Naming-rights deal for Hollywood Park is a sign of the times


It has been only a month since Marje Everett died, but were the grand lady of horse racing still with us, she’d be sputtering and scowling these days.

Her Hollywood Park is no longer Hollywood Park.

When it opens Thursday for its 73rd spring/summer meeting, it will be under the name Betfair Hollywood Park.

Former track owner Everett, who brought a sense of flair and star quality in the 1980s to her perfectly named track, would have argued that Hollywood Park was a stand-alone brand, that nothing more was needed. Times, they are a-changin’, Marje.

This development marks the first naming-rights deal by a major U.S. racetrack. Betfair is an online gambling company with its headquarters in England but which does millions in business in the United States. It purchased TVG, a specialty horse racing channel available in 19 states, in 2009. Via TVG, Hollywood Park is a large revenue producer for Betfair, even though, because of federal laws, you cannot use your credit card in the U.S. and bet directly with Betfair.

Sports naming-rights deals have become a billion-dollar industry. One of the leaders in the field is the Wasserman Media Group in Los Angeles. One shining example: The immeasurable branding and marketing value gleaned by the office supply company when it bought its way onto the main marquee of Staples Center.

Most of those deals are done in fancy boardrooms in high-rise buildings, with the table manned by Armani suits, starched collars and expensive lawyers. Not the Betfair Hollywood Park deal.

It bubbled to the surface during a California Horse Racing Board meeting at Santa Anita on March 22, interestingly, the day before Everett, 90, died. In attendance were Hollywood Park Chief Executive Jack Liebau and the U.S. chief executive of Betfair and TVG, Stephen Burn. Burn was there to observe and support Liebau. He said he was somewhat taken aback by what he saw and heard.

“It seemed to me,” Burn said, “to be a bunch of old men telling Hollywood Park how to market to young people. There was a lot of public showboating, and the advice they were giving was not very good advice.”

So, as the story goes, Liebau and Burn started to talk, Burn pointed out that Betfair’s specialty is marketing to the younger generation and using social media, among other things, to that end. And before long, they were shaking hands on a deal that gave Betfair a piece of the legendary track’s name and gave the legendary track a piece of Betfair’s marketing expertise.

“We have Facebook and Twitter,” Liebau said, “but we aren’t very good at it.”

To be clear, there was no big check changing hands, which is usually the case with naming-rights deals. For giving up some of Marje Everett’s hallowed ground, Hollywood Park gets an infusion of marketing and promotion money and Betfair gets signage and the status branding of a connection to a major racetrack.

Liebau said, “For us, it is a big deal to have Betfair.”

Burn said, “For us, it is a big deal to have Hollywood Park.”

Both said that it will take awhile for changes to be evident.

“We know that people won’t immediately start calling the place Betfair,” Burn said.

But he also hoped to have much of the new signage up before the opening Thursday. He especially liked the thought of planes flying into LAX over Hollywood Park, as they frequently do, and having the Betfair Hollywood Park sign big and visible on the roof.

“Now, that’s exciting,” he said.

The deal is currently for five years, and both know that long-term commitments at Hollywood Park are not realistic. The track’s owner, Liebau’s boss, is the Bay Meadows Land Co. The name says it all. When Bay Meadows bought Hollywood Park, it was direct about its long-term intent: real estate development. Hollywood Park is one of the few remaining sizable urban development sites in Greater Los Angeles, and although Liebau’s mandate has always been to keep the track running forever, race fans know that “forever” means until the economy improves enough to unleash the bulldozers.

Liebau said, “They [Betfair] know there are no guarantees.”

Burn said, “By doing a little more, we hope to keep it alive.”

Certainly livelier.

Burn, a husky young Brit, who lives in Marina del Rey and operates with a twinkle in his eye, said he had recently run an idea past Liebau.

“We were going to try this at Ascot [in England], but it got shot down,” Burn said. “We were thinking of a promotion we’d call the Four Bs — You buy a ticket and you get a beer, a burger, a bet and a bang. You’d get a condom with your ticket.”

Liebau shot it down too.

If you think all the wild rides will be on the track for this meeting at Hollywood Park, think again.

Ah, make that Betfair Hollywood Park. Sorry, Marje.