09/30/2002 12:00AM

Sponsor search continues


LAS VEGAS - The growth of corporate sponsorships for the World Thoroughbred Championships and racing's increased television presence were the key topics of discussion Monday as the National Thoroughbred Racing Association began its annual meeting at The Mirage.

Chip Campbell, NTRA senior vice president of television and sponsorships, formally announced that Guinness, the Irish brewery, has become the latest sponsor. A year ago, Campbell pointed out, there were only two corporate sponsors - Bessemer Trust and John Deere. Now the list has grown to seven, with the addition of NetJets, Long John Silver's, NAPA Auto Parts, and Alberto VO5.

Campbell said he expected the list of sponsors to get longer, adding that he was "close to a deal with FedEx" and that there could be "two or three others by the end of the year." Other potential sponsors include Lowe's home improvement stores, Cintas, Unisource, Philips, and GMC.

The NTRA has long sought a title sponsor for the Breeders' Cup Classic, and any one of these could fit the bill.

Campbell said that there was a 57 percent increase in network television hours this year over 2001 and that the ratings for the Triple Crown races showed an average increase of 66.5 percent.

Tim Smith, the NTRA commissioner and chief executive officer, underscored the importance that the NTRA places on television.

"Exposure increases interest; a major league TV schedule promotes a major league image," he said, adding: "Research shows nationally promoted and televised races increase handle."

This is the first time that the NTRA has held its annual meeting in Las Vegas in conjunction with the NTRA marketing summit. The annual meeting was conducted the last two years in Lexington, Ky. More than 200 members representing 75 racetracks, racing organizations, and other companies were in attendance, and they heard a familiar message in Smith's opening comments, which he likened to a sermon.

"The sermon today relates to some recent reflections on a favorite industry pastime: debating or at least identifying what the game needs," Smith said. "There are some familiar NTRA favorites: more national television, additional consumer research, new corporate sponsors, more Washington clout, added resources and powers for the national office. And you'll recognize others on the list: new facilities, more capital, better use of technology, less regulation, better testing and more uniform medication policies, younger fans, more owners . . . you get the idea."

In other developments:

* Greg Avioli, NTRA deputy commissioner and COO, said revenues are projected to be $58.9 million, about $600,000 short of the 2002 budget, but expenses were expected to be about $600,000 under budget. The NTRA generates 53 percent of its revenue from the Breeders' Cup, 30.9 percent from membership dues, and 12.3 percent from television sponsorships and promotions. The largest expenses are 38.2 percent for advertising and marketing, 33 percent for purses and awards, and 11.6 percent for television buys.

* The NTRA previewed its television advertising campaign for 2003, which will be taking aim at racing's nearly 30 million casual fans and at past fans who will be encouraged to rediscover the sport. The featured ads will include songs by Toby Keith ("Should've Been a Cowboy") and the Isley Brothers ("It's Your Thing").

* Avioli said the NTRA's main legislative goal is to eliminate the 30 percent withholding tax on international wagers. Currently, $85 million is wagered outside the United States, but only 1 percent of that handle is on U.S. races.

* The 32nd annual Eclipse Awards will be held Jan. 27 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. The event will be the same day as the Big Sport of Turfdom luncheon, hosted by the Turf Publicists of America, and one day after Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego.

* Terry Lanni, the MGM-Mirage chairman and CEO, said that when he started in casino business 26 years ago, 85 percent of revenues came from the casino. This year, he said, 51 percent will be from non-gaming sources: rooms, food, beverage, entertainment, retail. "Las Vegas is a tourist entertainment attraction center," he said in comments made as a luncheon speaker. "We had to change to grow, and racing has to do the same."

* The Mystery Mutuel Voucher program, which the NTRA credits with helping to increase attendance and handle, will be held on April 17 and Aug. 2 in 2003.