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Endzones & Equines: Embracing Kentucky’s NFL Scene And Legendary Races

For a state with a storied sporting history like Kentucky has, they haven’t always taken a traditional path to success. Without a single team in the “Big 4” professional North American sports of football, basketball, baseball and hockey—although quite a few minor league teams call the Bluegrass State home—the sporting industry in the Bluegrass State relies on things like college sports and the eponymous Kentucky Derby in order to succeed.

Two Worlds Collide

While college football and horse racing might not sound like they have much in common, sometimes those interests find a middle ground. Star quarterback Will Levis, a second-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, played the final two years of his collegiate career at the University of Kentucky. Levis signed a number of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals during his time with the Wildcats, partnering with local businesses by serving as a spokesman for their product.

Ahead of last year’s Kentucky Derby, Levis signed an NIL deal with the owners of retired racehorse War of Will, who won the Preakness Stakes in 2019 and now spends his days as a stud horse, siring the next generation of championship-winning racers.

Levis’ NIL agreement saw him focus on the similarities between star athletes, whether equine or human, in order to help sell stud fees for War of Will.

When you consider that most NIL deals center around a local business on a college campus, like a favorite coffee shop or car dealership, the unique endorsement that Levis offered for War of Will is the perfect encapsulation of the sporting industry in Kentucky. They may not be able to tout the excitement of a professional NBA or MLB game like many other states can, but they’re doing just fine by marching to the beat of their own drum.

A Time-Honored Tradition

One other example of the unique approaches that the Commonwealth of Kentucky takes to get a leg up in the competitive world of sports is the sports betting industry. Many other states in the American South, the stronghold of college sports, have been slow to legalize sports wagering. Kentucky is one of the few that’s gotten ahead of the curve, with Kentucky betting sites set to go live later this month, giving them another leg up on the competition.

When you think about it, it’s no surprise that the sports betting industry found a strong foothold in the Bluegrass State. Even during the federal ban that stood for decades and outlawed sports gambling across much of the United States, it remained possible to place bets on horse races like the Kentucky Derby.

The Derby is the oldest continuously-held sporting event in the United States, taking place every year since 1875: more than a decade before sports like basketball and football even existed, the horses were running at Churchill Downs.

Teaching Champions

As the de facto home of horse racing in the United States, the vast majority of American racehorses were born and raised in Kentucky: the Bluegrass State’s impact on the sport reaches far beyond one single race.

That’s pretty similar to how Kentucky’s impact on the NFL works. Even if they don’t have a big league franchise of their own, schools like the University of Louisville and the aforementioned Kentucky Wildcats still churn out quite a few NFL prospects that football fans in Kentucky can root for long after their athletic careers take them away from the state.

Levis is one athlete who looks to make his mark on the NFL. Another is Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who won the Heisman Trophy as a member of the Cardinals during his sophomore season in 2016. The dual-threat quarterback racked up 30 passing touchdowns during his Heisman campaign, adding 22 more rushing touchdowns as he put up video-game worthy stats.

While many NFL pundits raised questions as to whether the run-heavy style would work in the pros, citing concerns about Jackson’s ability to stay healthy, he won the 2019 NFL MVP award by a unanimous vote during his first full season as the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens.

Jackson has changed the face of the sport, spurring teams to prioritize mobile quarterbacks over the previously prototypical pocket passers, and he’s turned the Ravens into a perennial playoff threat even with a shaky roster around him, an excellent example of how athletes who went to college in the Bluegrass State can shake things up in the big leagues. Other recent NFL stars are wide receiver Deion Branch who played for Louisville and was named the MVP of Super Bowl 39, and center Dermontti Dawson, who played 13 years for the Pittsburgh Steelers and was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Kentucky’s Unique Sporting Legacy: From Football to Racing

Kentucky, while lacking in “Big 4” professional sports teams, has carved a niche with college sports and the renowned Kentucky Derby. This blend of football and horse racing shone when quarterback Will Levis, formerly of the University of Kentucky, inked an NIL deal emphasizing the shared attributes of elite athletes, both horse and human. This unique endorsement symbolizes Kentucky’s distinctive sporting culture. Furthermore, Kentucky has swiftly embraced the sports betting realm, gaining an edge over many southern states. The Kentucky Derby stands as a testament to this, having been a betting staple since 1875. The state’s football contributions are significant as well, with talents like Lamar Jackson reshaping NFL dynamics and other NFL stars hailing from its universities. In essence, Kentucky’s influence in sports, from horse racing to football, is deeply ingrained and unmistakably impactful.

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Written by Marcus Richards

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