I can’t get the image of Eight Belles laying on the track out of my mind. I know I sat there like one of the thousands of people across the country who watched in shock and sadness as the Kentucky Derby took a horrifying turn last Saturday. Just seconds after Eight Belles finished behind winner Big Brown, the filly shattered both of her front legs and was quickly euthanized just steps from the finish line.
The incident immediately brought back memories of the tragic events that led to Barbaro’s death just two years ago. Back then, as a nation we questioned the ethics and complexities that make up the sport of horseracing.
But this time around as I watched, I was hit with an even bigger shock. While Eight Belles lay on the track, NBC cut to announcer Bob Costas, who stood with David C. Novak, CEO of Yum Brands, the Derby’s sponsor. Novak gleefully said, “Well, Bob, what a great day for the commonwealth of Kentucky and the world. On behalf of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver’s and A&W, Yum Brands is the proud sponsor of the greatest event in the world. Thank you very much.”
Was Novak a brand-pushing monster who lacked all sympathy and compassion for the fate of Eight Belles? According to Novak, he had no idea what had happened when he was interviewed and would have never pushed his sponsorship had he known. But it was already too late for Novak. By the time he was interviewed the entire journalistic community, including bloggers, reporters and NBC itself, was reporting on the tragedy of Eight Belles, and angry bloggers and online commentators were blasting Novak for his crass thoughtlessness.
In fact one angry commentator said, “Based on the YUM reps’ disgraceful smiling and product plugging—while Eight Belles was dying yards away from them—I’ll never buy ANY of their products again.” Another infuriated announcer said, “I’m happy that the CEO of Yum is just smiling and not even caring that a horse was just killed on the track.”
Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and believe that Novak really had no idea about the tragedy when he was interviewed, and that his interview was a result of being completely uninformed and in the dark. But from a marketing perspective, Yum Brands’ sponsorship brings up the question of whether sponsoring high-profile, somewhat high-risk sporting events is truly a profitable venture and strategic marketing move.
In the most basic terms it forces us to ask ourselves whether injury and even death during sporting events reduces or induces sponsorship success. Most sports marketing authorities seem to doubt that these kinds of tragedies reduce sponsorships. In fact, after NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt died in a crash in 2001, all the big NASCAR sponsors stayed on board. And after Barbaro’s tragedy, rather than pull their sponsorship, Yum reacted by offering a $1 million prize in the 2007 Derby to any horse that could beat Barbaro’s 6 ½-length victory.
On the other side of the coin, many distressed Derby viewers have already taken issue with the ethical treatment of these horses; PETA, for one, is up in arms over the whole ordeal. And once the ethics and integrity of a sport is questioned, the concerned public may begin to take issue with any companies that sponsor these events.
I know one thing. I may just stop watching horse races all together if these kinds of accidents keep happening. Then I’ll have absolutely no idea who is sponsoring them.