A fact of life on the business side of sports is that sponsors come and go. The minor league in professional golf has gone from the Nike Tour to the Buy.com Tour. The USF&G Insurance Sugar Bowl is now the Nokia Sugar Bowl. NASCAR driver Mark Martin will have the Valvoline decals removed from his Ford Taurus and replaced by the blue, silver, and white colors of Pfizer, manufacturer of Viagra.
Racing is no different. Turfway Park's Spiral Stakes became the Jim Beam Stakes, then the Gallery Furniture.com, and most recently was run without a sponsor. The Chrysler Triple Crown Challenge is now the Visa Triple Crown Challenge. One of the great races of the 1970s, the Marlboro Cup, is now just a distant memory.
Five of the seven Breeders' Cup races had sponsors when the championship event debuted in 1984. Not one of those sponsors is involved in racing or the Breeders' Cup today. In 1999, only two of the Breeders' Cup races had sponsors: the Mile, sponsored by National Car Rental, and the Distaff, by Alberto VO5, a product from a company run by Leonard Lavin, the owner of Glen Hill Farm.
Most disappointing is the fact the $4-million Breeders' Cup Classic has been run without a sponsor for the past three years, since longtime supporter Mobil dropped out. The $2-million Turf has not had a sponsor since Budweiser ended its association after the 1992 running.
Obviously, racing sponsorships are not an easy sell. Tiger Woods can give Nike a pretty good bang for its buck since he and the well-known "swoosh" figure to be on camera for a lengthy portion of a golf telecast. NASCAR sponsors benefit from the innovative in-car cameras seemingly designed just as much to show off a company logo as they are to provide viewers with a bird's-eye view of the action. Signage at the finish line or atop the tote board may be on camera for a split second as the horses flash by.
The company hired to sell Breeders' Cup sponsorships, SFX Entertainment (formerly Sports Marketing and Television International), is a major entertainment company whose sports division has offices in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Houston, Miami, Cleveland, Denver, London, Sydney, and Tokyo. That hasn't helped it sell sponsorships on the Breeders' Cup.
What may help bring more sponsors to racing's championship event is the impending consolidation of the Breeders' Cup and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. The possibility of selling additional sponsorships is just one of many reasons the joining together of the two organizations is a very good step for the future of the industry.
In its first two years, the NTRA has brought several companies into racing that had no previous association, including AT&T, John Deere, and Boise Cascade. One of its biggest challenges was putting together sponsorship packages without having the opportunity to leverage racing's big events, the Triple Crown races or Breeders' Cup. Soon, the NTRA should be able to include the Breeders' Cup in a sponsorship package that also could include a series of races within a division. For example, a lawn care company might not be interested in sponsoring a series of grass races during the summer and fall. If, however, that series of races concludes with the Breeders' Cup Turf, the championship event for the division, the same sponsor might have a different outlook.
The Breeders' Cup has done an outstanding job of collecting nominations, managing the Championship Day event, and building interest from within the Thoroughbred industry, both in terms of on-track attendance and pari-mutuel handle. The NTRA is designed to sell racing's best stories to Madison Avenue. The marriage with the Breeders' Cup will give them the opportunity to do just that.