Racing Can Learn Something From the Grey Cup

Yesterday the Championship of Canadian Football  - the Grey Cup - took place in Toronto. It was the 100th edition.

I watched it, like I usually do, because it is an interesting game and it is part of a culture. The game itself is unique, it's niche, it's different. But it's Canada and it has a history.

The CFL has had a resurgence the last half dozen years or so. TV ratings are up, attendance is up. This is very impressive for one reason, mainly: In the 1990's the league probably had a 30-70 chance of surviving.

If you think racing is "dead", it is probably much healthier today than the CFL was.

Numerous things occurred that helped pull the league from the doldrums, but there was one old axiom of marketing that led the charge: Be yourself because you can't market what you aren't.
  • Until a few years ago, the CFL existed apologetically. It wasn't the National Football League, wasn't American or glamorous. That it also was neither profitable nor especially stable fuelled the CFL's inferiority complex. Sorry the field was wide. Sorry there were 12 players. Sorry two teams in a nine-team league once had the same name. Sorry it was so Canadian. 
  • The CFL was uncomfortable in its own skin. "I 100 per cent agree with that," CFL commissioner Mark Cohon said Thursday. "When I came in, I looked on our website and the first thing I saw was the old ad campaign 'Our balls are bigger,' because the old CFL ball was bigger than the NFL ball. I thought: Why are we comparing ourselves to this league south of the border that's a $9 billion entity? We need to celebrate what's great about us.
Their marketing moved on that meme. Canada's railway system linked the vast country together and was a major reason it became a country. The Grey Cup marched on a train tour across the entire nation. People touched the Cup and got to know it. It paraded up and down Yonge Street. Horse's from Calgary did too, adding more to the zeal of the event. The league didn't apologize for what it was - it markets what it always was.

As for the game itself, traditions that some might call "cheesy" - like the Governor General's ceremonial kickoff - were not buried, they were front and center. Interviews from polticians like PM Harper were not staged events, they were done on the field, and they talked about the game and its history as a part of the country's fabric. The PM even sat in the cheap seats, not in a plush box. New immigrants come to Toronto each day and they see a PM sitting with everyone else enjoying a uniquely Canadian event? Welcome to the Grey Cup.

That doesn't mean you don't go after new demographics, because you have to, especially when all eyes are on you. Justin Bieber did the halftime show, while the demo in the stands probably have never even heard one of his songs.

I was at Keeneland a couple of years ago and spent some time with horseplayer Mike Maloney. A good guy, great player who loves the game. We shared some racing stories over dinner one day about what it means to be a player, horse owner, and lover of the game. At one point he said "why do we try to out-casino a casino? Why do we try and be something we're not? We can't compete."

I think he's right.

Racing does much better when it's just itself. It's no surprise the Kentucky Derby is a staple today - they'd fill the joint if twenty 5 claimers were racing on the First Saturday of May. We're a sport where people get together to see if my horse is faster than your horse. We're a gambling game that's a puzzle. We're as old as the day is long and we have a tremendous history.

Embrace and celebrate the history. Embrace and celebrate the handicapping puzzle. Embrace and celebrate what we are. Like the CFL, racing will never be a major sport like the NFL. It'll never be the Bellagio or Caesars Palace. We need to learn from them, market what we are, and never run away from it.

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