Visit Florida Puts Brakes On Racing Contract

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Car racing is one of the biggest sports in the world and its popularity in many ways in unparalleled in the United States.

Visit Florida Racing shared a Facebook photo from its prime sponsor this week, but the days of the state’s tourism brand spinning wheels at tracks like Watkins Glen, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Sebring International Raceway are coming to a screeching halt.

Meanwhile, Visit Florida, the state’s tourism-marketing arm, continues to negotiate for what could be a third year sponsoring the London-based Fulham Football Club owned by Shahid “Shad” Khan.

Visit Florida, which has faced heavy criticism during the past year about a number of promotional contract and nearly saw a two-thirds cut in state funding, gave 30-day cancellation notice on June 2 to the team racing the “Visit Florida car.”

Visit Florida Chief Financial Officer Nelson Mongiovi wrote in the notice that “Visit Florida must make major changes in its strategic direction moving forward.”

Mongiovi added that the agency looks forward to exploring new partnerships “in the future.”

The $2.875 million contract — about $1 million has yet to be paid — is tied to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season that concludes in October with the 10-hour Motul Petit Le Mans in Braselton, Ga.

The racing team did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

While the racing contract ends July 3, Visit Florida is looking to continue its overseas sponsorship of Khan’s soccer club, which finished sixth last season in the Sky Bet Championship, England’s second division.

Khan is a Naples resident who also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars of the National Football League and has been a political backer of Gov. Rick Scott.

“We are in negotiations to receive more deliverables at a lower cost,” Visit Florida spokesman Stephen Lawson said in an email about the talks with Fulham. “We are focused on deliverables, how those deliverables integrate into our larger marketing plan, and a strong return on investment.”

The talks to continue as a sponsor of Fulham come after lawmakers crafted new rules for Visit Florida as part of a measure (HB 1A) completed in a special legislative session this month.

The bill, awaiting Scott’s signature, requires Visit Florida contracts valued at $500,000 to be posted online. Contracts over $750,000 will have to go before the Joint Legislative Budget Commission and could be voided within 14 days by the House speaker or Senate president.

Lawmakers approved $25 million for the public-private agency during this spring’s regular legislative session, but the special-session bill increased that amount to $76 million for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, nearly matching the current year’s total. The proposal also caps salaries and imposes travel restrictions on Visit Florida employees.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican whose office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday, has argued against the need for higher tourism funding, noting people are driven to travel more by their personal finances rather than advertising.

The rules changes came after Visit Florida faced intense scrutiny from Corcoran and other House members over the Fulham and IMSA racing deals, along with its $11.6 million sponsorship of a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and a $1 million contract with rapper Pitbull.

The details of the Pitbull contract were released in December by the rapper, but only after the House filed a lawsuit for the information, which had previously been undisclosed because of a contention that it was protected as a trade secret.

The dispute resulted in Scott receiving the resignation Visit Florida President and CEO Will Seccombe, which followed the departure of two agency officials including Chief Marketing Officer Paul Phipps, who oversaw the Fulham contracts.

As part of the state’s $1.25 million deal over the past year with Fulham, Visit Florida’s name was emblazoned across the chests of the team’s home and away uniforms. Also, Visit Florida received signage rights at Fulham’s home stadium Craven Cottage, including the agency’s name appearing on the Riverside Stand roof that sits under the landing approach to London’s Heathrow Airport.

With single-year contracts, the sponsorship of the team wasn’t announced until just before the start of each of the past two seasons. Fulham’s first match on the 2017-2018 schedule is Aug. 5 hosting Norwich City.

Since the Fulham deal was first cut in 2015, it has been sold as part of a wider strategy by Visit Florida to draw more visitors from the United Kingdom, which is one of Florida’s largest international markets.

Visitors from the United Kingdom decreased slightly from an estimated 1.696 million tourists in 2015 to 1.69 million last year.

The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.

(©2017 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.)

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