Can California Chrome Help Racing Strike Gold?

At long last maybe, just maybe horse racing has positioned itself to take a long overdue ride, thanks to the people and the personalities in and around California Chrome and the industry itself. Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, none of the 12 horses who have taken the first two legs has gone on to make history in the Belmont Stakes. On June 7, California Chrome will be the next to attempt to join horse racing’s elite fraternity, can 13 be the lucky number not just for colorful co-owners Art Sherman and Steve Coburn, but for the industry as well?

We shall see.

One thing that is for sure is that unlike in many years past, most of the industry stakeholders and their partners seem to be ready to seize this moment. In the past three years the NTRA and The Jockey Club, through their vibrant platform America’s Best Racing, have unceasingly tried to find stories and personalities and numbers that will appeal to a casual fan. From film to long-form stories to embracing celebrities, ABR has churned out story after story, info graph after info graph, to try and explain and embrace the beauty of the sport, from the glory of the Kentucky Derby to the majesty of Saratoga through the mega-size and value of the Breeder’s Cup. While doing all this promo they have noticed a trend that may seem to turn the tide, and the perception of horse racing as an aging, old man sport in dark tracks on the fringes of society; Nearly 50% of America’s Best Racing web traffic is female; 40% under age 34 and 60% under age 55. That shows progress at a time when a horse has come along to bolster this casual numbers with the biggest and longest run of his life on June 7 at Belmont Park.

Now ABR has not done the work alone. NBC has stepped up to create a more consistent, in-depth and robust viewing and engagement package for horse racing year round across all its platforms, so that fans have one destination to go for the biggest races. The Breeder’s Cup has invested in explaining and making their offering more consistent to fans, with a series that links many of the lead-in races to the year-end event better than ever before. Many of the elite tracks around the country have expanded their use of the digital space, while also making the tracks more fan and family friendly than ever before. All can capitalize on the next three weeks as a springboard to future success, much like the NHL has leveraged the success of their outdoor games and the Olympics to bigger numbers this spring, showcasing the personalities of their sport (another good job by NBC in leveraging that property as well by the way).

Are there brands that will now emerge from the sidelines and try and jump on board for the long term as well as the short? In years past Visa saw an opportunity to sponsor The Triple Crown, but the fractious nature of horse racing at the time, along with races on multiple networks, didn’t lead to a strong or consistent ROI. When Big Brown made its run for the Crown, UPS came forward to take advantage of that short window with a unique partnership. The difference now is that there is a more consistent package and platform for brands to activate against. You can see the TV strategy, the brand strategy and the engagement possibilities more clearly than ever before. It may not be one stop shopping for someone looking to engage, but it is certainly easier and more robust than ever before.

This past weekend we continued to see some newer brands testing the waters. Some spirit brands, appealing even to women, showed up during the Preakness broadcast and will probably do the same now that there is great excitement for the Belmont.

Of course all the issues of horse racing aren’t solved with one glowing potential champion. The marketplace for the casual fan is more crowded than ever, with a robust NHL and NBA Playoffs coming to a head, not to mention the World Cup on the horizon and the added competition from virtually every sport imaginable in the next few weeks, from the NCAA Lacrosse Championships to the Indy 500, and the constant beat of baseball. The issues of abuse of horses, the viability of tracks and the increased attention on a daily basis for the sport remain problems that are being dealt with, but horse racing overall is stronger in leadership and vision than it was even a year ago, and that can help lift the ship when the tide comes in, in the form of more casual viewers for a Triple Crown Saturday. There is better promotion of personalities like jockeys, trainers and horses than ever before and a unified platform like ABR can now be a driver and a resource for many.

Will 13 be a lucky number for the business of horse racing in a few weeks, a new chance to push the sport further? While sometimes it’s better to be more lucky than good, the good business sense now in place in the sport should be a plus in taking advantage of the skilled, and lucky emergence of America’s latest potential hero, California Chrome.  The race for growth is on.

Remembering A Sports Business Pioneer…Mike Cohen…25 Years After His Passing…

It is amazing that it is 25 years this month that the sports business world, just growing at the time, prematurely lost a legend, someone who set the tone and helped create the sports and entertainment communication industry as it exists today.

