Saratoga Race Course Drives Sponsorships With Strong Attendance

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The unofficial start to the East Coast summer horse racing season began last week when America’s oldest sports venue kicked off its 40-day stretch of Thoroughbred racing. This year marks the 150th meet at Saratoga Race Course, which is considered by many as the top event of the year.

“The Spa” hosts the country’s elite horses, trainers and ownership teams competing during the season highlighted by 69 stakes races for a purse record of $18.85 million. National and regional companies serving as racetrack sponsors will primarily capitalize on attendance sizes to drive brand attention during meet. The large crowds at Saratoga are a good mix of locals, tourists, celebrities, those working in horse racing, as well as die-hard fans from around the world.

Saratoga’s opening weekend was a success with daily paid attendance averaging over 31,000 people. On Friday, the Opening Day on-track handle increased almost 8 percent from 2017, reaching $5,403,833 wagered. Live racing will continue six days a week — with Tuesdays off — through Labor Day.

“Having attendance on-site is crucial as a big percentage of revenue comes from food and beverage and VIP hospitality. Also, brands want to see a packed house,” said Ben Sturner, president and CEO of Leverage Agency, a full-service sports, entertainment and media marketing agency.

The New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) operates Saratoga Race Course and is responsible for selling sponsorships for the racetrack. The association is a nonprofit corporation that also operates Aqueduct Race Track in Queens and Belmont Park on Long Island. The list of 42 partners on NYRA’s website for Saratoga Race Course consists of both regional and national brands across different industries such as hospitality, beverage, financial, media, lifestyle and equine.

NYRA’s sponsorship deck states that Saratoga Race Course is among the leaders in professional New York sports attendance. Saratoga Today statistics show the racetrack averaged 28,088 in daily paid attendance during its 40 days of racing in 2017, resulting in a total paid attendance that reached 1,123,544.

“With consistent attendance every day of over 28,000 for more than a month and having premium customers at Saratoga, it’s a great sponsorship opportunity,” Sturner said. “People come from all over the country to make the pilgrimage to Saratoga and it’s an opportunity for a brand to get in front of upscale customers.”

To put these numbers in perspective, Saratoga had over 330,000 more in paid attendance than the NBA’s New York Knicks, who hosted 41 home games last season. The paid attendance at Saratoga totaled 500,000 more than the NFL’s New York Jets, who hosted eight regular season home games last year, and were ranked third in total NFL home attendance in 2017, ahead of the New York Giants. The track’s total paid attendance was 390,000 more than the NHL’s New York Rangers, who hosted 41 home games during their 2017-18 season at The Garden.

These attendance figures demonstrate that brand exposure at the racetrack alone is in-line with — or better than — other venues hosting professional sports. Although the NYRA declined to participate in this story, it can be assumed that proprietary partnership levels can reach six or seven figures, returning millions of dollars in publicity value.

Sturner, who has experience with horse racing clients, added, “To do a marketing activation at a racetrack you have to be creative and also interactive as horse racing differs from other sports. It’s such a social experience and you are on-site for a much longer time.”

RACETRACK AREAS

Different areas of the racetrack give partners the opportunity to serve as a title sponsor, position their branding, and/or provide exclusive offers to ticket buyers.

Saratoga Race Course is known for being a family-friendly venue, and last week announced Berkshire Bank as the official partner of the Saratoga Family Zone. Headquartered in Boston, Mass. with 35 locations within 50 miles of the track, the bank becomes the title sponsor of the area that offers families a smoke- and alcohol-free interactive area on the Saratoga Race Course grounds.

Elizabeth A. Mach, Berkshire Bank’s senior vice president, said in the press release, “This is a great opportunity for Saratoga to create a unique experience for fans and enrich its Family Mondays programming. Through our support of both the Family Zone and Family Mondays, we are honored to incorporate Saratoga’s premier family activities under the Berkshire Bank banner.”

Brand exposure includes digital infield LED billboard rotation, and permanent signage opportunities near the finish line, Paddock, Horse Path and Under-rail. In-person activations will incorporate product samplings, retail pop-up boutiques, displays, and data acquisition stations. Additional branding can be offered if a company serves as the title sponsor for a race, which includes signage during trophy presentations.

This year, the racetrack opened a private hospitality section called in the Grandstand called “The Stretch,” which features a two-tiered dining area, modern boxes, expanded bar, and more than 200 premium reserved seats. Per NYRA’s press release, the debut of The Stretch marks the first significant enhancement to the structure since the mid-1960s.

Dunkin’ Donuts, a longtime partner of the NYRA, recently announced that fans who purchase one premium reserved seat at The Stretch will save $10 on the purchase of a second reserved seat with a voucher available exclusively at participating Dunkin’ Donuts stores throughout the greater Capital Region of New York.

Eric Stensland, Dunkin’ Donuts integrated marketing manager, said in the announcement, “Saratoga Race Course is the summer place to be, and we encourage all racing fans to experience the excitement of The Stretch by taking advantage of the savings voucher available at Dunkin’ Donuts this season.”

The Stretch was sold out on Opening Day.

OFFICIAL BOURBON OF SARATOGA

Woodford Reserve, owned by Brown-Forman, became the Official Bourbon of Saratoga Race Course in 2016 and is currently under a three-year agreement. Chris Poynter, public relations and partnership manager for Woodford Reserve, says that their sponsorship with NYRA and Saratoga is a perfect combination.

“Our partnership with Saratoga will expose Woodford Reserve to tens of thousands of people during the 40-day meet,” he said. “Woodford Reserve sets in the heart of Thoroughbred country in Central Kentucky — and we are literally surrounded by horse farms. So, the equine industry and racing are part of our brand story and part of our DNA.”

Activations for Woodford Reserve include title sponsorship of two marquee stakes races, The Grade 1, $1.2 million Whitney Stakes on Saturday, August 4 and the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes on Saturday, August 25. Travers Day, which features the legendary Travers Stakes that was first run in 1864 and is the racetrack’s biggest attendance day of the season.

Poynter added, “we are honored to partner with Saratoga and to enrich the fan experience at the storied and historic racetrack.”

MORE ACTIVATIONS AND MEDIA

Additional sponsor activations include hospitality offers and the ability to brand promotional giveaways. Co-branded social media and fan engagement technology, including a new mobile app launched this year are other ways sponsors are benefitting from Saratoga’s popularity.

Opportunities for brand mentions and exposure can also happen through broadcast coverage of the meet. “Saratoga Live” broadcasts each racing day on Fox Sports 2, MSG+, Altitude, and NYRA networks. The broadcasts reach 65 million-plus homes regionally and nationally, according to NYRA. In addition to some races being aired on NBC Sports Network, NBC will air the Travers Stakes live on August 25.

There are many different ways for brands to earn a considerable return on their partnership investment with the NYRA. However, it’s clear that Saratoga’s strong attendance is the main driver of sponsorship value.

If opening weekend is any indicator, earning brand exposure around the track this summer will continue to be successful for the brands investing in partnerships with Saratoga Race Course.