Saturday, January 19, 2008

How A Horse Named Dan Patch Became a National Celebrity, Launching the Field of Sports Marketing

Each year, thousands flock to Indiana for an event that celebrates one of the state’s most famous athletes ever. A century after his heyday in sport, he is recognized in the top echelon of historic Hoosiers, both in Indiana and across the country. Dan Patch is studied by 4th-graders alongside President Benjamin Harrison and other figures that loom large in Indiana history. Railroad lines and highways are named after him. His story transcends sports and has achieved mythic status. His own biography parallels crucial decades in Indiana’s transition from farm life to a more industrial society. In the early 20th Century, Dan Patch was perhaps the nation’s best-known sports figure and was among the most widely recognized Hoosiers of all. Every Indiana resident has a stake in his story. A superstar celebrity Decades before Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, an Indiana-born horse named Dan Patch was one of America’s first superstar celebrity athletes. Thanks to a marketing-savvy owner, Dan Patch’s remarkable success as an advertising icon is responsible for many of the marketing and branding techniques still favored today. From chewing tobacco to washing machines to autos, the Dan Patch name was pure gold for companies trying to set themselves apart. His face was everywhere. Many of the advertising tactics we take for granted today can be traced back to Dan Patch. If today kids want to “be like Mike,” a century ago Dan Patch was the symbol of unbeatable excellence. American businesses and consumers couldn’t get enough. Indeed, in the opinion of Frederick Klein of Street and Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal, “A case can be made that, adjusted for inflation and population size, he was bigger than anyone around now.” A legacy that endures Dan Patch’s influence on Indiana life -- indeed, on American life â€" is evident each spring. On a Saturday at Hoosier Park in Anderson, thousands will gather to enjoy the Dan Patch Invitational Pace, a race that pits some of the nation’s best harness racing horses in a race with a $200,000 purse. It is the biggest race of the season. Hundreds of thousands of dollars will change hands as fans at the track in Anderson and at off-track venues in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Merrillville handicap the field. His birthplace of Oxford, Indiana hosts an annual Dan Patch Days festival that started in 1901. There is a virtual cottage industry in Dan Patch memorabilia. A search of his name on the Internet yields 3,200 pages, and indeed there are many sites devoted exclusively to the lore and legend of Dan Patch. Just as one example, a Dan Patch thermometer sold recently at auction for $3,000. Dan Patch heralded a new era in consumer marketing The reason for his enduring influence has as much to do with marketing as it does with his record-smashing success on the racetrack. The rags-to-riches horse and his rags-to-riches owner, Marion Savage, both overcame shaky starts in their careers to achieve phenomenal success. To understand the Dan Patch phenomenon, you have to appreciate the popularity of harness racing in turn-of-the-century America, including Indiana. Dan Patch was born in 1896, when horses were still a primary means of transportation; at the time of his death in 1916, horseless carriages called automobiles were fast making horses obsolete as a passenger conveyance. During Dan Patch’s lifetime, harness racing was immensely popular, especially in rural America. County fairs across America staged races, which were attended by tens of thousands. One appearance in Muncie toward the end of Dan Patch’s career drew a reported 20,000 spectators, at a time when Muncie’s population was less than 23,000 total. It was into this pre-automotive America that Dan Patch was born in Oxford â€" conceived for a $150 stud fee. The horse at birth did not look at all like a winner. His ankles were very crooked; at first he needed help from a trainer just to stand, and he developed a wildly flailing gait. Some neighbors even suggested “putting him down.” But his original owners saw something in Dan Patch. They worked with him slowly, and he eventually started racing at the age of 4. He immediately outclassed the competition. He never lost a race. In fact, other owners quit running their horses against him, so his owners switched him to racing exhibitions against the clock. Marketing magic â€" decades ahead of its time The Dan Patch legend began to transcend sports when he was purchased by Marion Savage. Savage owned a large livestock feed manufacturing company. Savage had failed in farming and farm-related companies until starting the International Stock Food Company and building it into the largest company of its kind. Along the way he developed a reputation as a marketing genius. Just like Dan Patch, he started poorly but now found his stride. Dan Patch set records on the track that stood for decades. His reputation went global in 1906 when he broke the world record with an unofficial one-mile pace of 1:55. Savage found any number of creative ways to exploit the horse’s popularity. He developed creative contracts to garner gate proceeds at country fairs where the horse appeared, and he promoted these appearances relentlessly. The horse earned thousands more for Savage in stud fees. In addition to using Dan patch’s image to “endorse” his own company, Savage licensed the Dan Patch likeness to other companies. Products ranging from cigars to soft drinks, baking soda, toys, lineament, stoves, clocks, thermometers, watches, sleds, cutlery, china, stoves and washing machines all sported the Dan Patch name or picture. There was even a Dan Patch Automobile. As “spokesman” for Savage’s feed company, the Dan Patch legend was used to suggest performance-enhancing benefits from using International Stock Food products. The company produced pamphlets promoting the farm where Dan Patch lived and sent them to customers. The publications were filled with the exploits of Dan Patch â€" and ads for International Stock products. As Dan Patch provided riches for Savage, the owner treated his horse like royalty, with his own private railway car and a barn so luxurious it was called the “Taj Mahal.” Dan Patch and Marion Savage died just days apart in July 1916. Their funerals were held on the same day. The country around them had been changing rapidly, from a nation of farmers to a nation of machine makers and drivers of automobiles. It had also become a nation of consumers. With that shift came a new era in promotion and product branding, brought on through a special horse and his owner’s visionary zeal for marketing. Both the horse and the owner were decades ahead of their time. The horse built the brands, and the brands helped build the horse to larger-than-life, mythic status. Steve Cebalt of Bottom Line Public Relations is Founder of the Social Marketing Leadership Roundtable in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He specializes in marketing, advertising and public relations issues of interest to nonprofit communications professionals. Copyright Steve Cebalt 2007 May be used with author acknowledgment

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