His name was Mike Cohen and some called him “Inky,” because throughout his career that is what Mike got for his clients. Whether he was a Jewish publicist for a Catholic university (Manhattan College) or if he was pioneering the part of the publicity industry that dealt with announcers, directors and TV shows (when he was head of publicity for NBC Sports) there was no one better than Mike.

Cohen’s  life was based on the relationships he had in the media, and how he was able to take those relationships and make “name clients” bigger or rising clients  important.  Mike took the time to listen, strategize and plan the careers of people like Bob Costas, Spencer Ross, Marty Glickman, Steve Sabol and Marv Albert, as well directors like Michael Weisman and a seemingly neverending list of boxing promoters  and businesspeople,  and come up with unique human elements about their style that he could take and work his relationships with the media to make them into stories themselves. He also had a flair for the underdog as well, working with jockeys and trainers at places like Yonkers Raceway as well as baseball scouts, finding media opportunities for all along the way through his never-ending and always overflowing rolodex. Mike was the quintessential relationship builder, and his legacy lives on today in the form of some of the great professionals in this country who worked for and under him. His company, Mike Cohen. Communications, became part of industry leader Taylor Communications following his untimely passing that September of 1988 and that company, with many of the people who learned directly from Mike, is now Taylor, one of the world’s most elite brand strategy firms specializing in sport.

I had been in the business a few years after interning with Mike and his able bodied right hand man, Bryan Harris, while I was a senior at Fordham. Mike taught me how to find a story, how to cultivate relationships and how to build a network. As was the case every few months, he would check in, or I would call him to talk about what I was doing and to get a critique on how to improve my work, which was then as Assistant Director of Marketing and Public Relations at SportsChannel America, the precursor to what are now the myriad of regional networks across the country. Mike had brought me not one, but two opportunities…Sports Information Director at both Manhattan College and Fordham University. He had called me before he left his Rockland home that September morning to talk about which option would be best for me as a career move. We had a quick conversation because he was heading off to support one of his biggest pet projects, the Baseball Scouts, and his never-ending quest to get scouts who had signed thousands of players recognition not just by the media but by the Hall of Fame. They were having their annual softball outing that day. We agreed to talk after the outing and after I was done with work on Long Island that day. I came home to Brooklyn that night and immediately called Mike’s house, eager to get his advice for what would be next. What Mike said, I, and many others did.

Even 25 years later I remember it very clearly. I was in my basement calling and a young boy…one of Mike’s sons (who have gone on to amazing careers) answered the phone. I asked to speak to Mike and there was silence and a woman got on the phone. I eagerly explained why I needed to talk to Mike and again…silence. She then said that Mike had a heart attack and passed away that afternoon.  At a relatively young age I had suffered some personal losses, but none as shocking and sudden as this. I thanked her, she was staying with the boys as Mike’s wife Linda was out of the house, and hung up the phone.  I had lost my mentor…one that has never really been replaced…and the industry lost one of its guiding hands, a man whose impact could never be overtly measured by the public but who’s behind the scenes influence spoke volumes.

I remember going to Mike’s funeral with one of my bosses, Mike Lardner and his wife Leandra Reilly (Mike had a great influence on their lives as well, as Leandra was a finalist to be the first woman to call an NFL game on NBC, a spot which eventually went to Gayle Sierens). The room of course was packed not just with famous faces but with people from the neighborhood, coaches and scouts who Mike influenced. He had also passed during the Seoul Olympics, meaning that so many of his NBC family were a world away, and if they had been back in New York, the crowd would have needed its own stadium. Of all the people that spoke that day, the one I remember most was the legendary Marty Glickman, who looked at Mike’s two sons and said simply in closing his remarks…”Your old man was a mensch, someone who would do anything for anybody…it’s not something that can be measured sometimes in dollars but it can be measured in character and the impact he had on others, and that impact will never be forgotten.”

Mike’s impact is still felt today in a media industry which he helped shape and would still be loving, even though he was with us for less than 45 years when he passed. The luminaries of the business are people he was there with at the beginnings of their careers, especially in broadcast and boxing, two areas which he excelled in. There is also “The Mike Cohen Award,” given out to the MVP of the Fordham-Manhattan basketball game when it is played at Fordham’s Rose Hill Gym every other year. Most years some of Mike’s friends and family will gather for dinner and the game and to present the award after the game, and the brief introduction tries to amplify the impact of a man in the industry which, frankly is hard to explain in just a few words. Regardless it is still a very nice gesture and a chance to pay homage to one who deserves it.

