Racing will be saying farewell this year to a man who has had an enormous influence on the sport over the last decade, as Carl Pascarella retires as chief executive officer of Visa USA.
The 62-year-old Pascarella didn't make any headlines in the racing press last July with an announcement that he intends to leave Visa when his contract expires in September. Pascarella has been with the credit card giant for 23 years and served as president and CEO since 1993. His departure will leave a significant void in the sports marketing world, including horse racing, to which he has been a staunch friend and ally.
In the mid-1990s, as Chrysler ended its association as sponsor of the Triple Crown, Pascarella and Visa stepped in. Pascarella, a horse owner himself, took the relationship far beyond where it was during the Chrysler era. The automobile company offered a bonus, showcased its vehicles in track infields, and gave away a car to the winning jockey of every Triple Crown race.
Visa looked upon it as a true partnership. In the winter and spring, Visa produced and aired television commercials focusing on its sponsorship of the three grade I races comprising the Triple Crown--the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes--and then increased the budget dramatically following the Preakness if a horse was eligible to win the Visa Triple Crown Challenge. Visa helped market racing in ways that racing could not afford to do on its own.
Pascarella dearly wanted to hand out the $5-million bonus that goes with a sweep of the Triple Crown, and in six of Visa's nine years there was that possibility. But there still has been no Triple Crown winner since 1978.
As a result of Pascarella and Visa's commitment to horse racing, there has been substantial growth for the Triple Crown races. The Kentucky Derby solidified its standing as this sport's No. 1 event, and the Preakness and Belmont Stakes attracted record crowds during the Visa era.
On-track attendance and nationwide handle aren't the only ways Visa's impact on the Triple Crown can be measured. Television ratings have been strong, particularly for the Belmont when a horse was going for the Triple Crown.
Ed Seigenfeld, executive vice president of Triple Crown Productions, said Pascarella turned Visa into the most dynamic corporate sponsor in all of sports. "They know how to market their sponsorships--from the Triple Crown to the National Football League," said Seigenfeld. "Carl's leadership is evident in how he drives his people to maximize the usage of their sponsorships. These events are not just a place to bring people and entertain them. Visa is universally recognized as the best at using their sponsorships."
Pascarella loves racing. He makes the rounds in the stable area leading up to the big races, celebrates with the winners, and commiserates with the also-rans. But Visa's Triple Crown sponsorship has nothing to do with his personal interests, he has said. After all, the sponsorship is about hustling credit cards, and under his leadership Visa has been very, very good at doing just that.
Visa began its relationship with the Triple Crown in 1996, and renewed and strengthened the partnership in 1999. That contract expires this year, shortly before Pascarella's retirement. Seigenfeld would not comment on the status of efforts to renew Visa other than to say that they very much remain "a player."
The sponsorship has worked well for Visa, not just for racing. The company has received more exposure than it could have reasonably expected, given the fact racing went through a seven-year drought, from 1990-96, when no horse won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. It's had a very good run over the last nine years.
Let's hope the retirement of Pascarella does not mean the end of what has been a beautiful relationship.