Sports branding: How many brands can horse racing carry?

June 5, 2014

The final leg of the Triple Crown will be run this Saturday, June 7. If California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes, he will be the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to become a Triple Crown winner, joining an elite membership of only 11 horses. While the declining sport of Thoroughbred horse racing can still attract the sponsorship of well-known brands with large advertising budgets, such as Yum! Brands, NBC Sports, and Pepsi, it really only gets media and spectator attention for five short weeks each spring during the Triple Crown.

The Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing is comprised of three races for three-year-old Thoroughbred horses in the United States. These three races include the first race or jewel of the series, the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky; the second is the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland; and finally the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, just a short train ride from New York City. A horse must win all three jewel races to become a Triple Crown winner, the highest accomplishment in the sport.

As opposed to many other professional sports, Thoroughbred horse racing doesn’t follow the traditional rules of branding. While I have attended the Belmont Stakes three or four times and will do so again this year, I never considered what league or governing body actually held the Triple Crown until California Chrome’s recent controversy over whether he could wear breath-enhancing nasal strips at the Belmont came up.

If California Chrome could use breathing strips at the races in Kentucky and Maryland, why not New York? Why did the Belmont racing officials and New York Racing Association get to weigh in on such a heavy decision? That would be like LeBron James being able to wear a wrist guard in Miami but not in Oklahoma City; the National Basketball Association would never allow this discrepancy. But, in the sport of Thoroughbred racing, there is no governing body.

Unlike Major League Baseball who crowns a winner each season with the World Series or the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup, the Triple Crown series is not regulated by a single governing body. Instead, each state in which the three jewel races are run has an agency that is charged with the responsibility of regulating the conduct of horse racing. No one governing league, or some may argue no one masterbrand regulates this “Test of the Champion.” That is why it was up to the New York Racing Association to determine California Chrome’s request for breathing strips. Speaking of branding, this could be the prefect situation for Breathe Right Nasal Strips to capitalize on a very unique branding opportunity.

Unlike in other professional sports where fans anticipate the return of their favorite star player each season, Thoroughbred racehorses--the “star player”—if you will--only have one year to bring home the title. Outside of repeat owners, trainers or jockeys, there is no returning champion in the Triple Crown. Each year there is a new cast of characters, three-year-old Thoroughbreds with some really memorable names. I think maybe the horses are better branded (not literally) than the sport. Consider Secretariat as a masterbrand, his descendants are sub-brands with a lot of brand recognition and value solely based on lineage to the masterbrand.

Based on the structure of this racing series and lack of one governing body to continuously promote the sport throughout the year, any media hype is easily lost if the Derby winner doesn’t also win the Preakness, resulting in no chance of a Triple Crown winner that year. Does this also hurt the brand value or at least sponsorship and viewership of the last race of the series, the Belmont?

From a branding perspective, would the Triple Crown and the whole horse racing community benefit from a single governing body or league? Many bookies and breeders might be shaking their heads no, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

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