I still think about what Mike taught me almost every day…work hard, be honest, don’t betray your sources, listen to people, write well, help others, and tell good stories…they are the basis for what I think has been a pretty good career thus far, all influenced by a bear of a man who took me under his wing, someone we lost just over a quarter century ago. Gone but never forgotten, Mr. Cohen. Your influence, both overt and subtle, will never be lost.    

Lone Star A Shining Example Of Digital Success…

Two weeks ago there was an uproar that a good part of the press box at Churchill Downs had ceded use to luxury seats. Less media, so out the space to work. Unfortunately in most of the horse racing tracks around the country, the press, let alone the press box, could be gone and few would notice.

While the NTRA is doing its best to infuse excitement and enthusiasm and value into elite racing, the fact remains that horse racing as it stands today probably still has too many tracks and too much competition to make it a viable business in its current form.  The powers that be realize it at the top, and are chopping away to make the experience fun, fan friendly, and different than what it has been in the past, but they can’t do it alone.

So enter Lone Star Park near Dallas, Tx.  The track continues to draw well on most days, and like other tracks that are looking to market, has gone the way of promotions, concerts and other events to draw in casual fans, families and others who may have misconceptions about a day at the races.

However even with all that effort, the press box remained unclaimed territory, and the track’s social footprint was nil. Some may say the reason for no social footprint  was reflective of a clientele that is graying with little use or knowledge of anything digital. However even an older population is now more digital savvy, and to ho and het younger you have to fish where the fish are.   

Enter Chris Yates and his team at Huddle Productions.  A long time television producer, Yates worked with Lone Star to take over the press box and use it as a social media center for those around the track, and for a new audience of casual fans who may look to engage. The tie between races leant naturally to announcements  of how and what to do in the social space to learn more about all the goings on during race day. Mini cameras provided new video postings to websites with thrilling finishes and fan goings-in and promotional winners. Promotional boards once blank alerted followers to hashtags and Facebook pages, and strategic placements in the social space, working with anyone around the track who was already engaging in the medium from jockeys to bettors to concert acts, boosted the buzz and awareness of everything Lone Star.

Those in the stands are encouraged to upload video that Lone Star can post…have a birthday announcement, let’s have a jockey give you a shoutout.  Want some tips on the field in the third race, the social media team heads out to get some info, all of which is metered and shared with a world of engaged supporters around the Dallas area.

The result? Impressions on content when to three million in week one, a concert series which was doing OK, expanded its attendance, and Huddle brought value to even casual followers who never thought they would engage in the goings-on at a racetrack. The content was fun, informative and very promotable, with minimal cost and lots of upside.

Now the social press box or a blogger box is not new. It was really pioneered in the pro space by then Islanders PR head Chris Botta as a way to use the empty space he had, and Yates has taken that example and multiplied for Lone Star.  The goal for Lone Star is more affinity and awareness to its brand and the work at the track, with the hope even down the road of a brand latching on to the social traffic for its own promotions. Heck with some luck, Yates may even put himself out of business, if Lone Star’s numbers rose and they need to repurpose the space for spectators and brands, ala Churchill Downs.

However for now, a track that was short on non-traditional outreach found an enterprising niche to help expand its footprint, and show that the social in social media can have great value beyond the traditional marketing spend.

YUM! Posts A Derby Branding Win Too…

Saturday night millions watched on NBC as Orb overcame a very muddy track to win the Run For the Roses for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaghey.   The horse came from deep in the pack over the final quarter mile for the legendary win, and set himself and his owners up for two weeks of hype before the second leg of the Triple Crown, The Preakness Stakes comes along.

The Kentucky Derby remains the horse racing industry’s shining moment for the casual fan, and the kickoff to what the National Thoroughbred Racing Association hopes is a landmark summer that could lead through the Belmont stakes, into a long summer at parks across the country, and then to the Breeder’s Cup in California. Lots of ups and downs, millions gambled legally, and another attempt to continue to revive a business which has seen better days but us fighting to rebound with a new legion of fans.

