call and confirmed by NASCAR. Social media mentions are up 21 percent, according to the same figures.

Patrick, who has the most top-10s of any female in Sprint Cup history as well as the highest finish for a female in the Daytona 500 (eighth) and Indianapolis 500 (third), has 1.2 million people who follow her on Twitter. NASCAR averages 7.6 million people watching TV coverage at any given time during a race.

As long as the 33-year-old Patrick wants to keep racing, she'll continue to have those followers. It's what Coca-Cola and Nationwide and Tissot already have seen in her. She just needs a company to not just want her, but want to foot the bill for her to race, which likely could crack $20 million for a full season not including money spent on commercials.

"It's a little bit scary and unfamiliar for me," she told The Associated Press. "I've been very lucky as a driver to not have to worry about who is going to sponsor me."

She added that in the current climate, "It's not so easy to just name your dollar and go get [sponsors] anymore."

No, it's not. But the big fallout from the announcement Wednesday will be whether for Patrick it turns out to be easier than it is for the industry as a whole.