Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thoroughbred racing spends millions… but not on TV

Zenyatta in the paddock before the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic.

Last month, Forbes released its list of the 15 “Richest Sporting Events in the World.” Amazingly, three thoroughbred races made that list, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The other two were the Japan Cup and the Dubai World Cup. Even more amazing was the following statement by Forbes writer Monte Burke:

“Five of the 15 spots on our inaugural list of the sporting events with the biggest prize money are occupied by soccer tournaments. Only horse racing, with three races, comes close.” (emphasis added)

That’s right. Horse racing beat out golf, poker, football, baseball, and auto racing for total prize money.

With that type of money at stake, one would assume that horse racing must also support a concomitant investment in television broadcast coverage of its big events, the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. However, as anyone closely involved with thoroughbred racing knows, that has simply not been the case. In fact, one of the most commonly voiced complaints in the business is about the general lack of network television coverage of the sport – the type of coverage that would lure new fans to horse racing. A look at average television ratings for horse racing’s major events over the past five years validates those complaints.

Television ratings, which represent the percentage of TV homes in the U.S. tuned into television, are woefully low for racing’s big events when compared to most other televised sporting events.

In his article entitled “TV Ratings and Horse Racing: The Big-Event Phenomenon,” Seattle sports writer and blogger Matt Gardner compared the television ratings for some of the top sporting events in the U.S. over the last five years. Not surprisingly, Breeders’ Cup Saturday had an average rating of 1.0, compared to 42.5 for the Super Bowl. The Triple Crown races fared a little better than Breeders’ Cup with ratings of 9.2 for the Kentucky Derby, 6.5 for the Preakness, and 4.6 for the Belmont.

“These ratings crystallize the notion that American TV viewers, for the most part, like to watch ‘the big event,’ regardless of whether they follow that same sport on non-event days,” Gardner said. Horse racing’s Triple Crown falls into that “big event” category, and is widely viewed as the sport’s biggest stage.

“The fractured nature of horse racing, with every track and every state forming essentially their own league, is another reason why the impact of television is lessened, at least in a direct revenue sort of way,” said Gardner. “There is no doubt that TV has the ability to attract new fans, but it's more of a long-term growth strategy than instant financial impact.”

The Jockey Club has taken a first step towards implementing that long-term growth strategy. Based on recommendations in its report, “Driving Sustainable Growth for Thoroughbred Racing and Breeding,” released at its recent Round Table conference in Saratoga Springs, NY, The Jockey Club has pledged to underwrite the production of a national television series in 2012.

Although plans for the television series, including format, have not been finalized, Jockey Club president, James Gagliano, indicated that the organization is in discussions with major national networks for a series that could range from recaps of major races to a reality-type racing show.

This is encouraging news for the horse racing industry, but there are other hurdles that must be overcome if racing is to be successful in bringing major television coverage to the masses. The biggest issue is the format of the broadcasts, which must be tailored to an audience with an increasing appetite for quick-paced action and a decreasing attention span. Racing will have to find ways to deal with the down time between races, particularly on multi-race big event days like the Breeders’ Cup, in order to hold viewers’ attention.

But, the biggest hurdle always being funding, the Jockey Club’s initiative is a long-awaited step towards a long-term solution to the problem.

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