CHANGING THE FACE OF SPONSORSHIP IN HORSE RACING

By Hans Ebert

Almost two decades ago, a group of us, including a few jockeys from the land Down Under then riding in Macau, were talking about sponsorship- the sponsorship of jockeys, and how this could work. The discussion didn’t get further than whether a sponsor’s logo should appear on a helmet, down, or on the backside of britches. It was small talk over a very long lunch at our regular meeting place-California in Lan Kwai Fong. But like the idea of launching the legendary Diddling Didham Tongue Scraper, this, too, disappeared into the haze of an even longer night by which time most of us were well and truly stuffed and couldn’t even inhale a wafer.

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Over the years, the same subject- sponsorship- has come up only to have cold water poured over it with reasons like, “There can’t be any advertising when a jockey is wearing an owner’s silks”, “There won’t be many offers”, and the usual, “It’s not allowed”. Let’s just say that thinking about the subject has hardly evolved beyond idle talk during a long lunch.

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In 2016, there are pockets of advertising on jockeys in certain racing jurisdictions during race days, but nothing major or innovative like the walking, talking advertising billboard that is a David Beckham or a Lewis Hamilton or a Nadal, Serena Williams, Dhoni, Tendulkar, Ronaldo, Federer, or, in his heyday, Tiger Woods.

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Why? Well, one reason might be that there are agents who book rides for jockeys, but no bona fide international entertainment managers with marketing skills and influential roller decks who look after a jockey’s career- or that of a trainer, a stable, or even a horse that has sponsorship appeal. Chautaqua, anyone- and the team behind the rolling thunder of grey?

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When Simon Fuller went from producing the minor hit “19” by Paul Hardcastle to managing the Spice Girls and SClub7, then creating the “American Idol” juggernaut with its voting via texting being the USP that changed television singing competitions forever to then managing David Beckham, he changed the world of sports sponsorship.

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Today, apart from Brand Beckham- Becks, Victoria and their brood- Adam Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and the great Annie Lennox, LA-based Simon looks after the careers of Lewis Hamilton and Andy Murray through his X1X Entertainment.

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Recently named, Entrepreneur Of The Year, we have often talked about the extra media pizazz his entrée could bring to horse racing. But, to date, the chess pieces have barely moved. His reply has always been something along the lines that he “doesn’t understand” horse racing enough, that the market seems to be divided into “two types of gamblers”, and how someone else might be in a better position to move things along. Knowing Simon and his gentle politeness, it’s his way of saying, “Thanks, but, no thanks. I have too much on my hands, and can’t see the financial upside”. Fortunately, we agree to disagree, and the sponsorship of horse racing in 2016 has extremely good potential to go beyond “naming rights” for a Cup race with a few branded outdoor posters that few notice. It’s boring, it’s predictable and it’s as passé as racing tipping programmes where viewers lose.

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There was a time- the late Eighties- when Chivas Regal were pursuing a million dollar sponsorship deal involving a leading stable in Hong Kong by having the mafoos, aka strappers, wear branded jackets during the paddock parades.

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The thinking: Their major consumers- males aged 38-50- were racing fans. They religiously watched the races on television, and the amount of time spent on paddock parades, where mafoos wearing branded jackets would walk their charges around would give them more bangs for their buck than any 30-second television commercial. It was game changing marketing at that time by an advertiser and its ad agency. But like that McCartney song called “You Never Give Me Your Money”, the “funny papers” got in the way, greed came into play, and “the negotiations broke down”.

In the Eighties, Champion Hong Kong jockeys Tony Cruz and Gary Moore appeared in commercials for a local brand of casual wear called Giordano, where they drove around time in their Ferraris wearing the brand. Hardly ground-breaking creativity but it created immediate awareness. A few years later, outspoken Chinese racing host Tung Biu starred in a commercial for Kowloon Dairy Ice Cream, a brand owned by then-Chairman of the HKJC Alan Li. But for whatever reasons, endorsement deals featuring local racing personalities ended there.

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Like everything else, sponsorship- sports sponsorship and the endorsement deals offered to athletes today, is nothing like it was. It’s not only grown because of the online world, it’s become multi-dimensional, far more creative, and part and parcel of every sport. It’s all about winning over more and more of that consumer pie. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. Most of all, it helps bring the various sports and their sporting heroes closer to the thousands who support basketball, football, cricket etc.

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There’s the multi-million dollar global ad campaign where David Beckham endorses Haigh Club. Brands like Nike, Reebok and Adidas endorse every sporting star with a strong fan base. It’s strategic 24/7 marketing aimed at so many different consumers demographics. It has to, because one size- and one medium and one language- doesn’t fit all.

For horse racing, it’s no longer about having a logo somewhere on a jockey’s britches or helmet. It’s where and how a jockey’s image can be used outside of the racetrack. And again, times change, technology and the DIY world have changed the way everything is being consumed, and there’s a new breed of jockeys with huge sponsorship appeal. It just requires an open mind to see this, make it happen through third party partners not bound by corporate red tape, and how all the parts can help the whole: Horse racing.

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Amongst the jockeys, Joao Moreira heads the list. He’s the total package and many will be surprised as to how many global brands not associated with horse racing as yet, are tracking his career, and the way he handles, that, up to now, has been the racing media. Imagine for a second what one photograph featuring the Brazilian Magic Man with Lewis Hamilton could mean. Horsepower meets horsepower. And with the Olympics in Rio this year- and if that’s too soon- the popularity of almost all-things Brazilian in, especially cash-rich Asia, well, say no more except perhaps, Coffee, anyone with some nuts?

