NEW YORK – American Pharoah’s owners and thoroughbred racing now have a new race to run: A race to capitalize on the horse’s Triple Crown victory before the excitement fades away.
As the first winner of the sport’s Triple Crown in 37 years, American Pharoah has a wealth of marketing opportunities that could never have been imagined by owners of the last winner, Affirmed, in 1978. At the same time, horse racing has declined into a niche pastime that is facing an aging demographic, a shrinking number of race tracks, and competition from new ways of betting on sports.
“Marketing has changed, media has changed, and how people consume the product has changed,” says David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “It’s one thing to drive notoriety, but it’s another thing to get people to part with their money.”
American Pharoah’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, has already struck sponsorship deals with Monster energy drinks and a private-airplane membership company called Wheels Up. Deals for merchandise are already in place, including one with Fanatics, according to Ben Sturner, CEO of Leverage Agency, the firm Zayat hired to market American Pharoah. Similar apparel and merchandise deals with All Pro Championships and Steiner Sports were announced Monday.
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But Zayat will be looking for more, and he has also pledged to try to use the horse’s popularity to try to give thoroughbred racing a boost. The horse is expected to compete in a few more races this year, which will increase interest and attendance at the tracks where he runs and help drive television ratings for those races.
As the winner of a crown that went unclaimed for so long that it seemed it would never be won again, American Pharoah will without question sell more merchandise and attract more sponsorship deals than any horse in recent memory. Sturner dreams of bobble-head dolls, lunchboxes, “anything you can think of that people will want to wear,” and a wide range of other sponsorships. He says his first call Monday will be to General Mills, to try to get the horse on a Wheaties cereal box.
“Forget about analytics and demographics, this is about making history, doing something unique,” he says. “American Pharoah is more than just a horse, he’s an icon.”
Secretariat, the Triple Crown winner in 1973, got a postal stamp and was featured on major magazine covers even outside of sports, remaining a pop culture touchstone even today.
Still, it’s unclear just how much advertisers will spend to associate a product or company with the hero of a sport very few follow most of the year, and one that will likely compete only a few more times in his life. At the end of the year, control of the horse is transferred to the owner of his breeding rights, a company based in Ireland called Coolmore.
It’s even less clear whether the horse’s popularity will slow or reverse horse racing’s downward trajectory.
Casual horse racing fans care only about the three races of the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. Interest in those special events is at least as much about the pageantry as about betting on horses. In general, horse racing attendance has been plummeting for decades.
“The casual fan will say ‘that’s great!' but then move on,” Carter said of American Pharoah’s feat. “If you vanish from the consciousness for a while it’s hard to maintain any marketing momentum.”
Alex Waldrop, CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association thinks American Pharoah’s win will boost efforts already in place to increase racing’s appeal, simply because more people are paying attention now that the Triple Crown has finally been won again. He described the mainstream media coverage since Saturday afternoon’s race as an “explosion.”
But Waldrop worries that interest in American Pharoah will wane as the year goes on. “I’m not concerned about the next two weeks, that'll take care of itself, that’s the easy part,” he says. “The big question is does it take people from interest to participation. Wagering is ultimately our lifeblood.”