The Sports Professor’s Weekly Sports and Entertainment Dollar
May 2, 2014
By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek
When you’re writing about the Kentucky Derby, you sort of feel like you should have a mint julep in hand, perhaps one of the 89 commemorative Mint Julep Cups Derby sponsor Woodford Reserve Distillery has produced in a promotion tied to the May 3 race. Proceeds from the cups (79 of them available for $1,000, 10 for $2,000) will benefit the Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Center.
Besides being a julep cup-laden weekend-long party and a bucket list event for many die hard sports fans, the Kentucky Derby is the crown jewel of both American thoroughbred horse racing and the Jockey Club of America’s multi-year, multi-million dollar, multi-event deal with NBC. And this year, the 140th Run for the Roses is important to golf as well as horse racing, as the event serves as a marquee cross-marketing opportunity for this year’s PGA Championship, held at Louisville’s Valhalla Country Club August 4-10.
And capping a week of disturbing headlines coming out of Southern California courtesy of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, if favorite California Chrome delivers, the horse might just be the feel-good story California fans – and indeed, sports fans everywhere – really need.
The Kentucky Derby has always stood for glitz and glamour, and this year NBC Sports Group might just be adding sequins and feathers as well, as former figure skaters Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski will take part in coverage of this year’s event. The charismatic Weir and Lipinski, who emerged as the media darlings of the Sochi Olympic Games, will continue their gossipy banter in Louisville as they comment on parties (like Friday’s star-studded Barnstable Brown Derby bash), lifestyle, fashion, and trackside celebrity sightings in an effort to further appeal to the Derby’s largely female audience. Last year, over 52% of viewers were women.
NBC Sports is also going social in a different way this year. The sports net is adding to its extensive social media offerings throughout Derby weekend through a new social media portal called "Paddock 140" and a partnership with Vine video artist Ian Padgham. Accessed at NBCSports.com/Derby, "Paddock 140" will link the 140th running of the Derby and the 140-character Twitter limit. The destination includes tweets from fans, racing experts, and official Derby entries (yes, horses have Twitter accounts, too) as well as photos, Vine videos, and trending Derby topics. Padgham will create custom Kentucky Derby Vines that will be used both online and on air during the television broadcast; NBC Sports will also utilize the Twitter Mirror for the second year in a row.
Outside of social media, NBC has turned its Kentucky Derby coverage into a full week of entertainment, not only on NBC Sports Network, but also tying in to its late night and primetime programming. The Derby is just the tip of the crown for NBC Sports’ horse racing coverage this year. The cable network will broadcast 11 racing programs in the next few months – “the largest single horse racing commitment that the company has made in the sport,” according to NBC Sports Group President Jon Miller.
Around the Churchill Downs grounds, spectators will have little problem sharing the photo finish at the 2014 Kentucky Derby, as Mobilitie LLC, the nation’s largest privately-held provider of wireless infrastructure, has made significant upgrades to the multi-carrier Distributed Antenna System (DAS) there. The infrastructure will support the wireless demands of more than 260,000 expected visitors to the Kentucky Oaks and Derby.
“Since 2003, Churchill Downs has invested $160 million into improving the onsite customer experience for guests attending the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby,” said Ryan Jordan, general manager of Churchill Downs. “As a result of the upgrades that Mobilitie made this year, our guests…will be able to share those memorable experiences as they happen live with their entire network.”
From the invitation-only The Morning Line event, sponsored by AT&T and the Kentucky Department of Tourism & Travel, the entire Kentucky Derby festival is a key component of regional economic development.
According to Louisville’s BusinessFirst, Churchill Downs works with more than 40 agencies to stage the Derby each year, including federal, state, and local officials. And Louisville’s success in hosting the Derby also benefits PGA events.
This year’s PGA Championship at Valhalla (owned by the organization) is expected to draw about 250,000 spectators, about 30% of whom will come from outside the Louisville area. Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau officials estimate this year’s golf event will add $60-90 million to the local economy from hotel stays and other spending.
Churchill Downs works closely with the PGA, allowing it to use the Derby to promote Louisville as a destination for sports. “We like to say the Derby brought us the Breeders’ Cup,” said Karl Schmitt, executive director of the Louisville Sports Commission,” and the Derby and Breeders’ Cup brought us the PGA Championship.”
And what of California Chrome, one of the Derby’s biggest favorites in recent history?
After drawing the 5 post position during Wednesday’s draw, the odds on California Chrome shot down to 5-2, making the horse not only the early favorite but, if he wins at those odds, the biggest favorite since Big Brown won at 2.4-1 odds in 2008.
While the lightning-fast California-bred three year-old has developed into a full-fledged star over the past few months, earning a career $1.1 million, running away with the San Felipe Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby and all-told, winning his last four races, no California-bred horse has won the Derby since 1962, when Decidedly bested the field. And naysayers also point out that California Chrome has yet to win outside of the Golden State – and that the Derby favorite rarely wins.
Nonetheless, we know there’s a great deal of karma and feel-good vibes in sport – bourbon fueled or not. So we’re betting that in a week when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made history by banning Sterling from his sport for life, California Chrome will make some shiny history of his own.
After all, it’s only fitting that he beat his only real rival in the field, Wicked Strong, a horse that sounds as if he could have been named in “honor” of none other than Donald Sterling.