Recently, CHRB Vice-Chair David Israel has been at work - making several comments about racing, and its ability to be marketed as a sport, among other things. A good deal of commentators, from Bill Christine to horseplayers, have been dissecting the comments.
The end goal for the foes of such comments is purely from a bottom line perspective. A perspective which has been echoed by marketers, bettors and others who care about the industry, namely: If we can not even decide who our customers are, how can we ever grow?
It appears Mr. Israel and his (albeit very few) supporters think racing can grow as a sport, like the Lakers and the Giants and the Maple Leafs, and Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant do. I believe the evidence is overwhelming: This is a complete red herring, a waste of money, and most importantly (as the clock ticks in our game) a waste of time.
Here are a few reasons why:
1. Horse's Can't Speak - In the sports world players and participants matter. When Joe Montana threw the ball to Dwight Clark in the NFC Championship against the Cowboys, we hear from him and we listen and we relive it. When Tiger Woods has a birdie putt to win the Masters, we hear from him and we listen and relive it. Conversely, when Zenyatta comes bareling down the stretch at Churchill Downs, we watch. She can't tell us how she feels, what she saw, how her trip was, or how tired she was. People love to say "well that is what jockey's and drivers are for - they are the stars". That is intra-industry nonsense. The general public knows that when Secretariat won by 31, or when Somebeachsomewhere came home in 54 flat to set a World Record in the Confederation Cup, it matters not who was on, or behind them. We want to hear from the true protagonists in sport's, and in our case, the protagonists whinny.
2. Momentum and Being in the Game Matters - In any pro sport, the thirty or sixty minutes or more are a roller coaster. We live and die with momentum. We scream at an interception, we exalt at a punt return TD depending on which team we are supporting. And we know the player who makes this mistake, or big play, because he has been around for many years, or is a hot rookie with plenty of press. We are a part of the game, and the emotion of it is a major reason you and I watch sports. Do we live and die with a 6 furlong race at Beulah in January? Only if we get photoed out I guess. There are times (and with 50k races a year they are so rare that they cant stand on their own) we live and die with a horse race (Barbaro, Zenny in both BC's) but not enough, and it never could be enough to rival true sport's.
3. Individual Sports Have a Difficult Time Breaking Into the Mainstream; And We Can't Play Jockey - Quick, list the top TV sports: Soccer, Football, Basketball, Baseball, Hockey, Cricket, Rugby. They are team sports and team sports rule - bar none. People might point to golf, which does get some good ratings, but these ratings are surely juiced since a guy like Woods appeared; and they still are nowhere near team sports ratings. How about NASCAR? Sure, there is something to that, but like golf, NASCAR does have a team element, and they are (of course) participant sports.
People drive cars to work every morning, people play golf, sometimes six days a week; and they are intertwined into the fabric of society. Agrarian racing was, but is not any longer. A sixty year old, 240 pound guy in Montana can take the back roads and pretend he is Jeff Gordon on his way to a golf course, where he can, when arriving, hit a nice six iron to four feet where he's Tiger Woods. Unfortunately, the same guy is not going to pretend he is Mike Smith, Randy Waples, or a horse.
4. Agglomeration Matters - There are a hundred social networking sites, but only one is worth billions. There are hundreds of sports, but only a few capture millions of viewers to pay the bills. In November each year I hold two get togethers. First is the Breeders Cup, the second is US Thanksgiving football. Being in Canada one might think I could get more friends out to a BC day on a Saturday than for a football game when everyone has to go to work. Nope, Thanksgiving is popular, the BC is for die-hards. Real sport's tend to work work like a social network - go to a tail gate or Super Bowl party, join an office pool, play Madden 11 online, or be in a fantasy league, to see that sport's in action. Racing simply does not have the critical mass to grow internally, or virally as a sport. The other obvious point of agglomeration is revenue and that growth - sponsorships, TV commercials, cross branding and all the rest that come from a sport's popularity. With racing, no matter what we do, this revenue has been no more than a dribble.
5. Revenue - This one is obvious and unassailed. How much would the average fan pay for a nice seat to a Wild Card game? Will they pay $400 for a signed Peyton Manning jersey? Will they buy a product supported by Joe Montana? Will they shell out $200 a year to watch the Sunday ticket? Will they watch Sunday Night Football and pay for advertising? Yep, and that's where the money is. If racing had to survive on T-shirt sales, seat sales. TV revenues and concessions, the average purse at Acqueduct would be about $60. Scratch that, probably less.
6. There are Very Few Champions- I kind of like curling, believe it or not. I really like the Tour De France. I love watching track and field. I watch each event once or twice a year, when there is an event. It might be a national championship, a bike race in France, or what have you. But I watch, even though I am not a pure fan. In racing we have the Breeders Cup and Breeders Crown. We have the Derby. I know the Tour De France winner is the best cyclist in the world. I know the Olympic curling champ is the best team in the world. Is the Derby champ the best horse? Um, no, I think that is only for three year olds.... or something like that. What sport does not have a "best" of something? Even the Eclipse awards are a mess of old time colloquialism.
7. Detractors - Because we are dealing with animals in our game, we have our share of detractors. Some sports have drug scandals, but those are with human athletes, not animals, and because humans are making the errors those sport's live by sport's rules, not animal welfare rules. Gymnastics might be a good example where overzealous Eastern Bloc coaches were forcing 12 and 13 year old girls to compete, according to many. The sport took a hit and people do not look at it the same way. In terms of non-human sports I would submit Rodeo is the prime example - that 'sport' used to be on TV screens each weekend. Now it is banned in many states and provinces. When Sidney Crosby plays a game with a broken leg, he is gutsy. If a horse races with a broken leg, it's barbaric.
8. Real Sports Have a Central Authority - As we have looked here at PTP, sports like football have had hard and fast rule changes to make the game better and it was done from the league office. Meanwhile, "sports" like boxing and racing have chosen a different route. In racing, to change a rule, we need to part the Red Sea. To kick out a cheater, we need Matlock. We can't even bet the races depending on where we live, let alone watch them on the interwebs. Real sports have someone minding the store. Racing is a hodge podge of wagering boards, horsemen groups, or no-teeth acronyms. Many of them work in opposite directions, ensuring the status-quo rules, and we circle the drain.
If you agree with any of my points, or even if you do not, one thing we do have going for us is our passionate gambling base. It is not a secret that is where I would go to grow this sport. It is truly one of the best gambling pursuits ever to grace the earth and it is a selling point, even in the worst of times.
In fact, there are other sports who wish they were racing. They wish they had a great gambling game to fuel it. Could you imagine how popular Arena Football would be if it was the only sport we could bet legally?
The question to me is: Why are so many people in racing wanting the opposite?
Saying we're a sport might make a good sound bite, and it might make us feel better. But making us feel better by wanting to be something we are not does not pay the bills. In racing, trying to put scarce resources into a pipe dream with the goal of changing the entire demographic who funds this sport, while there are dozens if not hundreds of ROI-positive, or potential ROI positive avenues screaming for money, is nothing short of professional negligence. It's something that has to stop.