In June 1973, when Secretariat became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, the public was clamoring to see the colt compete as often as possible. Secretariat's schedule was of particular interest to a Philip Morris executive named Jack Landry, a racing buff who had worked at Saratoga as a kid. Landry felt Secretariat could easily handle a race during the six-week break between the Travers and Woodward stakes. No such event existed, but Landry had an idea for one. He suggested to Secretariat's owner, Penny Tweedy, and New York Racing Association President Jack Krumpe, that Philip Morris' Marlboro cigarettes sponsor a match race between Secretariat and his stablemate, Riva Ridge, the event to be called the Marlboro Cup.
Landry's idea was mildly revolutionary. Sponsors such as Virginia Slims and Kemper Insurance were already involved in sports, but no corporation had ever created a major horse race in North America. Such sponsorship wasn't what bothered Tweedy and Krumpe. European corporations had subsidized races for years, and Tweedy and Krumpe found nothing wrong with that practice. What they objected to was a race between stablemates. So, rather than accept Landry's idea as presented, they expanded it. The first Marlboro Cup, held on Sept. 15, 1973, featured seven of the best horses in North America.
It was a good race—and a good promotion. Secretariat beat Riva Ridge by 3½ lengths and set a world dirt record of 1:45[2/5] for the mile and ‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µth. It is a mark that still stands. And the sponsor? Well, ever since a 1971 Congressional ban had knocked cigarette ads off the air, Philip Morris, which had been spending close to $45 million a year on TV and radio advertising, was casting about for alternative means to promote its products. By putting up a $200,000 purse and spending $250,000 to hype the first Marlboro Cup, Philip Morris got on the racing calendar for peanuts. Seven years later, company publicists call the Marlboro Cup "a tradition in racing."
Corporate involvement in sport has grown considerably since 1973. Today, corporations sponsor many of the tournaments on the pro golf, tennis, bowling and racquetball tours, as well as innumerable amateur events. Bjorn Borg makes more money from endorsements than from purses. TV and its advertisers often have the power to create and destroy sports events, and their influence is being felt at every level of sport.
This presents a question: Is it news or free advertising for the press to credit a sponsor that attaches its name to an event? If a tennis or golf tournament calls itself the Lite Beer Open or the Pepsi Classic, for instance, should sportswriters identify it by name?
The main argument in favor of doing so is that commercialism is a fact of life; to mention sponsors is not to advertise them but to acknowledge reality. If sponsors didn't bankroll events, say the corporate casemakers, sports would die. Newspapers sponsor and cover their own tournaments and games, the argument continues, so how can the papers omit sponsors' names from coverage of other events? A final point often made is this: because all sports reporting involves free advertising of a sort, it's inconsistent to leave out sponsors. To be absolutely consistent, reporters would have to write such sentences as, "A team from Boston played a team from New York in a sport using bats and balls." (This argument reduces the debate to an absurdity. It's necessary to report that the Red Sox and Yankees played baseball but irrelevant to the coverage of sport to mention that Lite Beer sponsored a tennis tournament.)
"If you don't consistently mention sponsors, you get the media using varied names to identify a tournament," says Ray Volpe, commissioner of the LPGA. "On May 18 we sampled 50 newspaper reports of the same tournament and found them using all kinds of names: a $125,000 LPGA event, a $125,000 women's tournament, the $125,000 Women's Coca-Cola Classic. That's inconsistent, inaccurate and inconvenient for readers.
"The biggest argument against mentioning sponsors is free advertising. My point of view is that if a sponsor puts up $500,000 in prizes, tournament costs and commitments to the charities and gets no mention in the lead of a story, it's the most expensive form of free advertising in the history of Madison Avenue. Look, tournaments primarily benefit charities. Why do corporations get involved? For publicity and trade relations, sure, but mostly for community goodwill."
Of course, goodwill often translates into increased profits: when it doesn't, sponsors are only too quick to drop tournaments. That reality lies at the heart of the antisponsor argument. "Companies are buying events for promotional purposes," says Jay Weiner, a sportswriter for Newsday. "It's unprofessional of us to promote their products." It misses the point, say such critics, to argue that papers must recognize other sponsored tournaments because they publicize their own; the point is that simultaneously sponsoring and covering tournaments constitutes a conflict of interest and papers should simply stop being promotors. As for the argument that sports would die without corporate sponsors—well, it's the responsibility of the press to report on sports, not sustain them.
In spite of these arguments, the corporate side is gaining. Rare is the journal that doesn't mention sponsors in at least some of its reporting (SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has no firm policy), and TV is so compliant that, Congressional ban or not, it now identifies the Marlboro Cup by name (broadcasters previously called it "The Cup"). At last June's Associated Press Sports Editors Convention in Washington, D.C., the debate was not whether to mention sponsors but where they should be identified in stories. Half the editors voted for including the sponsor's name with the first mention of a tournament title, the others for the AP policy of sponsor identification in a self-contained paragraph lower down. The reason for the split, however, was that many an editor thought he was being asked to state his paper's policy, not his personal preference. When the matter came before the 12-member AP sport editors' executive committee, it voted unanimously to recommend a first-mention policy in its report to an AP managing editors' committee. Thirty M.E.s subsequently met and voted to adopt the proposal as official policy.
But the subject isn't closed. The sports editors agreed to study the question of "taste" in sponsor identification. For instance, members of the all-male executive committee frowned on crediting StayFree maxi-pads. There was general agreement that headline-clogging titles should be used in a shorter form; the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winners Circle golf tournament, for example, should be simply called the Dinah Shore. In an attempt to accommodate this thinking, the LPGA recently changed the tournament's name to the Colgate-Dinah Shore. And any corporation that begins sponsoring a long-standing event and dares to rename it—say, the Avon Kentucky Derby—is certain to meet with resistance.
Nonetheless, those arbiters of taste, The New York Times and The Washington Post, forge ahead with their new policy of total corporate recognition. "I think it's presumptuous of us to tell the people who run tournaments what to call them," says George Solomon, assistant managing editor/sports of the Post. "If the people who run the Derby decide to call it the Avon Kentucky Derby, who are we to tell them not to?" Adds Le Anne Schreiber, who ran the Times sports section until a few weeks ago, "If you edit out the name of a corporation, you give a false impression. Sponsors legally buy the right to have their name in the title."
But these arguments ignore a newspaper's editing responsibility. If a title is cumbersome or irrelevant, readers aren't served by having to look at it. Nor is the press obliged to use a legal name. The official title of the National League, for instance, is the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. And, yes, free advertising is just that. Ray Volpe's case notwithstanding, it's pretty certain most readers couldn't care less if they read euphemisms instead of precise tournament titles.