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Concentrates on Kentucky Derby Only; Creates Marketing Quandary for Networks

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NEW YORK ( -- As the Kentucky Derby approaches on Saturday, the horse racing industry -- bolstered by near-Triple Crown winners the last two years -- is suddenly in a quandary.
Photo: Kentucky Derby
Visa has sponsored the Triple Crown for 10 years but will now focus exclusively on the Kentucky Derby.

$5 million Triple Crown bonus
Visa International, which has sponsored the Triple Crown for the past 10 years and offered a $5 million bonus to any horse that won all three races (Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes), is ending that sponsorship after this year. Instead, in a new deal that begins in 2006, Visa will now only sponsor the Kentucky Derby.

Ironically, in its 10-year run, Visa never had to pay the bonus.

Also starting next year, NBC, which has televised all three races since 2001, will broadcast the Derby and the Preakness, while ABC gets the Belmont Stakes.

Potential problems
Together, the two deals create some potential problems for Triple Crown Productions, which oversees the three most important races of the season. First and foremost, can it find a new series sponsor, one that leveraged the sponsorship as well as the world’s largest credit card company did? A spokesman for Triple Crown Productions would only say that “several” companies were interested in succeeding Visa.

Assuming Triple Crown Productions does find a marketer to sponsor the series, will there be a conflict of interest between an overall sponsor of the Triple Crown and Visa’s individual sponsorship of the Kentucky Derby?

Network continuity
And, lastly, will the lack of continuity among the broadcasting networks hurt if there is a potential Triple Crown champion?

In the past two years, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, each of which won the Derby and Preakness, captivated the country on their way to the Belmont Stakes. After the Preakness, NBC then had three weeks to promote the Belmont Stakes and a chance for the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Both horses failed in their respective attempts, but the Belmont received its highest ratings in 23 years in 2004 as the nation tuned in to see if Smarty Jones could pull off the trifecta.

“If a scenario like that happens again, I could see where it might make for some initial confusion among viewers,” said one media buyer. “But it will be up to ABC to promote the hell out of it to make sure people know that the Belmont is on ABC, and ABC is the place to be if you want to see history.”

Cutting its own deal
In fact, that was part of the reason why the Belmont Stakes defected to ABC. While the Kentucky Derby is arguably the most popular horse race in the country, the Belmont Stakes is arguably the most significant if a horse has a chance to win the Triple Crown. But the Belmont and the Preakness each receive only 25% of the TV rights money, while the Kentucky Derby receives 50%. So the Belmont went out and cut its down deal.

Ed Seigenfeld, executive vice president of Triple Crown Productions, told The Baltimore Sun that having the races on two different networks could affect negotiations for a new sponsor, but added that while it’s a hurdle, “it’s not a high hurdle.”

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