Delta Makes The Sports World Smaller

About eight years ago, Emirates Airways, looking to find a way to start connecting with an American sporting audience, joined forces with the Breeder’s Cup as a key sponsor. At the time, some looked at the partnership as a stretch by the airline, which had little presence in the United States but a bigger tie to the Gulf States patrons who also were heavily investing in horse racing while American breeders were leaving the business. Patronage at its best.  Really?

Today, the Dubai based airline operates four of the world’s ten longest non-stop commercial flights from Dubai to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, and Houston and is continuing its push into the American marketplace. It also never stopped expanding its sports sponsorship, taking the title sponsorship of tennis’ US Open Series to go along with its extensive golf, horse racing, soccer and cricket partnerships. The Breeders Cup was just a first step into brand integration in the United States, a very cost-effective move that is part of a growing strategy.

So it is with that knowledge of history that is should come as no huge surprise that Atlanta-based Delta Airlines, looking to grow its footprint outside of the United States, aligned itself with the storied mega-club Chelsea this week, becoming the club’s official airline partner. Delta, already a sports branding stalwart in the United States with deals with the New York Yankees, the Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings, the New York Mets and the Minnesota Vikings among others, will leverage the Chelsea partnership to link a solid U.S. base not just to Europe but well beyond, using Chelsea as the bridge.

From a timing standpoint, the deal makes even more sense, as Chelsea comes to the U.S. for a series of “friendlies” in July and Americans venture abroad for London 2012, giving a wide runway to market on both sides of the Atlantic to a sports-savvy public. The implementation of a strong social media component, something that a few years ago would not have been available to bolster such a partnership beyond geographic borders, will add even more to a spend that is truly global for a solid  American brand.

More importantly for other brands who might have been gun shy in understanding the global sports marketplace vs. just the North American landscape, the deal shows that it is becoming more and more accepted to create high level partnerships in sport that transcend borders and cultures. While the airline might not start by sponsoring a Chelsea bobblehead night, it will find ways to tap into the club’s loyal supporters for activation in the mobile space and with any other series of evolving promotions. Delta’s move follows the deal General Motors signed with Manchester United in May, the first large-scale American sports sponsorship in the Barclay’s Premier League. Delta’s was the second, and it certainly won’t be the last.

So what does this type of brand expansion mean for American sports organizations? Trouble? Not really. It probably means that the global marketplace is even more wide open for brands like an Emirates Airways to finally tap into the American sports landscape for brand extensions, just as Delta and GM have now done in the UK. Social and digital media have helped to create opportunities and break down barriers to entry for brands in new marketplaces which leads to greater possibilities and a larger potential marketplace. It is certainly not for the small scale spend, but for a society that is becoming more and more diverse along with being more sports business savvy the potential for unique deals is greater than ever before.

Emirates may have been one of the first to the race with the Breeders Cup, a sponsorship that at the time raised eyebrows, but it may have opened a visionary floodgate that other brands now appear to be ready to sprint through.

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.

Horse Racing, Boxing Share A Day And The Same Crossroads…Again.

They are sports driven by gambling dollars and the big event, and they have spent years trying to reconnect with the heyday of the past. Saturday boxing, in the form of Manny Pacquaio and Shane Mosley’s title bout, and horse racing, with the Kentucky Derby, will again take center stage in sports and try and use these elite events to resurrect their businesses. Can they?

Well the good news is that despite the alphabet soup of governance, the fractured leadership, and the migration to other sports by the casual fan, both sports remain on the edge of the public eye, and both have tremendous untold stories, especially in the markets that are growing fastest in this country, Hispanic and African American. They also both have the looming issue of gambling, both positive and negative, that can draw both ire and interest from the public and the media. Tainted sports? Yes. An upside for brands looking to engage or leadership willing to consolidate? Absolutely. Now boxing seems to be making the biggest strides towards resurrection. Promoters like Top Rank and Golden Boy have looked to professionalize their business sides, taking chances on new marketing partnerships (Top Rank’s cross promotion of the fight tonight with CBS is a great example, chronicled by the Sports Business Journal this week) and non-traditional ways to promote in an effort to use the big fight to lift the overall business. The sport’s violence and the athleticism of its elite fighters always draws a crowd and buzz, and the upsurge in interest in the UFC has actually helped pull boxing back into the brand discussions, which is counter to what many thought would happen with the rise of MMA.

Horse Racing is a different story, but one with solid potential. The horses, the jockeys, the owners, the tradition still remain largely untold outside of the Triple Crown and the Breeders Cup. Online gambling and an aging population has taken its toll on the tracks, and public funding in once profitable places like New Jersey has dried up a thriving business. There is little activation in the social media space and rumors of corruption always abound. Yet the sport thrives around the world, the excitement of the race and the pageantry of race day still exists, and the upside for thoroughbred racing to combine efforts to better educate fans and capture attention consistently still is very much in play. Maybe not at hundreds of tracks 365 days a year, as happened in years past, but certainly with a focused, consistent schedule that makes sense to the casual fan.

Brands will turn out Saturday for both events, as will casual fans on site and watching on TV. NBC’s consolidation of the Triple Crown makes great sense, and a younger, more savvy group of owners in horse racing can help drive change and consistency there as well. Both sports have opportunity…again…and at their core they are understood by the casual fan. What is needed is 21st century marketing and branding on a consistent level that uses the big event to drive the growth of the sport. Will it happen? Time will tell, as will leadership. Regardless it should be a great day of viewing.