One of those ways is to leverage its biggest windows with brands that may not have activated in the space for very long, and we saw that on Saturday, when Louisville based YUM! Brands took the presenting sponsor and lots of exposure to Churchill Downs. Now the YUM! brands…KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and others, spend millions in brand activation against sports over the course of the year, and at first glance, the Derby may have been seen as another engagement point, albeit with a slightly different audience that may tune in for the NBA or NFL or college football.  However this was not really what the YUM! partnership for the Derby appeared to be about.

The signage in some places mentioned the company’s consumer brands, but the primary placement, including on each horse, was for YUM! itself. The commercial spots during the race were about the company and its global franchises, not chalupas or slices of pizza. It was a call to action for corporate, not consumer. Why?

First, the support of the Derby, like the money spent on other projects involving sport and consumers around Louisville, helps solidify the company as good public citizens. Big time sports come to Louisville, YUM! supports and helps grow the tradition. Second, the Derby audience is different than most other events one of the YUM! companies would support. It is a little older, a little more global, and one which the dollar figures spent on the activity in gambling, are right up front. Maybe this audience is one that looks more to business buys than a traditional sports audience. So tell then your story. There was no direct pitch to come buy a franchise, but the message time and again became pretty clear. Here is what we are, here is who we are, here are out global faces that run our business, we are growing and maybe…you want to find out more.

Chances are most tuning in knew Stella Artois at least a little, and know what Longines is. But YUM? Maybe not. So the parent company used the opportunity not to sell tacos, but to sell itself.  It was an interesting play in corporate identity rarely seen on a big stage.  Not overt but clearly targeted to raise awareness not as much for thick crust or wings, but for selling a franchise or two.  Will it pay off? Hard to tell as there was not a collection point of data, at least publicly, and there was no place to drive interest either in signage or in broadcast.  Regardless YUM! showed they are good corporate citizens for Louisville with a desire to grow even bigger than they are, and they found an interesting audience to try and tell their story to.


Arching, Horsing Around, and Batting For A Cure…

Some brief thoughts on good ideas from the past week…

Is It Archery’s Time? A few months ago there was all this talk about how the world of archery could find its way into a brighter spotlight because of all the places the sport was popping up in popular culture. As we move towards London 2012, and have had Hawkeye rise to power in “The Avengers”, “The Hunger Games” trumpet female archery and now red-haired Merida showing her arrows off in the animated “Brave,” maybe grabbing an Olympic archer or two for a grassroots campaign would make a lot of sense for some brands looking for a bigger bang.  Olympic sponsors have gone up and down the list grabbing athletes for activation in the past six months, yet none have engaged anyone from archery, probably because the small sport may not be getting much NBC air time in the U.S. However the ability to tie an easily identifiable sport with pop culture could be a big draw for someone, maybe even an ambush marketer, looking for some quick exposure. Good time to watch the arrows fly.

Sitting In The Sulkie For Charity: Celebrity races are always fun, especially when they are tied to charity. So it was nice to see The Meadowlands Raceway tie a wide variety of local media hosts…from the Giants’ Anita Marks to ESPN radio’s Jared Maxx to MSG’s Tina Cervasio to WCBS’ Steve Overmeyer and others…to a wide variety of charities for the first-ever celebrity harness racing night. The two days used reporters with great presence on the radio and TV as well as a wide social following to get buzz and support for a simple concept…seeing who could actually have fun in a sport that has fallen off the map. It got the Meadowlands exposure, out money in a  charity pocket (WFAN radio’s Marc Malusis won the top dollars) and set the bar higher for other events going forward that can help the track draw casual viewers.

Batting For The Cure: Ed Randall is a baseball lifer. He is also a prostate cancer survivor. Together, his “Bat For The Cure” campaign, supported by Walgreens starts going on the road to hundreds of minor league ballparks this week, offering a the simple test and awareness of the disease.  It is tough to cut through the clutter and find a platform to inform, even with prostate cancer being so tough on men as they age, but Randall has combined his two passions to do good. even without huge corporate support. How? By using the relationships he has built as a reporter and show hoist over the years to beat the drum. As a result he has saved lives and built a brand that is powerful and engaging and worthy of even more support and best practice recognition. Hard work and belief in cause marketing pays off.

