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.


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.

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.

Next Steps…Horse Racing and Boxing…

The weekend brought more hope for boxing and horse racing…again. Manny Pacquaio’s win over Shane Mosley continued to raise his stature in the sports and entertainment world, while Animal Kingdom captured the Kentucky Derby with great fanfare and record attendance. So what’s next?

In boxing, the next step for Top Rank’s integrated marketing approach should be a renewed and expanded agreement with CBS and all its broadcast arms. The pre-event promotion boxing received as a feeder for the pay-per-view event was a positive not just for the sport, but for all the brands associated with Top Rank and Pacquaio, and the exposure for his next big fight should grow exponentially for all involved. The downside of boxing is there is no immediate next result for the champion…that takes months to hatch and market. However the positive side is that same hype machine, which can take the champ on an extended media tour to help grow sponsors and the sport in the coming weeks. All of that positive energy should feed not just into Pacquaio’s next fight, but into other subsequent bigger cards that can also be promoted. Now CBS is not about to jump whole-hearted into the boxing business, although Saturday’s promotion bodes well for future cross brand and channel promotions. Maybe there will be a championship fight back on broadcast TV at some point, but for now using broadcast promotion to build to a big pay per view still makes great sense, and Saturday’s event could now be a solid framework for the sport and its better promoters to build off of.

On the horse racing side, the exciting win at the Derby creates a bridge to The Preakness, and could lead to a month of hype toward the Belmont Stakes. The large window NBC created to promote the race Saturday was encouraging, but leveraging that window across all the NBC Comcast platforms…news, sports and entertainment…leading to The Preakness will not be easy. The competition with a well planned multiplatform effort by the NHL for the Stanley Cup playoffs will be a challenge, as will access and managing the various story lines consistently leading up to the race. A few years ago UPS seized the popularity of Big Brown by creating a successful sponsorship platform around the horse during its Triple Crown bid, could a brand find a home with Animal Kingdom and its jockey, owners and trainer to seize the moment? More importantly can the sport itself find ways to harness Saturday’s buzz and translate it into positive messaging for the sport overall? Time will tell, but record crowds and excitement certainly can’t hurt.

The obvious difference between boxing and horse racing from Saturday is time. Boxing has a charismatic champion to build off of for months, horse racing must seize the moment now. Regardless, Saturday again showed the value of the big event in sports and the potential leverage it can have with brands and the public. Now the leverage must be translated into results.

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.