NTRA | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

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.


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.

New Jersey Hedges Its Bets…

Lost on the national sports scene Tuesday night, amidst the rising scandal at Penn State and the NBA lockout non-news, was the vote by Garden Staters to legalize sports betting in the State if the Federal Ban on such activities can be overturned. Right now Nevada and its casinos remain king of legal sports books, with New Jersey and other states where other forms of casino gambling are legal remain on the outside. While it remains a long road to legalization, the overwhelming vote by the citizens of the state, a state with more professional teams in the area than any other place in the country, if not the world, could be a boon to a struggling state infrastructure which once relied heavily on the casino and racing industries for a large share of the tax dollars. With the economy changing, the emergence of casinos in other states, the change and decline in horse racing and the advances in multiple state lottery systems, those large scale streams of income have gone the way of the dinosaur.

Professional sports leagues will continue to lobby against a New Jersey sports book. Nevada, with no professional teams, is seen in many circles as almost a safe haven for sports betting. New Jersey, with not just the Jets, Giants, Nets and Devils but with all the Philly and New York teams in close proximity, could be seen by many as wrought with issues and potential corruption. Those on the ‘pro’ side of the gambling issue see those teams in proximity as a huge plus for dollars spent, hotels used, and taxes earned. There is also the issue of college sports gambling. Again Nevada, with the University of Nevada (in Reno) and UNLV as the state’s only Division I programs, has a small percentage of local college action that is not on the official sports book. New Jersey, between Rutgers, Monmouth, Seton Hall, St. Peter’s, even NJIT, and all the New York and Philly area schools, could again pose a larger issue for regulators. Boxing, king in Las Vegas, along with MMA, pull in large dollars. New Jersey could look to also re-raise that tide and appeal with large scale fight cards more than ever. So the debate will rage in, with lobbysts on both sides pleading their case.

From a sports branding standpoint, the dollars that could flow into the State, along with jobs and technology opportunities could be a windfall. Simulcasting has tried to keep race tracks moving along when meets have been shortened, in an attempt to bring more dollars in. a sports book at places like the Meadowlands and Monmouth would boost attendance, dollars and jobs. The flailing casinos in Atlantic City would get more interest, the ones doing well would drive their dollars upward. More dollars and more people mean larger brand spends and promotions in and around the tracks and casinos, which also lifts the bottom line. The casual dollars going elsewhere could now flow into a suffering local economy.

Would the worry of a criminal element or corruption come to be real for professional and collegiate sports? Nevada seems to have faired well with an increasing number of collegiate events, and the NBA All-Star Game did OK in the city. The biggest issue with Las Vegas not getting a team these days seems to be more economic than because of gambling…the base economy of tourism may not have the solid corporate base to support large numbers of suites that would need to be sold for large revenue. Yes, casinos would provide some of the seats to be filled, but in the end casinos want people in their casinos, not watching hoops or hockey. Rest assured, any sports book in New Jersey would be heavily scrutinized and regulated, with the leagues, especially the NFL, watching every step of the way.

New Jersey is not Nevada, and the lessons learned in the rise and fall of the casino industry has shown that. Las Vegas has re-invented itself time and again as a travel destination city, with gambling as the backdrop. Atlantic City has not. Would the sports book be the catch for all that ails the State? No. Would it be an intriguing partial answer for tourism and revenue? Probably. Would it cause more headaches to a state already with enough issues with corruption? Hard to tell. What about all those pro and college games in such proximity, would they all be off the board, which could curtail interest greatly? To Be Determined. One thing is clear though. The citizens of the state spoke pretty loudly Tuesday night, and they would like to place their bet on sports books to help raise revenue. If it can clear the federal hurdle, not an easy one by any stretch, it will certainly be an interesting sports business study to see how new age technology and old school sports wagering can re-invent themselves together in the Garden State, a bet that not too long ago continued to be a long shot, but one whose odds suddenly improved this week.

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.