The Great Brand Run Of NBC Sports…

There was a time not too long ago where some in the sports and entertainment industry thought the sun had set on NBC Sports as a property. No NFL, Olympics in question, not a lot of forward movement, Comcast rumors of a takeover and on and on. Looking at NBC Sports as a property today that seems hard to imagine, and probably for brands and for casual fans the fact that those rumors were greatly exaggerated is a very good thing.

As Mike Emerick called the overtime on NBC Sports Network on Friday night for the Devils-Rangers, the promos and cross-promos that came across the screen showed how far brand NBC Sports has come. There was a robust MLS offering, the Stanley Cup Final, the potential of a Triple Crown, the Olympics, the Olympic trials, and lots of NBC Sports Talk. Factor in some poker, golf, Indy Car, the French Open, and the fact that Football Night in America transplanted American Idol in the TV ratings, nit to mention all the Comcast Sports-related assets down the line, and one sees a healthy, vibrant brand which runs from cable to broadcast and is growing its web presence as well. Maybe somewhere down the line a print presence and even more robust web-only elements complete the picture, but even without those tied in, it seems like a great time to be in and around 30 Rock if you like games these days.

Now of course none of this was done overnight, the executive team over the years looked at how to cultivate emerging sports like the Dew Tour and Poker After Dark and even developed a dog show stand-alone property. They forged a landmark relationship with the NHL that made the two true partners with incentives to grow together (along with a new tentpole event in The Winter Classic), and of course the rebranding of and reprogramming of VERSUS made the causal fan aware even more of what an NBC Sports offering looked and felt like.

Are there more mountains to climb for the brand? Sure. Ironing out whatever comes next with Comcast Sports and their regionals, looking at the ever-growing market of college football, integrating with a robust entertainment side and evolving even more with a web and mobile presence are all in the mix. However to watch where the brand is today and how it has evolved beyond “just” a programming channel is impressive, and is a credit to those with the vision and the ability to fight off the naysayers and create a proactive media brand.

Horse Racing, Boxing Reach A Window Together…Again

It is another test weekend for the star-crossed sports of horse racing and boxing, brought together to the stage in the form of the Kentucky Derby and Saturday’s Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Miguel Cotto fight on pay-per-view. In many ways it is not dissimilar from last May, when Manny Pacquaio’s win over Shane Mosley matched Animal Kingdom’s Kentucky Derby win amidst record attendance at Churchill Downs. In a year has much changed for the two former kings of the sports world, and can Saturday be a chance again for the two to step forward?

This time around the two sports are facing greater short term challenges for attention. The NHL and NBA Playoffs have had more drama than they gave had in years, and the UFC will bring a solid but not blockbuster card to free TV via FOX Saturday, and of course there is always baseball and various other May activities to contend with. Where will the casual fan go with their attention, and has either sport done anything in a year to raise their image to take advantage of the big stage?

In the case of horse racing the answer is yes. In the past year the NTRA and The Jockey Club have worked very hard to create awareness campaigns, new video programs, social media platforms and a series of studies to address the shortcomings of the sport. They have improved and streamlined their television coverage with partner NBC and have presented a more consistent and unified front which will help them in the long run. It has been a good year of laying the foundation to rebuild the sport from the public’s perspective with elements officials can control. The issues of abuse of horses, the viability of tracks and the increased attention on a daily basis for the sport remain problems that are being dealt with, but horse racing overall is stronger in leadership and vision than it was a year ago, and that can help lift the ship when the tide comes in, in the form of more casual viewers for a Triple Crown Saturday. Can there be better promotion of personalities like jockeys, trainers and horses over time? Sure. But those things will come and will be easier to do once we have a Derby winner who will hopefully be a compelling story, and maybe, maybe a Triple Crown contender. Microsoft jumping into the fold this week to use the Derby as a platform to pump their new phone on Hanson is certainly a refreshing sign that brands are taking notice of horse racing’s efforts, and that the future is brighter than it has been in a long while.

In boxing, the last year has really brought stagnation as the world waits for Pacquaio and Mayweather to meet. Talk of Top Rank bringing more fights to broadcast TV have not really gone anywhere, and the same routine of pay-per-view, even with the heavy hype and promotion of partners like HBO hasn’t done a great deal to really move the needle for the sport overall. Mayweather himself remains a promotional machine and a huge asset, but for the sport in general it seems to be stuck still in neutral, certainly not worse but not gaining steam as a brand in the eyes of the consumer or the industry. A blockbuster battle between the two superstars at some point could do it, but unlike horse racing, not much has changed in a year. Could a rise of excitement with the London Olympics change that?

