At the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, a pair of Chrysler automobiles are parked in the tracks' infields, reminding spectators that the Triple Crown has been transformed into the "Chrysler Triple Crown Challenge." Even though the cars are not terribly obtrusive, some purists find their presence offensive, feeling a great racing tradition has been crassly commercialized.
At Pimlico on Sunday, there will be far more commercialization. When the Maryland Million is run for the fifth time, the races will have names like the Crown Central Petroleum Maryland Nursery and the USAir Maryland Sprint Handicap. The sponsors' names will be prominently featured in the program, on closed-circuit television and in the winner's circle.
And yet in this context, not even the purest of purists will complain about the intrusive presence of these companies. The Maryland Million is a model of what a commercially sponsored event ought to be.
Corporate sponsorship has become commonplace in all sports and the practice still seems vaguely offensive most of the time. What football fan doesn't wince at the realization that the Orange Bowl is now the Federal Express Orange Bowl?
The resentment of such commercialism is reflected by the policies of many newspapers, which refuse to recognize these new names unless they are unavoidable (e.g., the Virginia Slims tennis tournaments). The Washington Post relegates the name of the sponsor to the fine print of a data box. "You don't want the newspaper to become a billboard," said George Solomon, assistant managing editor for sports.
Even pragmatists who accept the idea of sponsorship find themselves choking over some of its manifestations. Jim McKay, ABC's sportscaster, said: "Commercial sponsorship has become a fact of life, and I've grown accustomed to it. But I have to admit that the EverReady Epsom Derby really catches in your throat."
What makes the Maryland Million races different? The distinction is that they did not exist before corporations agreed to sponsor them.
McKay was flying home from the inaugural Breeders' Cup in 1984 when he started to envision a regional version of that great event: A day of stakes races for offspring of Maryland stallions. He outlined his idea to horsemen, breeders and track officials.
Everybody agreed that it was a wonderful plan for showcasing the state's thoroughbred industry. Everybody agreed that the name Maryland Million had an irresistible ring to it. But where would that $1 million in purse come from?
Some would come from fees breeders would pay to make their stallions eligible for the program. But that would not be sufficient to make the Million a reality. The races would need commercial sponsors. McKay's celebrity gained him easy access to corporate officials, enabling him to make his pitch.
"I tried to approach people from the standpoint of, 'What can this do for the state of Maryland?' " McKay said. "Horse racing is the third-largest industry in the state. It employs 20,000 people and it has a $900 million impact on the state's economy. The primary reason that sponsors decided to get involved was out of community involvement."
As a result, the Million has attracted an eclectic group of sponsors that provides roughly 50 percent of the purse. Some, like Budweiser, are trying to advertise and sell a product, but most have other aims, such as the Kennard Warfield Jr. Group, which is involved in real estate development in Howard County and also owns a recycling company.
"It's not as if I'm trying to sell bottles of beer," said Warfield. "This is a way to support our county and our state, and to give our company a little recognition."
Many of the companies like the Million because they can use hospitality tents in the infield for a social function. "It's a unique opportunity to entertain our corporate customers," said Carol Dunsworth, vice president of public affairs for the First National Bank of Maryland, which sponsors a $150,000 turf race for fillies.
The Million attempts to give its sponsors their money's worth by featuring their names prominently throughout the day's activities. In this sense, the Million is as blatantly commercial as any thoroughbred event in America.
Yet racing people don't resent the sponsors' presence because they make the whole day possible. Without them, the Million could not offer purses that would produce high-quality races meriting national television coverage on ESPN. Without them, the Million would not have become such a success that states across the country are seeking to imitate it.
There may be a lesson here for corporations seeking to get involved with sports. Attach your name to an existing famous event and people will think you're crass and opportunistic. Create something new, and people will respect you and thank you.