SBD/Issue 33/Sports Industrialists

Catching Up With Breeders' Cup President & CEO Greg Avioli

Breeders' Cup President
& CEO Greg Avioli
If horse racing is the sport of kings, then this is the weekend when Breeders' Cup President & CEO GREG AVIOLI is king for a day.  Make that two days now that the event has added three Friday races to its lineup. Then again, no king has ever been asked to spearhead a 40% reduction in his organization’s expenses and personnel, all with the word “Interim” preceding his title. With the tag removed in April, Avioli continues to lead in a period of change and transition for the Breeders’ Cup. This year marks the first time the race will be held at Monmouth Park. Also, another new $1M race will be added next year at Santa Anita as the event’s presence on ESPN continues to expand. Staff Writer Preston Bounds caught up with Avioli on the eve of this year's event.

Current Residence: Split between Lexington and Manhattan.
Favorite Song: “Caravan” by VAN MORRISON.
Favorite Horse Racing Moment: TIZNOW winning his second Breeders’ Cup Classic a month after 9/11.
Favorite Sport Besides Horse Racing: Baseball (big Cardinals fan).
Best Horse Name Ever: MAN O' WAR.
Worst Horse Name: BODACIOUS TATAS.

Q: What is it like to hold a position where so much of your efforts are centered around one weekend a year?

Avioli: It can make you very nervous. There’s not a lot of room for error, particularly when you have an event that is held in the last week of October or the first week of November, where weather can play such a factor. These horses run rain or shine, but it will obviously be a better fan experience if we don’t have too much rain.

Q: What does the experience at the track provide that you can’t get from TV?

Avioli: The biggest single difference is the people around you and the excitement. Everyone in the stands is going to have a horse that they’re cheering crazily for. You can’t recreate that when you’re in your house.

Q: What can ESPN do for horse racing’s exposure and appeal that other platforms may not be able to do?

Avioli: The best thing that ESPN does for us is utilize all of their promotional aspects leading up to the event. If you look at the scroll on the bottom, they’ve been running since Wednesday all the horses that are pre-entered. Go back to last year, where they had the West Virginia-Louisville game two days before the Breeders’ Cup, and they kept panning over to the racetrack at Churchill Downs. One N.Y. Times columnist wrote that it looked like it was a three-hour paid advertisement for the Breeders’ Cup. It’s a thousand different ways that they can say the words “Breeders’ Cup” and explain it little by little to that coveted 18-49 demographic.

Q: What would characterize the perfect naming rights partner for the Breeders’ Cup?

Avioli: We envision the brand now as a luxury sports property. You could have the Rolex Breeders’ Cup or the Hermes Breeders’ Cup, something that connects. We bring not only the best horses in the world, but the richest and most successful people in the word to our event. We have titans of industry, rulers of countries and the highest of the high end when it comes to the owners and the breeders.

Q: Like any wager, there’s a risk/reward factor in changing the format of the event to two days. Give me some odds on that being well received.

Avioli: The first way you look is, are the horses going to come? And they did, so you can’t even bet on that. We had 31 horses entered in these three new races. The next question is, are the players going to want to bet on them? The challenge is Fridays are usually much smaller because so many more people are working, but I would say our odds of breaking some Friday wagering records are probably 5:2. We got some unexpected publicity for one of our Friday races, a sprint for the fillies and mares, with OPRAH WINFREY doing a nice feature on OPRAH WINNEY and her run to the Breeders’ Cup that aired this week.

Q: You made a lot of organizational change to the Breeders’ Cup and the NTRA with the word “Interim” in your title. What’s it like to conduct an overhaul like that with your own position not fully secure?

Avioli: I had worked in one capacity or another for the Breeders’ Cup for five years prior to that, so even though I was the interim CEO, I had a pretty good understanding of the business and a good relationship with the BOD. Our 13-person board has six billionaires, almost all of them self-made. It’s a group that does not suffer fools lightly. You need to come to work every day with your game face on, so in some ways the Interim title was an excellent way to focus every day because you knew you didn’t have an indefinite period of time to get things done.

Q: JOE TORRE is going to present the trophy for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. How did that come about?

Avioli: I think we were the first call to him when it was announced that he was unable to reach an agreement with the Yankees. Joe has said he wants to do it, but there is one conflict he is trying to rearrange and if he can, he’s going to be here. He loves the races. One of the two things he wants to do going forward is watch more horse races. I was a huge fan of his growing up. He played for and managed the Cardinals. Just a class act all around.

Q: If Torre can’t make it, who’s your first alternate for celebrity trophy presenter?

Avioli: HILARY DUFF. She is filming a movie about ten miles from here with ELLEN BARKIN, and we’re in discussions with her right now as a backup.

Street Sense Favorite
To Win Breeders' Cup Classic
Q: Who do you like in the Classic?

Avioli: I’ll answer that a different way. We have an amazing game that we just launched on our Web site that will allow you to run all of these races any way you want to. It has all of the past performances and stats of every horse. So you can decide, "I want this horse to go fast, this one to go slow," and you can ride the horse and watch the race unfold. I have done this a number of times, and the horse that appears to win the majority of them, no matter how you set the conditions, is STREET SENSE. From a marketing perspective, there would be some real value to Street Sense completing this unprecedented trifecta of winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the Kentucky Derby, and coming back and winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Q: What sports business story are you currently watching closely?

Avioli: I have my eye on what is going on with the ATP tennis tour and the match-fixing allegations. Gambling is such an integral part of our sport, and when we see any sort of game-fixing or corruption allegations in sports and gambling, that immediately draws my attention. We still haven’t heard exactly what happened. I was impressed with the response from all of the various tennis bodies when they set up their integrity commission.

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