SBJ/May 11 - 17, 1998/No Topic Name

NTRA seeks sponsorship win

Ripping a page from the Olympics marketing book, the newly formed National Thoroughbred Racing Association plans to sign up a top tier of approximately six major marketing partners who would enjoy an exclusive or preferred supplier relationship with a majority of the nation’s major racetracks, said NTRA Commissioner Tim Smith.

Smith said the NTRA is working on a plan to award top-tier, preferred-provider status to companies in six major categories—computers, telecommunications, automotive, beer, soft drinks and payment systems/credit cards.

"Obviously, with Visa’s relationship with the Triple Crown, we would like to talk to them first," Smith said, referring to Visa’s five-year sponsorship of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes races.

Smith did not reveal the names of any other potential sponsors, but he said the new horse racing league had made "two or three full-blown presentations" to companies and had made initial contacts with many more.

Since the NTRA is a start-up league, Smith expects the category sponsors would initially pay in the range of $100,000 to $1 million a year for the privilege of being a top-tier sponsor.

The NTRA began operations on April 1 with a mission to turn around declining attendance at tracks and declining interest nationally in thoroughbred horse racing. The NTRA has signed up 46 tracks that handle 86 percent of the money waggered on thoroughbreds in the United States, including top tracks Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park.

Smith, who was named commissioner and CEO of the NTRA in late April, said his plan to select six marketing partners is modeled after the Olympics TOP Program, in which a few sponsors are named to be exclusive providers in certain business categories. The concept, which was first used at the 1984 Olympics, gives a smaller number of corporations more exposure, said Smith, who designed the initial marketing plan for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

"We aren’t realistically talking about total exclusivity for all categories for all members tracks," Smith said. "However, we anticipate a majority of our member tracks and other [thoroughbred racing business] members will, in a short period of time, be buying very large quantities of goods and services through the NTRRA’s purchasing-agreement joint venture."

Jim Millman, CEO of Millsport Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based sports marketing agency said, "On paper it’s a fantastic plan." The key to the process will be how many tracks will commit to it, he said.

David Wilkinson, president of Wilkinson Group, a San Francisco sponsorship marketing group, agreed with that assessment. If Smith were able to get every track to agree to purchase from the preferred providers, it would be a "rare" achievement in the sports business. "You don’t see the 28 baseball teams sharing the same utility provider, the same food service provider," Wilkinson said.

He noted that more and more corporations want sponsorships that include direct business, not just signage and media time.

Smith said it may be several months until the NTRA is able to announce the marketing partner relationships. But he said he expects strong interest from major corporations because racetracks have a lot of purchasing muscle, spending a combined $50 million a year on telecommunications services alone.

To win a category, potential marketing partners should be prepared to "make an investment back in the marketing of the game," through sponsorship, media and promotional dollars, Smith said.

"If the industry is going to deliver a company millions and tens of millions of business on a consolidated basis, we think it is fair to ask for some reasonable, support of what we are trying to do in the marketing business," he said.

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Related Topics:

Churchill Downs Inc., NTRA

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