It certainly couldn’t hurt. But right now, even with a telegenic star like Mayweather, the race between the ponies and the studs in the ring seems to be going towards the horses on the track.

Another March Madness?

As we get deeper into what has become one of the busiest weeks in sports, between March Madness, NHL, NFL Free Agency and the NBA Trading Deadline, let’s take a look at another entity which is looking to capitalize one the fervor of March Madness…one that already has the elusive prize of legal wagering on its side…horse racing.

Many naysayers think the Sport of Kings is dead, but those at the top are going to make a valiant run at reviving all involved by using technology, trying to draw casual fans, bringing new brands back to aggregate, and most importantly, using their leverage with legalized gambling to grow and enhance its footprint as the sport ramps up towards this year’s Kentucky Derby and beyond.

The Jockey Club (founded in 1894) is currently leading an array of business initiatives on behalf of the sport of Thoroughbred Racing – ranging from a televised racing series on NBC and NBC Sports Group Network a re-launch/rebrand of a website, alternative TV programming, creation of a free-to-play game and a social game, a scheduling tool for tracks to coordinate start times and an ownership website to serve as a central resource for horse owners. All of the above is designed to raise the mainstream profile, popularity and recognition for the beautiful sport of Thoroughbred Racing. Their first viral video around the campaign launched last week, designed to capture some fun and excitement and engage some casual fans vs. the more traditional, here is a look.

Also, later in March TJC will launch a Free To Play social game with a celebrity league component. Omnigon is the maker of the game and it will involve both Facebook and twitter social elements designed to teach folks how to wager on horseracing in a non-stressful and non-intimidating platform (using the poker model). Once folks gain confidence, the hope is they attend a race and wager or open an ADW account and wager from home.

Will all this re-branding help? Will it help draw a larger audience and bring folks back to the track, or will at least draw more people to their mobile devices to increase the betting pool? Will other sports look at what the NTRA and Jockey Club are doing and try and piggy back with casual games that can eventually lead to legalized wagering across the board? Will some new brands be energized enough at the potential of the project and find ways to engage with an audience they have now attached themselves too…maybe that audience is as much baby boomers as it is a younger audience, as boomers have as much time and disposable income in many instances as the younger crowd everyone else is courting. Regardless it is a smart move by racing to try and engage early, even with a crowded marketplace and start the momentum to build toward the Triple Crown. Hard to see if they can win the branding race yet, but at least they are making a push worthy of being at the starting gate.

Is All “Luck” Good For Racing?

The sport of horse racing has tried to right itself in the past year, and reverse the overall downward spiral that has befallen a once thriving industry. With solid turnouts, ratings and storylines for the Triple Crown, a renewed interest in the Breeder’s Cup, and a strong focus by the NTRA and The Jockey Club to find and implement more forward-thinking, technologically savvy and fan friendly programs, horse racing as started to enter back a bit into the consciousness of the casual fan. It will be a slow turn, but the recognition of change along with greater outreach and cohesive management, is a next, and hopefully great step.

So into the mix this winter comes “Luck,” a new HBO series created by David Milch and starring Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina and a cast of others. The series is built around Hoffman’s character, Chester “Ace” Bernstein, a paroled and profitable organized crime figure, and the trials and tribulations of all those around Santa Anita race Track. Milch’s wildly popular success with “Deadwood” could bring back another solid audience to the new series, and with it maybe help lift the profile of racing even more going into the spring. The only problem is that “Luck,” in the vein of popular series like “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire,” appears to be all about the more seamy side of the characters and their lives, and thus far has portrayed the sport as what many perceive it to be…filled with down on their luck individuals showing up to sparsely filled racetracks amidst a backdrop of gambling, violence and unsavory behavior. “Seabiscuit” and “Secretariat” it is not. What is even more curious is that Santa Anita, a beautiful track, allowed its name to be used in the show tied to such dark themes. The thought is probably that all publicity and exposure, especially with such stars, is a good thing. However it runs counter to the philosophy that many major entities in professional sport have taken in recent years, forgoing brand exposure for brand protection.

