Julius Boros wasn't known as a trendsetter when he played on the pro golf tour from the 1950s until the '70s--unless wearing a lime green cardigan with yellow knit slacks constituted a fashion trend. However, Boros led professional sports in a new direction in 1971 when he donned a hat bearing the logo of the Iowa appliance maker Amana during a televised tournament. He may have gotten nothing more than a Radar Range out of the deal, but Boros opened the doors to what is now a multimillion-dollar endorsement business for many professional athletes, including some jockeys.
Tiger Woods is the king of endorsements. He has a dozen deals worth an estimated $54.6 million annually, according to Golf World
magazine. Buick, American Express, Nike, and Rolex are among those he represents.
But Woods isn't the only player getting big bucks. Golf World
reports each of the top 75 leading money winners earns hundreds of thousands in annual revenue through endorsements. The value to professional golfers playing on the PGA, LPGA, and Senior tours this year was estimated by the magazine to be $400 million, which easily surpasses the $287 million in prize money offered on the three tours.
Golfers have several options for reaping endorsement revenue, though tour officials regulate the size and location of the logos and the companies that can advertise. Caps are the most visible vehicle for advertising, with logo placement worth up to $200,000, even for players outside the top 50 money winners.
Jockeys want to jump on the same gravy train that pro golfers and many other athletes are riding. Last year, after this column criticized several jockeys for taking money to wear a Youbet.com cap on camera during interviews on ABC's coverage of the Visa Triple Crown, Kent Desormeaux lectured me on the revenue opportunities he and other jockeys could enjoy through endorsements.
But a number of obstacles stand in their way.
Jockeys can't ride in a race wearing a golf cap, and their shirt, or silks, belongs to the horse owner, who in most racing jurisdictions also decides what color cap a rider wears over his helmet. In states where regulations may permit jockeys to wear logos on their silks, they cannot do so without approval of the horse owner. It's not unlike auto racing, where the car owner generally cuts the deals and the driver suits up wearing a patchwork of logos.
Second, jockeys don't command the amount of television time a golfer or racecar driver does. Most races last less than two minutes, and television ratings (outside of the Triple Crown races) are low. One golfer standing over a single 10-foot putt might give his corporate sponsor more air time than a jockey can during an entire broadcast. A two- or three-hour golf telecast will show several hundred close-ups of golfers, giving their corporate sponsors plenty of exposure.
Third, many mainstream corporations may worry about teaming up with jockeys because of their association with a sport based on gambling.
That may be why racing has had difficulty attracting sponsors for its premier races. Other than the Visa Triple Crown, sponsorships are sparse, and there's no reason to believe jockeys, working independently, can do any better.
The obstacles to bringing greater corporate involvement are not insurmountable, but there will not be significant change until racing broadens its appeal with the general public and potential corporate partners. That means marketing and television efforts of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association must succeed, and traditionalists will then have to consider changing their positions on such things as advertising on silks, caps, and saddle cloths. The NTRA, owners organizations, jockeys, and trainers must then work together to explore how they can convince corporate America to invest in Thoroughbred racing.