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Racing's Vision is its Achillies Heel

I finished an enthralling, comprehensive read recently: America's Game, A History of the NFL. I am a fan of pro sports, and the NFL in particular, but it's more than just about the game. The machinations, decision making etc of a sport, from inception, through competition, disruptive technologies and the like, are pretty fascinating to me. This book left no stone unturned, and was a wonderful read.

Being a lover of pro sports, and also a bit of a business geek in real life, I have always been amazed at a common thread that most, if not all, successful entities possess: Vision. Using a set of guiding principles, and doing what one does best has been waxed poetic upon by people with fancy degrees, so little old me can't add to it. But it's an immutable truth that exists.

Pro football in 1930 was not like it is today. Tim Mara bought the rights to the New York Giants for $2,500, college football was the flagship of the sport of football. Stadiums were a quarter full, revenues were weak, teams folded quicker than a 4 claimer that gets headed. What changed?

The building blocks of the business of football were tethered to a business system that leaned on a few main pillars:

1. Competitiveness: In 1959, Commissioner Pete Rozelle and all owners believed that when a league has haves and have nots, it can never succeed, because a sports fan in any city has to believe his or her team can be Champions. A competitive balance needs to be assured, so that a team from Cleveland can beat a team from New York on any given Sunday. Revenue sharing and the like adhered to this vision. This was the ultimate in pure meritocracy, in a country that had been bound by that concept since before 1776, and resonated with virtually everyone. It was a core NFL principle then, as it is now. This weekend, teams from tiny Green Bay, Seattle and Indianapolis will play for a chance to continue their march to a Super Bowl.

2. Owning your marketing, your message and your properties, and acting in concert: From the book's epilogue, a poignant excerpt:  "The tipping point for pro football's eclipse of baseball may well have been the creation of NFL Films and NFL Properties in the mid-1960's. At a time when the sports world was working in provincial sensibilities, the NFL began a broadly and unified set of promotional and marketing initiatives. These were not created to maximize profit, but to increase the league's prestige."

Some might say the above is easy in retrospect, but it was not. Al Davis - owner of the Raiders - long had seen pay per view for his club as a way to increase revenues. There have been teams that have moved for better deals, infighting and all the rest, but they were thwarted by committees and owner votes, always keeping an eye on the prize: Parity, fairness of execution, and control of the properties; even if in the short-term, they were revenue drags.

Racing in the 1930's, 40's, 50's and 60's had it all. As Tom Ainslie put it in his fine works, it was the number one spectator sport; and talk about controlling a property: It was the only legal form of gambling allowed.  Owning a racetrack was like owning a money press. You could be the dumbest person in the room and still succeed.

Despite that, sticking to the building blocks and investing back into the sport never occurred. Good competition is a cornerstone of racing, too. Racing never built or adhered to it. Horse's retired for short term gain in breeding sheds. Short fields that were unbettable popped up everywhere. The core of the sport - remember this was the number one spectator sport for decades - were never fostered, cultivated or listened to. Horse racing's edge as a gambling game was that it was beatable. Pittsburgh Phil wrote about it in 1903 and others later on did too. Instead of working with the 5% takeout framework at that time, to ensure they stayed low and horse racing continued to be believed beatable by the masses, rates went up and up and up.

Today, short fields, poor racing, no stars and high takeout is not looked at as the destruction of the game, but more a function of increased competition for a gambling dollar. That's simply not true. It's an excuse in a sport that's filled with them.

Racing never held to any vision with regards to owning one's properties either. Despite massive revenue there was no NFL Films to "not create maximum profit, but to increase the sport's prestige." How sad has that been for this sports' history. I was reading the "Top 40 Moments in Harness Racing" this week, and one of the races linked was that of the legend, the Pacing Machine, Cam Fella. This storied horse's retirement race (his 28th straight win) was placed on youtube recently, but not the race itself. It was some ancient clip from a news story. This seminal moment in the sport is curated from a handheld video off someone's VHS tape.

The Thoroughbreds are similar. Try finding some historical races on youtube sometime. Most don't exist. It's like the grand history of the people, the horses and incredible performances never even existed.

Along with not tabling a grand sports' history, statistics and other means to an end were not created to ensure growth, but were used as short term way to get more money.

Later on, back in 1970's, the lack of vision reared its head again, with the Interstate Horse Racing Act. There was no plan or vision; it was simply used as a means to an end to garner a few more short term dollars. Ditto the online exemption for horse racing in the UIGEA in 2006.

It's easy to blame this lack of vision on states, or disparate racetracks, but that's missing the point. The NFL had and still has the same issues, but they never wavered from the building blocks they prescribed in the 1940's and 1950's. They stuck to their guns and worked with it as a set of guiding principles, despite myriad reasons not to.

When you are watching the games this weekend in the NFL, remember that you are not watching them by accident, but because 60 years ago there was someone minding the store. At the same time when you are seeing a short field at Gulfstream, with incredulous, penal takeout rates, that you may or not even be able to bet on the Internet, remember the exact opposite: No one with vision has ever minded the racing store, and its a big reason it's where it's at today.

Comments

Bob Marks said…
Superb and so right on.
Dave Z said…
Testify!