The NFL passed on involvement with the ESPN series “Playmakers,” and Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday.” The NHL never came close to supporting the upcoming film “Goon” or the wildly popular “Slapshot.” MLB is careful to defend its marks. Even the UFC, with its careful brand protection, chose not to support the Oscar-nominated “Warrior,” despite its very positive reaction from the MMA community. Arenas like Madison Square Garden and Fenway Park constantly turn away scripts which may portray the venerable buildings in a negative light. However Santa Anita went ahead to have its name used in “Luck.” Great for the series, not so sure for the sport of the track.

Now all is not lost for the efforts with “Luck.” Last week the NTRA and the Jockey Club announced a series of education programs to combat the negative stereotypes put forth by “Luck,” including a series of online chats each Monday at 9 PM Eastern/6 PM Pacific with the hashtag #LuckChat. The purpose is to create an interactive forum where “Luck” viewers who are unfamiliar with horse racing can better understand the jargon and various racing activities featured in the show and hopefully supplant some of the negative sterotypes portrayed. The show will also get loads of free exposure for the track and hopefully will bring some of the positive stories (and the beauty of racing) to the forefront as the series evolves. It may also bring even more curiosity and exposure to racing, and create enough casual interest to combat the negative and bring more folks out to the track. All of that is TBD.

What is positive for horse racing is the renewed efforts of leadership to stem the tide with more aggressive and forward thinking campaigns designed to reach a new audience. Whether “Luck” helps that effort remains to be seen, and will probably be based more on the success of the show than anything the industry can do either way. The series will draw attention, and attention for a sport that is trying to rally is a good thing. Whether the attention is positive or negative will play out over time, and if it is negative it can hopefully be offset bu another solid spring and other tracks across the country.

And off we go.

Tebowing Lifts Horse Racing Too?

Branch Rickey had a Hall of Fame career as an innovator in the sport of baseball, but will probably known best for his work bringing Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues and forever changing the racial makeup of the game. A voracious reader and deep thinker, Rickey also left the business world of sport with a wide ranging blueprint for success, not just on the field and in the boardroom, but in life itself, and his credos for success are legendary. One of the best is: “Luck is the residue of design.”

While it is true that maybe in sports more than any other area, a little luck can either help or hurt the best laid plans, being ready for that shining moment takes all the right planning and foresight to bring success forward. A great example of luck, timing and shrewd positioning is playing out now in the ever lucky world of thoroughbred racing, where some very entrepreneurial investors are looking to ride the arm and the cult-like success of one of the fall’s biggest stories…Tim Tebow…to a sports business success of their own.

The company is Little Red Feather Racing, and they are trying to apply what they call “Moneyball” economics to the high stakes game of horse sales by combining traditional breeding skills with a higher level of marketing and enterprising thought to help drive interest in dollars on one of their prime recent purchases. The horse in question comes from prime stock… Fusiachi Pegasaus and Eyes Aglow…and she was well regarded with lots of potential when she was sold recently at the Keeneland Sales. However what has set apart interest in the unproven filly? Maybe some breeding, maybe some planning in her training, but the key interest has been in her name…Tebowing.

LRF had the foresight not just to see the tizzy being created around the popular, underdog Denver Broncos QB, but to put their quick thought and assets to work. The marketing in their syndication sale was not just to those with a passion for racing, but to a larger audience who would like to take a small chance on a horse that could have great popular culture appeal before she even steps on the track to race. The syndication price and the unique buzz generated have resulted in almost unprecedented interest in an unproven filly by a group that is not among the most well known syndicators in the sport. However what they have done is seize the opportunity in popular culture and social media to created an opportunity for a casual sport fan who may aspire to be involved in something larger, and other than owning part of a professional sports team there is little else that could be more aspirational than standing in the winner’s circle with a thoroughbred.

Of course it is still an elite sales proposition with a great amount of uncertainty, and to date only half of the horse has been sold (start the jokes about whether it is the front or the back half that people have purchased). However what Tebowing…the horse…has done is to bring more attention to the sport by the casual fan at a time of year when racing is not top of mind, and that little pop is certainly a win, regardless of how the filly ends up doing in her career. A little luck and some great design would make Mr. Rickey proud of Little Red Feather Racing.