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Saratoga Race Course Drives Sponsorships With Strong Attendance

Saratoga Race Course has become a popular destination for brands to activate unique sponsorships in front of a captive audience.

Chris Daley

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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.

Chris Daley has been working in the public relations and marketing industry for 15 years. During his career he has worked across different sports, including horse racing. He is currently the Principal/Founder of the communications agency, Whirlaway and serves as an adjunct business communication faculty member at Stevenson University. For seven years he worked with Sagamore Racing, a Thoroughbred racing operation based at historic Sagamore Farm in Maryland.

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Celsius Makes Esports Inroads With Echo Fox Partnership

After making its name in the traditional sports sphere, Celsius is ready to take on the esports industry with its first sponsorship deal.

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Celsius EVP of Marketing Matt Kahn never had imagined esports as a potential partner opportunity. Founded in 2004, the performance energy drink company has surged in the energy drinks space by positioning itself adjacent to the traditional fitness industry. But when the esports organization Echo Fox approached Celsius about a partnership, it only took a little research for Kahn to realize that a sponsorship made a lot sense.

“They professed to drink it while in training and tournaments,”  Kahn said. “I wasn’t shocked but found it super-interesting that these players are terrific athletes in their own right and need to focus for hours.”

According to Kahn, esports reached an audience of 335 million people globally in 2017 and is expected to grow to a market of more than 600 million by 2023. Meanwhile, brand investments — media rights, advertising and sponsorships — in esports are expected to reach nearly $900 million this year and jump to more than $1.5 billion by 2022. Those were exciting numbers for a brand that plays in a relatively new performance energy drink space, Kahn said. Competitors include brands like Bang and Monster Energy’s recent Reign product.

READ MORE: Blast Pro Series Debuts in U.S. with Fan Focused Esports Tournament

“It’s new for us,” Kahn said. “But having done the research into the industry and being a student of business and marketing and a sports lover, the category is exploding.”

Prior to the partnership with Echo Fox, Celsius stayed close to the core athletic segment it felt their product aligned with best. Celsius experienced a worldwide year-over-year revenue growth of 45 percent globally and 62 percent in the U.S., in part due to growth in sporting good channels. The brand went from a 25-store test with Dick’s Sporting Goods two years ago to more than 500 locations this year. Likewise, Celsius is positioned in 300 Academy Sports stores.

But recognizing the potential growth and market penetration of esports could be a boon for the company, Kahn said. He’s excited about Celsius’ entry into what he believes could be the “next billion-dollar industry.”

To that end, he considers Echo Fox to be an ideal first partner in the industry. Founded in 2015 by NBA champion Rick Fox, Echo Fox was recently named one of the most valuable esports organizations by Forbes and boasts teams in a variety of games ranging from League of Legends to Super Smash Bros. to Dragon Ball FighterZ.

READ MORE: AT&T’s Logo Deal With WNBA Represents Deeper Strategy With NBA

“Celsius continuously innovates and pushes the boundaries when it comes to keeping athletes healthy, and their support of a diverse group of athletic competition is something we admire,” Fox said in a statement. “Ensuring our players are competing at the highest level possible is a top priority for Echo Fox, and we’re confident that our partnership with Celsius will help us achieve that goal.”

As part of the partnership, Celsius now has the ability to use team and player images and likenesses as well as player testimonials. But Kahn also expects the product to be integrated organically into the team, an increasingly common tactic when targeting younger demographics. Some areas including placing the product nearby while players engage in cardio and hand-grip exercises, as well as competing in their respective games. “We’re going to have significant behind-the-scenes footage of these guys training and consuming the product,” he said. “Authenticity is important for me, to see who really loves the product.”

Esports are a natural habitat for energy drinks, with brands like Red Bull and Monster having already established deep ties in the industry. Yet it took time for Celsius to realize the market potential for itself. Now, with Echo Fox signed on as its first partner, it appears the brand is eager to make up for lost time.

