We know horse racing will never beat the NFL or other professional sports on a regular basis for a prep event in terms of TV ratings. But the question is, why aren't they doing better? Should the ratings be better? Can racing hope for more?
We'll start with a sharp fellow who likes this stuff, and enjoys numbers, social scientist Dan from Thorotrends:
@pullthepocket Non-Triple Crown racing on network TV can deliver about 1 million older viewers. That appears to be the ceiling.
— Dan Needham (@thorotrends) April 22, 2013
..... and we'll add Derek, who is a PR guy in a suit, who generally has a good opinion on such things:
@pullthepocket Great post. Preps are a tough sell due to potentially low relevance factor. "Maybe one of these horses will run in the Derby"
— Derek Brown (@NJDerek) April 22, 2013
In the NFL, golf or NASCAR, the big events like the Super Bowl, Masters, and Daytona 500 knock the TV ratings out of the ballpark. Just like the Kentucky Derby does when compared to prep races. Is it all just part of the package and it is what it is?
It might be. But, the NFL, golf and NASCAR make a pretty penny and get some serious ratings for their small events too. Derby prep races - which really can be described as an NFL playoff game, or a semi-big tournament like the Players in golf - have nowhere near the draw of the Derby. Neither does the Breeders Cup for that matter, which has also drawn a three rating in years past. It's like there's the Derby (or other Triple Crown races) and everything else.
Is selling a Derby prep race on television impossible? Is selling race on TV as a weekend desitination impossible? Is there a ceiling, like Dano from Thorotrends thinks?
In my opinion - in its current form - probably.
"It's a horse, stupid."
On twitter, Melissa (@keenegal) tweeted that when going to the Blue Grass stakes where Undrafted, part owned by the Broncos slot receiver Wes Welker, was racing she would not even know Welker if she ran into him. She can't see "past a helmet". Both hockey and the NFL has this issue and more and more they try to get their stars into the media sans headgear, because they think it helps.
In horse racing, the stars are, well, the horses.
Horse's can't talk, and they generally look alike. I know they're different and have personalities, and so do you, but to the general public they are animals.
"How did you feel at the three quarter pole", asks ESPN.
"Nicker" answers the horse.
At least football and hockey players (well, some of them) can communicate with the spoken word. Horse's can't, and the public knows they, not the jockey's or the trainer, are the ones doing all the real work.
"Let's watch a crash. No, let's not."
Some say NASCAR is popular on television because of the crashes. Apparently - why, I am unsure - we like seeing mangled metal and mangled limbs. Horse racing is dangerous too, so why don't we see a spike of those type fans?
Because we're dealing with horses.
Michael Schumacher can get paid $20 million a year knowing he is taking his life into his hands on a racetrack. An animal is taking his life, not into his own hands, but in the hands of others, without even knowing it. The last thing we want to see is an accident or breakdown, and the public feels the same way. We ain't landing the "crash, bang UFC crowd" unless they have a (even more of a) screw loose.
"What team are you cheering for? I don't know, the brown one."
The NFL thrives on team rivalries. The protagonists are "America's Team" or the big bad Patriots who steal other teams plays like a blue jay steals other birds' hard-earned worms. We want to see Brady face Manning because we've known and watched Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for years.
In racing, for Derby prep season, the teams change every year, and like Derek says, many of the teams will not only not be around in a month, we may never even see them again. Oh boy, that sounds exciting!
I was chatting with a non racing fan recently and he loves Animal Kingdom. He saw him in the Derby and loved the horse's name. When I told him he was racing in Dubai, he watched. How many Animal Kingdom's does racing have? One or two. There's no America's Team in these prep races.
This probably helps explains the ratings when we do have something crazy happen - that is, a horse that people know. Zenyatta had a personality, was a filly racing colts, and was on 60 minutes. She blew the TV ratings out of the water, but horse's like her come around once in a generation it seems.
"Hey, a Derby prep is on, who are you betting? Um, We can bet this, how?"
A set of NFL games on a Sunday has innumerable draws. Julie has a bet on the game, Phil is in an office pool, Dave has Adrian Peterson going as his starting running back in his fantasy football league.
And gambling is supposedly illegal.
In horse racing for a Derby prep, gambling is legal, yet try getting a bet down if you are just tuning in for the first time. Joe Blow isn't running to his convenience store to get $5 on the five that he saw a neat story on during the telecast, and he isn't joining up online easily either. If he wants to see a past performance he might have to scour the web, sign up, wait til Monday and give someone $6; all for the privilege to see a set of numbers and symbols he doesn't understand. Heck, if he lives in a state that bans ADW's like Arizona, he can't even gamble online if he jumps through all those hoops.
Horse racing is a gambling sport that survives on people betting money, yet people can more easily gamble on a football game.
Unless something drastic changes in the way racing runs its business, or the way the races are shown, I suspect Dan and Derek are right. Getting over 1 million people to tune into a Derby prep on television where they don't know the horses, the protagonists change, and they can't even gamble on a gambling outcome, in a gambling sport, seems to be a fundamental barrier to success.