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Right behind him with sponsorship appeal are Hugh Bowman, Zac Purton, Tommy Berry, the eternally young Frankie Dettori if he can be forgiven his past indiscretions, boom Chinese female apprentice Kei Chiong, and with his magnificent CV that includes thirteen consecutive Hong Kong Jockey Premierships, Douglas Whyte. They might not wear sneakers, but all possess that “Just Do It!” Nike ethos.

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After becoming the first female to win the Melbourne Cup, Michelle Payne should have been on the cover of Time, had Lego recreating her history-making win, been interviewed on “Ellen” etc. But after a very short blast of publicity, the enormous endorsement potential was never realised. It remains a glaring example of how horse racing can often look a gift horse in the mouth… and keep staring at it.

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Of course, there are the detractors who will say, “Are you barking mad? Have you heard some of these blokes speak?” Well, to that, one can say, Ever heard David Beckham speak?

Of course, Brand Beckham doesn’t have to say anything. All he has to do is stand there. But, Brand Beckham and the Style Council didn’t happen overnight. It was created when the Beckhams moved to LA and started hanging out with then-husband and wife Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. It was part and parcel of image building- the Mohawk, the man bun, the shaved head, the tatts, the sarong.

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Meanwhile, Victoria Beckham was morphing from Posh Spice into a global style icon. Behind it all was Simon Fuller and his creative marketing knowledge- and knowing when to seize the opportunity.

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Before even thinking about the sponsorship of racing’s heroes, one cannot help but wonder if the sport has lost invaluable ground by not really marketing its own product in a language people understand, and through a strategy that speaks to today’s audiences. Is horse racing effectively communicating and wooing potential business partners and sponsors in a “voice”, and tone that’s likeable and attractive? Never underestimate the Likeable Factor. Often, it’s the X Factor missing in racing.

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Over the years, for instance, advertising agencies have been used to market the sport, but many have failed to go the distance. Why? One major reason is that too many racing executives have preconceived ideas of what “their” advertising should look like, and so want order takers and toadies. And no self-respecting Creative Director in an ad agency wishes to be associated with join-the-dots advertising. They want to win a Clio Award in New York or a Cannes Gold Lion and be admired and respected for their work by their peers. It’s good for them, it’s good for their clients.

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These days, there aren’t too many good advertising agencies that want to work with racing clubs. It’s no secret that some have even attended meetings with racing clubs for one reason: To fire them. An ad agency firing a client? It doesn’t happen often, but it does when creativity is crippled and those used to having their own way, attempt to force their ideas on professionals hired for their experience and track records in doing this job very well.

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This perception that racing clubs don’t understand or respect or need the creative community, and how to work with them, needs to be rectified. Fast. This can be done through hires capable of providing better briefs, hiring those who already understand strategy as opposed to gremlins undergoing on-the-job training, a clear approval system, and knowing all-too-well how a product created by committee always results in an eight-humped camel splashed in coats of many colours. Try to please everyone, especially those internally, and it’s as silly as selling Coppertone in Africa. The work produced by committee is often a dog’s breakfast- and its message is ignored by those it’s meant to reach: the end consumer. So why bother?

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Having said this, France Galop produces consistently brilliant work. It’s obvious there’s a team in place that trusts and respects each other. One would love to understand how all the parts always come together.

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Looking further afield, there is still no global year-round advertising campaign to promote horse racing. Everything is splintered with every racing club looking after its own backyard despite all the various industry conferences. What global racing industry from a consumer and sponsorship point of view? Surely there can be ongoing advertising and marketing campaigns for the sport that are part of an exchange programme where racing clubs think locally and act globally- and with one unifying message?

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Insular thinking, where racing clubs spend an inordinate amount of time talking to themselves, is hardly helping the sport expand its customer base through new and exciting ways of marketing the sport. It not only slows the process, there is no process nor progress. It’s everything being on Repeat. Over and over again.

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Thank Gawd for the HKJC’s Happy Wednesday brand, which has got this far- and well away from those days when it was called the baffling Sassy Wednesday- due to the unswerving support of the Club’s CEO, and a dedicated team wanting to see the brand evolve. Would it be everything it is- and everything else more it can be-without this type of support? And doesn’t this refresh the image of horse racing?

And here, we come back to the sponsorship of racing’s heroes. It depends on the definition of “sponsorship”. It’s understanding sponsorship versus endorsement deals, and how these and their opportunities are presented by third party partners with strong roller decks- not to only the usual suspects, but to all those brands and products out there with the marketing dollars and the databases and looking at something new to hang their name on- and in a way that will stand out from the clutter. Bring on that sport called horse racing. Make it relevant to these times.

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This entry was posted in DOUGLAS WHYTE, Hong Kong Jockey Club, Hong Kong Racing, Horse Racing, HORSE RACING AND SOCIAL MEDIA, JOAO MOREIRA, The horse racing industry, Tommy Berry, WINFRIED ENGELBRECHT-BRESGES, zac purton and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to CHANGING THE FACE OF SPONSORSHIP IN HORSE RACING

  1. James Mathers says:

    Hans
    An outstanding article. I truly hope the decision makers in Australia slowly read your article, digest it and take it further. Most of them are having trouble treading water and it shows! That’s not criticism, its fact.
    Thank you for showing them the way .
    James Mathers

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