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NHL Turns to Corner Ice Placements to Grow On-Ice Ad Revenue

The NHL took over playoff team’s corner ice ad positions during the placement’s first year, as the league and its teams find new ways to add revenue.

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The NHL has turned to a familiar source to add incremental revenue for this season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

Prior to the 2018-2019 season, the league introduced corner ice sponsor placements this season for teams to sell, a marked change over its longstanding policy of only making center ice available for purchase. It was a smash hit: According to NHL Chief Business Officer Keith Wachtel, overall club revenue growth was in the eight figures, more than 25 percent higher than originally estimated.

The league was so pleased with the results that it decided to extend the rollout into the postseason for all 16 teams. This time, the league itself is handling the real estate firsthand, with Amazon Web Services, Enterprise, Ticketmaster and MGM Resorts serving as the designated sponsors.

READ MORE: NHL Turning to Hair to Tell Stories with Great Clips

Wachtel said the idea owes itself to having something of a good problem on its hands. The NHL is aided by a “very avid, passionate and affluent fan base,” with an approximate attendance-filled of 96 percent capacity. Short of building new arenas, however, there’s no more room to pack extra bodies into the stands.

“How can a club continue to generate year-over-year revenue growth when you’re selling all the tickets and have a finite amount of available sponsorship inventory?” Wachtel said of the league’s dilemma. “We felt what’s unique [is], unlike the other sports, we have the ability to bring partners onto the field of play as well as camera-visible dasher boards.”

The new positions in some ways are more valuable to potential sponsors than center ice, Wachtel said, as the corners are often where much of the on-ice action takes place. The exposure goes beyond the live games, too; most highlights on TV and social media are of goals and saves, which extend the life of those positions.

“The NHL playoffs are such a huge moment in time for fans everywhere and we’re fortunate to be a part of it,” said Greg Economou, Ticketmaster North America chief commercial officer and head of sports. “This provides us with another impactful touchpoint with fans to reinforce that Ticketmaster has the most tickets to see their favorite teams battle it out for the Stanley Cup live.”

Unsurprisingly, individual teams were pleased about the opportunity to both add revenue and, during the regular season, flexibility to choose where it came from. According to Jarrod Dillon, Tampa Bay Sports & Entertainment chief marketing and revenue officer, the Lightning opted for a strategy of quality over quantity. Tampa Bay quickly sold the four locations at Amalie Arena, opting to go with two partners — Heritage Insurance and Tampa General Hospital — for the four locations, rather than four individually, to “continue our brand value of doing more with fewer partners.”

“Naturally, we assumed national partners would be looking for more television visibility, but to our surprise, partners with main a local presence were also very excited about them,” Dillon continued. “The combination of national TV exposure, as well as local market TV exposure and then the in-arena local notoriety, seemed to resonate very well.”

Dillon credited Watchel and the league in opening up the new revenue stream and felt the league deserved to have the playoff corner ice positions with “great national partners.” Wachtel partly attributes the decision to logistics. Because the league was unsure of which teams would ultimately make the playoffs, it only made sense for the league to take over placements to guarantee ad partners they’d receive streamlined, guaranteed international exposure.

“We can extract that value, by and large, the goal for the league was to sell to global marketers that saw value across the world, not on a territory-by-territory basis,” Wachtel said.

READ MORE: Data Is Changing the Way the NHL Does Business

The MGM Resorts placement is part of a long-term sponsorship, while the AWS, Enterprise and Ticketmaster placements were sold on a one-year basis as incremental investments. The corner ice spaces are seen right now as a branding play, Wachtel said, and could be used in the future to help lure in larger league partners with their value.

“They’re four really great brands that see the value in the two months of hockey,” Wachtel said. “We went to find the right brands for the right value long term, which very well might be those. But we want to prove the opportunity before we go out there in the marketplace selling for more value.”

