Horse Racing is the original American Sport.
In the late 1600’s the Governor of New York, Peter Stuyvesant built a racetrack in what was to become the borough of Queens, and horse racing was born in America. In the early part of the 20th century it was among the most popular sports, if not the most popular form of sports entertainment in America. It goes back as far as man goes back. So why is it dying in the 21-century and what can be done?
Some quick background, I’ve been a Horse Racing fan since I was in high school. Growing up on Long Island my friends and I used to sneak out of school early, pile into my Dodge Dart and head to the Big A (Aqueduct Racetrack) or Belmont Park for after school entertainment. It wasn’t long after that Saratoga became a regular August affair for me.
I was at the Affirmed-Alydar Belmont Stakes in 1978 as Affirmed won the Triple Crown. I saw Spectacular Bid go out too fast and get beat by Coastal to lose his shot at the Triple Crown a year later, and watched Forgo stage one of the biggest come from behind victories ever in a major stakes race. If you’re a fan, Horse Racing leaves indelible moments etched into your memory.
I enjoy the intensity and excitement of the short all out races and the challenging exercise of trying to figure out how the race will play out by studying the past performances and then deciding how to wager to make money from your efforts.
As I became a broadcasting and production professional, sportscaster and writer, I was fortunate enough to get to hang out in the press box at Turf Paradise when I worked in Phoenix. I began to see the industry from the inside for the first time and also started to see what was not happening around the track.
I would later be offered the job as Director of Broadcast at Turf Paradise but decided to turn it down for an offer to work at NBA Entertainment and return home to New York. So I never ended up getting involved in Horse Racing professionally, but observed from a distance and saddened to see its decline. So what does the industry need to do to regain its glory?
The Sport of Kings is on life support. It didn’t happen overnight and won’t be solved overnight, but by breaking down some of the key issues we can start to form possible solutions. Here are my top ten problems and suggestions:
1) Let’s start with nobody knows the rules!
Only those who work in the industry and your hard core fans can answer these questions; why do only 3 year olds run in the Triple Crown Races, what’s a claiming race, what’s an allowance race, what’s a stakes race, why do they run all different distances on different surfaces, how do they decide how much weight goes on the horse, how are the odds determined and the list goes on. Without people having a basic understanding of the rules, you can’t grow a sport.
Strategy/First steps: Every person that walks into any racetrack in America should have the opportunity to watch entertaining videos that explain the basics of the sport on the big screen scoreboards and TV monitors before and in-between races. These videos should be produced through a central governing body such as the Jockey Club or NTRA and made readily available through all forms of traditional and social media. An on-line network should be set up to provide this and other racing information, features, and history. There should be track employees stationed throughout the facility that are there to answer questions and help this process.
This “education” should also be a core feature of EVERY “live” racing broadcast shown on the networks, during local recaps shows, simulcasts and other distribution outlets. They can be sponsored to help recapture production costs. A coordinated effort is needed.
2) Nobody knows anything about the PEOPLE involved
Without a connection between the fans and caretakers of the sport, nothing will change. A few trainers might have some notoriety but overall it’s an anonymous sport.
Strategy/First Steps: The sport needs to create stars that walk on two legs. Horse Racing can follow the tested and successful model forged by the NBA, NASCAR and other major sports leagues. The sport has plenty of characters and intriguing personalities to choose from. Jockey’s and trainers come from all over the world, owner’s range from blue bloods to blue collar. There needs to be a coordinated public relations plan to make them all visible in local markets and seen to be part of the community.
A primary aspect of this strategy needs to be based in broadcasting and social media. Programs need to be produced a la “NBA Inside Stuff” or “This Week in Baseball” that puts a “cool” mainstream spin on the current day participants and also gives a historical perspective. Behind the scenes access should be a big part of the programming.
3) There’s no compelling reason to hang around beyond the Triple Crown races and Breeders Cup
Strategy/First Steps: Connect people to things in the sport they can relate to, since the horses come and go pretty quickly, so anyone that gets attached to a particular horse only becomes a fan for a short time unless they are given other reasons to stay interested in the sport.
People need to know what they’re rooting for so there needs to be a general education about the history of the sport, what goes into making a champion horse, what it takes to become a jockey, trainer, owner. There can be stories of the rich history, current big business and intrigue (breeding and sales), fashion, medicine and science, overcoming obstacles, the key is relating it to a wide audience.
4) There are no leagues, standings, or playoffs to follow
Strategy/First Steps: There can be a two year old division, a three year old division, a 4 and up division with points awarded based on on-track accomplishments. A play-off system can be devised that could lead to the Breeders Cup as the Super Bowl. One reason the points system works so well for NASCAR is that individual races count toward a bigger goal.
5) The sport still has a reputation of being a bunch of seedy old guys hanging out and betting their last dollars, not a family affair for entertainment
Strategy/First Steps: There is a core fan base, but it’s not enough. That base does expand for the Triple Crown Races, Saratoga, Del Mar and the Breeders Cup but most days, it’s a dismal lonely affair at the countries racetracks.
The model to remedy this can be found in other major sports. A day at the racetrack has to be a full day of entertainment for a wide diverse audience, not just 20 minutes of races in four hours surrounded by a bunch of screens flashing odds aimed at the current core. Just like an NBA or MLB game, the entire day needs to be scripted and choreographed with a number of strategic goals in mind.
6) Simulcasting doesn’t do anything to grow the sport
Strategy/First Steps: The sports has a built in-satellite network, every track is up on satellite feeds for six or seven hours every day, this air time can be used to promote and market the sport as well as showing the odds and races to perspective betters.
7) There has not been an effort to create a community of on-line gamers
Strategy/First Steps: Horse Racing is a natural for on-line gamers. There are hundreds of ways it could be produced for video games. This medium directly connects the sport to the new target audience, young adults who can form the next generation of fans.
8) Most people don’t understand the analytical challenge required to handicap
Strategy/First Steps: Back to the education thing. Tout sheets are nice, but instead of tracks handing fans today’s “winners,” teach them how to handicap, make it fun. It can be tied to education in a way never done before by showing the math and strategic thinking that’s needed to handicap. Use it as a learning tool with prizes instead of dollars.
9) The current horse racing networks seem to cater to hard-core fans and don’t take a local approach
Strategy/First Steps: Between daily simulcasts, two full time networks, local broadcasts, and the current schedule of races slated for national and regional TV, the distribution outlets are already teed up.
My comment on why the two national networks have limited success is that these outlets do not connect with local racing fans, regional programming would be more effective. I think they need to reverse their approach, think local and start covering the sports at the grass roots level.
10) The Governing bodies don’t have the clout to unite the sport
Strategy/First Steps: There needs to be a single cohesive, empowered marketing and media organization that represents the industry. The current media landscape and new powerful social media outlets create new opportunities to reach potential fans. There’s a reason all the major leagues, NASCAR, and the PGA have large Entertainment, Production, Marketing and Business Operations and have networks run by the leagues.
After passing up the Turf Paradise opportunity, I ended up spending 18 years at the NBA, launched NBA TV, started-up the OKC Thunder’s Broadcasting Department / Digital Media Operations and learned the power of a coordinated Broadcasting and Multimedia effort. In my opinion it’s the first step to start reinventing the sport of horse racing.
Ken Adelson is founder of Adelson Sports Productions / Media Forward and former SVP of Production Operations for NBA Entertainment and Executive Producer for OKC Thunder Basketball.