Zara Phillips in Sponsorship Controversy

  May 2, 2009 at 11:26 pm by

The Queen and Zara Phillips

Click the image to see the photo at The Daily Telegraph

Recently in the Independent, Terence Blacker criticized European and World Champion eventer, Zara Philips, of exploiting her connections to get lucrative sponsorship deals for this very expensive sport. And what were these so-called connections? Zara’s grandmother, the reigning Queen Elizabeth II and her mother, Princess Anne, the Princess Royal.

No doubt that when the world first heard of Zara, eventing was probably far from amyone’s mind since she was just born. As the second child of Princess Anne and Olympic equestrian, Mark Philips, Zara’s birth was bound to cause attention, although not as much as her older brother, Peter, the Queen’s first grandchild, and William, the future heir to the throne. Yet during her childhood, the world heard little of Zara and her brother Peter as their mother kept them out of the spotlight.

It wasn’t until Zara started her equestrian career that she started to gain headlines on her own; this was no surprise though. Even though to make it as a top equestian, it helps to be wealthy, not all wealthy families have a passion for horses, yet the Queen’s passion for all horse sports that was inherited by daughter Anne was well known before Zara was born. The Queen is a keen racehorse owner and Anne in addition to her eventing career was known to follow the hounds (foxhunting) before it was banned in Britain. It followed then that Peter and Zara would be exposed to horses from a young age.

What wasn’t apparent was how good Zara turned out to be. Tongues had wagged at Princess Anne’s inclusion in Britain’s Olympic team of 1976, saying that she was a good third level eventer but nowhere near Olympic standards. No one says that about Zara now; she and her horse, Toytown, enjoyed outstanding success, first as European champion in 2005, then as World Champion in 2006 beating out such eventing superstars as veteran Mary King and William Fox-Pitt.

Zara and Toytown

Click the image to see the photo at

Yet even for those born with a silver spoon in their mouths, eventing is an incredibly expensive sport. The 3-day event, a combination of dressage, cross country and showjumping is considered the ultimate test of the horse athlete and top horses command top prices. Its not unusual for even a $100,000 horse to not even be in the league of the top competitors. Dressage, the equine equivalent to human gymnastics, requires extreme suppleness, agility, and responsiveness from horses who must perform intricate routines with steadiness and precision at relatively slow speeds. Cross country requires galloping and jumping high and dangerous obstacles with high speeds and split-second timing and is not for any but the strongest and most athletic horses. In showjumping, horses must jump high collapsible obstacles at a medium speed and is the ultimate test of agility after a hard day at crosscountry. In human equivalents, it is as if we expected a 300 pound NFL linebacker to do a gymastic floor routine, then play a bruising hard football game, followed by a fast game at the hoops. For humans, this would be laughable, but the top event horses do perform all stages well and win. They have the combination of athletic skill and joy and willingness to compete at that level, for contrary to what most people believe, a 120 pound rider cannot force a horse to jump; he has to do it well and willingly. To ride an athlete like this costs the riders money both for the horse and for the constant training to keep themselves and their horses at this level. When you add the costs of transporting an 1500 lb animal several times a year across international borders, the costs rack up.

These costs make it necessary for even the wealthiest of riders to seek sponsorships to enable them to compete and Zara is not alone in seeking sponsorships. William Fox-Pitt currently has sponsorships from Activo-Med, Grand Meadows, Horsewear Ireland, Musto, Lawnflite, Albion Saddle Makers, among others. The name brands may be unfamiliar to the average consumer but are known for providing products for equestrian sports.

The difference between Zara and other top equestrians is that she has received sponsorships from non-equestrian affliated sponsors, such as Land Rover and the Royal Bank of Scotland’s subsidiary, Coutts. Some may argue as the Independent has, that coming from a family that has lived off of the taxpayers for centuries, its time for Zara to give a little of it back. Yet, in an odd way, Zara is giving back to the profession and the sport she so loves.

Eventing is having a tough time in the sports world. The Olympic competitions are relegated to sites far away from the main Olympic sports and don’t get much media coverage during the Olympic media blitz. When it does receive publicity, its often negative such as when a rider or horse is killed or severely injured during the cross country phase and a predictable outcry results against the sport for killing humans and horses. Recently the sport received unwelcome attention when rider Lainey Ashker was seriously injured and her horse Frodo Baggins killed during the prestigious Kentucky Rolex championships. Frodo Baggins had been famous as one of the Dark Riders in the movie trilogy, Lord of the Rings and was killed when his skull was cracked falling on top of Lainey after a jump. Lainey herself broke several ribs, punctured both her lungs and broke her jaw.

Eventing’s problem is that while it has a reputation as an elite and aristocratic sport that has little to offer the common sports fan, making this dangerous sport more accessible to more riders from different backgrounds while avoiding the fallout from a rider or horse death on the course is challenging. Few people outside of the eventing world know anything about eventing other than the fact that it paralyzed Superman (Christopher Reeve). It would have been great for the sport if Reeve with his charisma and general public appeal from Superman had been able to have even modest success. The reality, though, is that even with a natural ability, a working actor with considerable box-office appeal and a movie career to maintain does not have the time to devote to this difficult sport and ride effectively and safely. Reeve instead severely injured himself and brought negative publicity to the sport. Eventing insiders held their breath when Madonna took up eventing at the age of 50 and suffered a few falls. This is a sport that cannot afford to attract famous dilettantes. Thankfully former supermodel Jordan, now known as Katie Price has limited herself to dressage.

What Zara offers the eventing world that the Mark Fox-Pitts and the Christopher Reeve’s cannot is both a name recognition to the common man and a thorough background and single-minded training in the sport which is so important for public perception of interest and safety. Fox-Pitts has the ability but no name recognition beyond the eventing world. Reeves was one of the most famous actors in the world but he couldn’t have the single-minded focus that is necessary to ride at decent levels safely. Zara, in this sense, has it all. Name recognition to the general public because of her royal connections but also a firm grounding in the sport. She is probably the safest eventing celebrity for non-equestrian sponsors to attach their name to. The Land Rover campaign has already used Zara to poke gentle fun at the public’s perception of riding not being a real sport (the horse doing all the work) with this humorous commercial that shows a soccer player who meets Zara and her horse and makes fun of horseback riders and then gets his comeuppance in the end.

Will she make the sport more accessible? There will always be the criticism that she got where she is because of her grandmother and that only the wealthy can compete. But as Zara continues to perform well and bring the public’s attention to the sport and people see that even she needs sponsorships to compete, its possible that she will bring the right type of publicity to the sport so that these non-equestrian sponsors will be tempted to find another talented non-royal rider to support and the public will gain an appreciation and a respect for this most grueling sport.

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