SBJ/March 20 - 26, 2006/This Weeks News

Sponsors balk at Triple Crown

Horse racing’s Triple Crown will likely be run this year without a title sponsor for the first time in nearly 20 years, after talks with Anheuser-Busch broke down over several issues, the biggest of which is the fact that the three races will be split over two television networks.

Visa had sponsored the Triple Crown for 10 years
but announced last year that it would not renew the
deal and would instead sponsor the Kentucky Derby.
With the Kentucky Derby, the first race in the three-race series, set for May 6, securing a sponsor for the three races is now unlikely, said Ed Seigenfeld, executive vice president of Triple Crown Productions. “It would seem highly improbable at this late date,” he said. The Triple Crown has had a title sponsor since 1988.

Sources said Triple Crown officials had been in talks with A-B about making its Bud Select brand the title sponsor of the three races — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. An Anheuser-Busch spokesman would not comment. Seigenfeld would not identify the would-be sponsor, but said it was “a major, major company.”

Without a title sponsor, there will be no $5 million bonus offered to the owner of any horse that wins the three races. There has not been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Visa had sponsored the Triple Crown for 10 years, but announced last year that it would not renew the deal, but would sponsor the first race in the series, the Kentucky Derby, for five years. Louisville, Ky.-based Churchill Downs announced last month that it had also sold a presenting sponsorship to the Derby, which is a higher level sponsorship than the new Visa deal, to Yum! Brands Inc., parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

Seigenfeld said that sponsorship commitments of the other tracks was one issue that made it difficult to sign a Triple Crown sponsor. “If someone has a commitment to XYZ company, it is hard to bring a Triple Crown sponsor in above them,” he said.

Seigenfeld would not comment on specifics, but sources said that Churchill’s deals with Visa and Yum! were an issue because the companies had taken some of the valuable inventory that a Triple Crown sponsor would normally get during the telecasts of the race, according to one source.

For example, when Visa had the Triple Crown sponsorship, the pony riders, who bring each of the Kentucky Derby horses to the starting gate, and the assistant starters, who load the jockeys and horses into the gate, wore large Visa logos on their jackets. Under Churchill’s new deals, the Yum! Brands logo will be on the pony riders’ jackets and the Visa logo will be on the assistant starters’ apparel.

Sources have said the old Triple Crown sponsorship
price tag was in the range of $20 million to $25 million
over five years, and that Triple Crown was
seeking an increase over that price.
Churchill Downs spokeswoman Julie Koenig Loignon said she did not know if the Yum! or new Visa deals were obstacles in getting a Triple Crown sponsor, but she said that the signage and other inventory that Yum! has under its deal was not the same as what Visa had when it was the Triple Crown sponsor.

“We had reserved space for signage — temporary and permanent — for a Triple Crown sponsor,” Koenig Loignon said. She added that the Yum! deal did take up advertising inventory during the broadcast on NBC, “but we feel comfortable in securing additional inventory if we identify a Triple Crown sponsor.”

Bill Nader, senior vice president of the New York Racing Association, which owns Belmont Park, said “As far as a lack of a sponsor, I think it’s somewhat surprising, because Visa had a tremendous run with the Triple Crown. I think it’s one of the most coveted prizes in all of sports and the next horse who wins it is going to be one of the major sports stories of the year.”

NBC Sports has broadcast rights to the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes through 2010. NYRA announced in 2004 that the Belmont, which has garnered the highest television ratings in years where there has been a Triple Crown contender, would go to ABC.

NYRA broke away from Triple Crown Productions to negotiate its own deal because NYRA officials were unhappy that Churchill Downs was receiving a higher percentage of television revenue under the old deal. Churchill had received 50 percent of television rights fees, versus 25 percent for Magna Entertainment Corp., owner of Pimlico, where the Preakness is run, and 25 percent for NYRA. (The Kentucky Derby typically gets the highest ratings in the years in which there is no Triple Crown contender.)

Nader said he did not think that the situation of the Belmont being on a different network “was an impediment in trying to find a sponsor.”

But Seigenfeld said that was, in fact, the biggest obstacle. “The fact it will cross over to from ABC to NBC makes it tough,” he said.

Barry Frank, vice chairman of IMG Media, agreed that it would be difficult for Triple Crown to sell the sponsorship with the races on two networks. “Because NBC, which owns the first two races, is not going to promote in any shape or form the Belmont. A sponsor does not have the full benefit if you don’t have the three races on one network,” he said last week.

Chip Campbell, senior vice president of television and sponsorship for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said, “The problem with having the Triple Crown on more than one network is not a financial problem, it’s a promotional problem. No one will promote the other guy’s net, so it’s that much more difficult to promote the Triple Crown as an entity. You won’t have the sponsorship muscle a single sponsor can provide where they are hammering home the Triple Crown message with themed TV ads. And short of a Smarty Jones or a Triple Crown winner, the sport needs the help an overall sponsor could provide.”

Seigenfeld said the other factor hurting the sale of the Triple Crown sponsorship was the price of it. “We are not an inexpensive proposition,” he said, though he would not reveal the asking price.

Sources have said that the old Triple Crown sponsorship price tag was in the range of $20 million to $25 million over five years, and that Triple Crown was seeking an increase over that price.

Seigenfeld said that Triple Crown Productions and Velocity Sports & Entertainment, an outside sports marketing firm hired by the company, will continue to try to find a sponsor, but are now focused on finding one for 2007, not 2006.

Terry Lefton contributed to this report.

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