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Jockeying for Endorsements

Coming From Behind, Sport Seeks Lucrative Deals

May 03, 1997|MARLA MATZER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just about everyone has heard of athletes Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. But unless you follow the ponies, you may not know who Corey Nakatani is.

Nakatani and three other jockeys hope to change that by doing something unprecedented in horse racing: They are wearing Breathe Right nasal strips for a fee in today's staid Kentucky Derby.

It's not the same as having logos plastered all over their silks, but it's a significant step for the sport. The jockeys hope that other endorsements will follow. They want a shot at the lucrative sponsorship deals that often make up the bulk of top athletes' incomes in other sports.

"I'm wearing Breathe Right because it helps me perform better. But I do think that jockeys should be able to have a livelihood," Nakatani said Thursday from Churchill Downs. "We should be able to do endorsements. In tennis, that didn't happen until someone broke the rules."

The jockeys say endorsements will raise the sport's profile as well as their own. And in return they promise to devote money to charities, including a fund for backstretch workers.

To date, jockeys have been barred from displaying any type of corporate name or logo while they race.

Because of state regulations arising from the presence of gambling, and the long and musty traditions of the "sport of kings," jockeys face fines and legal trouble if they dare, say, wear a Nike logo during a race.

There is no national governing body or league that sets rules, and horses are often owned by a group of investors rather than a single owner, further complicating the ownership and management structure. But you can't bar an athlete from wearing a distinctive, ostensibly performance-enhancing bandage. That's the position of Clint Goodrich, a former jockey and trainer who last fall started representing jockeys exclusively.

"We're not trying to fly in the face of tradition; we're trying to create new interest for jockeys and for the sport," Goodrich says of their end-run around sponsorship regulations.

An image boost is something racing could use, although it's arguably already underway.

The Derby had a U.S. viewership on ABC of about 16 million in 1996--a double-digit increase over 1995. The Super Bowl, by contrast, dwarfs those numbers--87.8 million watched the event this year.

Advertisers are already jockeying for position on the horse track. Last year Visa launched a five-year, multimillion-dollar campaign linked to horse racing. Visa gets extensive signage at the tracks, sponsors cash prizes of up to $5 million and is the first sponsor to promote racing on national TV.

But Clint Goodrich and his jockeys would like to see horse racing become the next National Hockey League or NASCAR.

Those sports have taken on cleaner, family-friendly images in the last few years and have been rewarded with big attendance and viewership gains.

Creating stars is one way to do that, and sponsors can help. Southern California native Nakatani, a 26-year-old ranked the No. 3 rider in the nation, could help attract a younger audience (the average race fan today is in his late 40s).

Sports agent Jeff Sofka, who represents San Francisco 49er Steve Young and Houston Rocket Hakeem Olajuwon at Integrated Sports International in East Rutherford, N.J., says the jockeys' situation might be compared with athletes in other sports that require uniforms. Basketball and football leagues, he says, have made concessions allowing players a limited opportunity for endorsements during games.

"Event organizers and governing bodies of different sports create a high-visibility platform for athletes to display their talent," Sofka says.

Athletes have to acknowledge that they are stars because of the investment and work of these governing structures. But "smart" leagues have met players halfway.

"Footwear on NBA players, for example, is not governed by the league," Sofka says. "The NFL has rules that allow players to choose which cap they wear when on the sidelines from within officially sanctioned companies," including Nike, Reebok and Starter.

Breathe Right, owned by Minneapolis-based CNS Inc., would like to be able to put a logo on the jockey's outfits.

Clint Goodrich is already targeting other companies, including Visa, Nike and Jockey underwear--"a no-brainer," Goodrich says.

How will race fans react to the commercialization of the sport? Indifferently, says Real Radio talk show host Tim Conway Jr., who has inherited both his comedian father's love of the track and his sense of humor.

"A jockey could ride dressed in a chicken suit to advertise Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the guys at the track wouldn't care. They just care about who wins," he cracks.

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Athletes' Feats

Unlike some top athletes, who make millions of dollars from endorsements, jockeys have been left out of the endorsement game. Now some want that to change. A sampling of salaries and endorsements in 1996:

Sport: Basketball

Athlete: Michael Jordan

Salary / Winnings: $12.6 million

Endorsements: $40.0 million

*

Sport: Tennis

Athlete: Andre Asassi

Salary / Winnings: $2.2 million

Endorsements: $13.0 million

*

Sport: Golf

Athlete: Tiger Woods

Salary / Winnings: $800,000

Endorsements: $8.0 million

*

Sport: Football

Athlete: Emmitt Smith

Salary / Winnings: $13.0 million

Endorsements: $3.5 million

*

Sport: Hockey

Athlete: Wayne Gretzky

Salary / Winnings: $6.0 million

Endorsements: $5.5 million

*

Sport: Horse racing

Athlete: Corey Nakatani

Salary / Winnings: $1.3 million

Endorsements: $10,000 (Source: Clint Goodrich, Nakatani's agent)

*

Source: Forbes magazine.

Note: Unless otherwise noted, salary and endorsement information reflects the 1996 professional sports season, as reported in Forbes magazine, December 16, 1996.

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