07/05/2001 11:00PM

Van Clief on names, fans, TV, and future

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The Breeders' Cup is no more. At least, the name is no more. In its place this year will be the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, the result of a recent name change implemented by the newly merged National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Breeders' Cup Ltd. Behind the change is a strategy to broaden awareness of the event and strengthen the sport's marketing efforts. Daily Racing Form recently talked about that strategy with D.G. Van Clief, the vice chairman of the NTRA and president of Breeders' Cup.

Daily Racing Form: When did the idea behind the name change start to gather momentum?

Van Clief: There had been no substantial consideration given to the name change until about six months ago. You can safely say that it has everything to do with the operational combination with the NTRA, at least the fact that it is happening now.

One of the things that the NTRA has done a very good job of is to engage consumer research, and the entire momentum for the name change comes out of the research we're seeing. Anecdotally, I think we all felt that, number one, "Breeders' Cup" is a difficult name in terms of imparting what the event is. It doesn't sound terribly descriptive to the public at large, or at least accurately descriptive. And there was a sense that although we had built a great deal of equity in the name on a global scale, that the equity in the name Breeders' Cup was very limited beyond the industry itself. What the research has done is confirm that suspicion.

DRF: The "Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships" is quite a mouthful. Why not just drop the Breeders' Cup?

DVC: Although the research indicates that there is very little understanding of the term "Breeders' Cup," we still believe the name has a significant amount of equity within the industry, and we do not think it is advisable just to drop it cold. Looking ahead though, one of two things is likely to happen: Just because it is such a mouthful, by default, people are going to tend to either go to the common usage of either Breeders' Cup or World Thoroughbred Championships.

DRF: The term "World Thoroughbred Championships" is still loaded, in that the winners are not automatically champions. Does this present a problem in marketing the event to the general sports fan?

DVC: I don't think it does. We understand that we are staking out a bold marketing position. But the research that we have completed thus far indicates that the consumer relates to that name better than others that have been tested.

Sports fans and even racing fans do not have a good grasp of what the "Breeders' Cup" really is. They don't understand what the championship implications are or their divisional nature, and they do not understand how the Breeders' Cup connects to the rest of the racing year. So the creation of this brand and the connection to the old brand is all about creating a focus for the fan, and through that focus defining what the Breeders' Cup is. It is a championship event, it is an international event, and it is a multidivisional event.

DRF: What other names were tested?

DVC: The one that came back with the highest rating and appeal was "World Thoroughbred Championships." The runner-up was "National Thoroughbred Racing Championships." I think "Major League Racing" was tested, and one or two others.

DRF: Other than its relative lack of history and tradition, the Breeders' Cup itself appears to have more going for it than the Kentucky Derby, in that you have eight races on one day that usually have championship implications. So why isn't the Breeders' Cup more popular than it is?

DVC: I don't think I can answer that without saying the "traditions and the history of the Derby," but I'll try anyway.

The awareness levels of the Kentucky Derby are higher than any other race in the country, and obviously, 127 years of tradition have a lot to do with that. The fact that the Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday in May, when there is far less competition for the viewing audience, certainly has something to do with it. And the fact that the Kentucky Derby has evolved into an all-American festival, if you will, the "rites of spring," the "greatest two minutes of sport" - that has allowed it to generate a much higher awareness level.

DRF: One of the problems with promoting the lead-in to the Breeders' Cup is the jumble of different races on different networks at different times. Wouldn't it be simpler and clearer for racing fans to have one network to watch racing on?

DVC: I don't think it's reasonable to expect that we would be able to have all our programming on one outlet, and I'm not sure that's a goal to which we would aspire, at this point anyway. For instance, ESPN. Obviously, a majority of the programming hours available to NTRA are now and will continue to be on ESPN. And that's a very nice place to be, because what we do know is that much of our target audience lives much of their lives on ESPN. They are frequent and consistent viewers of sports products, and they spend a considerable amount of their time on ESPN, particularly the 30 million or so light or lapsed racing fans who are the primary targets of the NTRA's marketing strategy.