Irrespective of this program’s ultimate success, Wachtel says the NHL will continue to look for additional pathways to open up revenue streams. One could be a jersey patch sponsorship in the vein of what NBA teams have integrated over the past couple of seasons. Watchel didn’t put a timetable on the possibility, but the larger idea is in line with the league’s ambition to increase revenue and create a vibrant sponsor ecosystem without muddling the on-ice product. The endgame is still a work in progress. But the corner ice starting points have provided a strong foundation to build upon.

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AT&T’s Logo Deal With WNBA Represents Deeper Strategy With NBA

AT&T’s investment in the NBA includes the WNBA, NBA 2K League, G-League and USA Basketball, representing a piece of its broader entertainment sponsorships.

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All 12 WNBA teams will have an extra logo on their jersey this season.

During the WNBA Draft on Wednesday, jerseys with AT&T logos were revealed at Nike’s NYHQ as part of a multiyear partnership. Along with the jersey placement, AT&T will also gain integration throughout WNBA.com, the league’s app and social channels, and broadcast partners. The telecommunications company also will be the title sponsor of the WNBA All-Star game, starting this year in Las Vegas.

It’s the latest expansion of a deepening sponsorship plan between AT&T and the NBA, as well as the telecommunication company’s overall sponsorship plan.

READ MORE: Thunder Announce Love’s As Jersey Patch Partner

“The WNBA is deeply committed to empowering and inspiring women,” said Kerry Tatlock, NBA senior vice president of marketing partnerships. “AT&T’s groundbreaking commitment to our game, which is anchored on our shared values of diversity and inclusion, make it the perfect partner for the WNBA at this exciting time.”

It will be the first non-apparel logo to be on jerseys of all 12 teams. Also announced was a “refresh” of the WNBA brand, complete with a new WNBA logo. An ESPN report noted the logo will transition onto uniforms, courts and basketballs in 2020.

The WNBA deal is part of an overall NBA partnership that includes sponsorship of the NBA, WNBA, NBA 2K League, G-League and USA Basketball, said Shiz Suzuki, AT&T assistant vice president of sponsorships & experiential marketing. The AT&T partnership with the NBA started at this year’s NBA All-Star game, as the presenting sponsor of the slam dunk contest, All-Star practice and media day.

Suzuki said the deal makes the AT&T brand across the WNBA physically and digitally, which will hopefully help engagement for both brands and create new customers and fans alike.

“The WNBA represents a brand, league, players and fan base we want to connect with and grow with as we work with them to find ways to bring fans closer to the sport, whether through an on-site activation at major events like WNBA All-Star, or to fans at home and on the go using our social media and digital platforms to deliver premium content, behind-the-scenes access and stories from across the WNBA,” Suzuki said. “By doing so, we can connect AT&T customers to the WNBA to grow fan engagement and our relationships with current and new customers.”

Within the partnership between the WNBA and AT&T, the two organizations will create programming to support women in sports. It’s a further extension of AT&T’s work to support women, support diversity and foster inclusion. The company removed gender bias from its advertising last year, two years ahead of a stated goal by the Association of National Advertisers.

READ MORE: WNBA Star Sue Bird Makes Leap to NBA Front Office With Denver Nuggets

“Together, we can create ways for basketball fans and for AT&T customers to engage in the causes and communities important to the WNBA and to AT&T,” AT&T Chief Brand Officer Fiona Carter said. “Whether it’s women in sports, supporting small businesses like those owned by WNBA players, being a leading voice in LGBTQ rights, or giving back to communities in which we operate, we have much in common and many opportunities to empower these incredible athletes and their fans.”

The WNBA announcement came during a big week of sports activations for AT&T, which included the NBA 2K League’s The Tip  Off, Augusta National’s Women’s Amateur, the NCAA Final Four and The Master’s. Suzuki said the brand’s investments put fans at the heart of sports, music and other entertainment options — hoping to hit the diversity of the company’s consumer base.

“Our sponsorships strategy is about enabling growth for AT&T, by building more meaningful connections with current and with new customers,” Suzuki said. “To do that, we look to deliver moments that drive people’s love for sports, entertainment and their communities. Whether at an event, at home, or on the go, we want to bring fans closer to the moments that matter to them.

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