On May 6th, twenty of the world’s fastest horses will race down the track at Churchill Downs in Louisville for the 143rd annual Kentucky Derby. Nicknamed “the greatest two minutes in sports,” the Derby also happens to be the longest-running sporting event in the US, dating all the way back to 1875.
In 1874, Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame), formed the Louisville Jockey Club, and the first Kentucky Derby race took place a year after on May 17, 1875 to a crowd of 10,000 spectators.
The Derby has had a long an exciting history, with plenty of exciting races under its belt. Even those who aren’t fans of the sport will recognize some of the most famous horses of the Derby.
In 1973, Secretariat became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years (winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes), setting records in all three tracks – his Derby record still stands, some 44 years later. Secretariat’s inspiring performance even made its way to Hollywood, in a a major feature film called “Secretariat,” starring Diane Lane and John Malkovich.
The first Derby Race was broadcast nationally in 1952, and ever since, it’s been one of the biggest sporting events on TV. The Derby has averaged more than 15 million viewers six out of the last eight years. According to Sports Media Watch, last year it ranked 26th as the most-watched sporting event of the year with 15.53 million viewers, beating big events like the Rose Bowl (13.55 million) and The Masters (12.4 million).
With 170,000 fans with big hats and mint juleps packing the historic Churchill Downs racetrack and 15 million more viewers watching the race on TV, sponsorships for the event have grown significantly. From 2013 to 2015, the event grew from 27 to 37 sponsors, with 16 sponsoring in all three years. In terms of sporting events, the Derby may not be the biggest venue for brands, but it does offer marketers a chance to reach a broad audience, from the wealthy to Millennials.
In 2006, Louisville-based Yum! Brands partnered up with the Kentucky Derby as the first-ever presenting sponsor of the race, which gave them logo placements in prominent spots throughout the racetrack, as well as a number of TV spots. It also received six 30-second TV spots on NBC’s broadcast as well as two 30-second spots on ESPN and ESPN2. In 2011, the brand extended its sponsorship contract.
Other major sponsors of the race have ranged from luxury brands like Longines to distillery Woodford Reserve, Dodge RAM, Stella Artois, Pepsi, and more.