The only difficulty in trying to develop a coordinated mutually supported strategy on multiple network outlets is the reticence of those networks to cross-promote. Obviously it's difficult to get CBS to talk about a property that is promoted by and owned by NBC. But those problems are not insurmountable.

DRF: The NTRA also said that they wanted to clear up some of the confusion surrounding the graded stakes system. What is planned, and how will that effort proceed?

DVC: First of all, I think we need to be clear about what was said. Our goal is not to make fans understand the grading system, it's to take the graded stakes, which represent the highest quality competition the sport has to offer, and link those graded stakes to the World Thoroughbred Championships. So the promotional efforts will not necessarily revolve around education about grading. In fact, within the context of the promotional efforts, we may not even refer to these as graded stakes. But we will pick graded stakes to become the contests along the way on the Road to the World Thoroughbred Championships.

DRF: So will you use a number system that assigns points to graded stakes so that fans can use them as rankings?

DVC: Yes. The challenge is in trying to develop a ranking system that fans can follow. To me the ideal would be to make the points system that is currently used for Breeders' Cup field selections one and the same with our ranking system, but I'm not sure that we are going to be able to do that.

DRF: Why not?

DVC: Number one, we'd like to make this a global system, and the current points system is only related to U.S. graded stakes. It's our clear goal to link racing internationally to the Breeders' Cup, and we are going to want to find a new way to rank horses participating overseas and all over North America as well. So we are going to have to modify our current field selection system, and I'm not quite sure we are going to be able to do that.

DRF: So you won't use a new rankings system this year?

DVC: No. Next year at the earliest. But we have to have a system in place that will introduce these [foreign] horses to fans. Take a colt like Giant's Causeway, who came out of nowhere to run second in the Classic last year. He was a relative unknown to most of the American public, and we want to remedy that problem. Our goal will be to inform and educate an American public about [the Giant's Causeways of the future] before they get to the Breeders' Cup, in a simple way, so that there's a deeper understanding and appreciation of their places in the event.

DRF: Will there by any effort or any pressure applied to racetracks to change any of the existing schedules of graded races?

DVC: I wouldn't categorize it as pressure on racetracks, because it won't be an adversarial exercise. But as we go forward, we are certainly going to look at the scheduling of races and how to better coordinate stakes schedules so that we can create more logical racing series.

DRF: Jim Host, who is leading the NTRA's sponsor sales effort, recently called the Breeders' Cup "the best opportunity for a sponsor" that he has ever seen. Why then has it been such an uphill battle for Breeders' Cup to sign up companies that do not already have an affiliation with racing, companies that aren't Bessemer Trust?

DVC: It's fair to say that you can look at the Breeders' Cup as a microcosm of the problem the industry has faced for years due to lack of centralized marketing. Although the Breeders' Cup has been a successful event in terms of developing its image as a true championship and in terms of creating the world's highest caliber racing, in the sponsor arena, it's been inhibited by the fact that it has operated independently and it is a one-day event.

The success we think we are seeing - that we have seen with Bessemer and that we believe we will see with at least one or two additional corporations by the end of the year - has everything to do with the operational combination with the NTRA, by adding the championship event to the inventory to the NTRA already managed. The combination has facilitated our approach to the marketplace immensely. We're much more effective today than six months ago.

DRF: Has there been any talk about a merger with Triple Crown Productions?

DVC: We haven't had any formal talks with Triple Crown Productions about a merger or the type of operational combination that the NTRA and Breeders' Cup executed, but we are certainly looking to the future at that very possibility.

DRF: What would it take for something like that to happen?

DVC: In simple terms, the NTRA would have to go to Triple Crown Productions and demonstrate to Triple Crown that a combination or an aggregation of rights would yield greater value to the properties than they would be able to achieve alone.

DRF: And that wouldn't be true today?

DVC: No. Not yet.