By Dean Towers
Sunday's Women's World Cup soccer final between the United States and Japan was a roaring success. 25.4 million people watched the event, making it the 5th most (non-NFL) watched sporting event in 2015. The game's rating was up 88% from the same match-up on ESPN in 2011 and up 41% from United States-China on ABC in 1999, the last two times the U.S. made the final.
I must admit I was a little floored, so I immediately began looking for some reason for this large TV rating. But after doing some research I couldn't find one. It turns out the 25.4 million number didn't pop up out of thin air. People were watching in those numbers because they have been cultivated for almost a generation.
In 1994, the U.S. hosted the World Cup of soccer for the very first time. Ratings and attendance were good, free and paid media were flowing and the new world got a taste of World Cup fever. As a condition of the 1994 World Cup bid, U.S. Soccer was mandated to create a professional league to develop players. The grassroots side of the game was also invested in beforehand: U.S. Soccer was commandeering fields near you for our kids to play on, some of which were once baseball diamonds.
Back in 1984, 4 million people were playing soccer in the States. That number now approaches 24 million. Among high school boys, the game has the 4th highest participation rate when compared to all other sports, and there are more under-18 girls registered to play soccer in the U.S. than all other countries combined. Almost unbelievably, even the video game front is being infiltrated by this 'overseas' game – FIFA World Cup by Electronic Arts is the number two sports video game in the country behind Madden.
When we look at it that way, it might not be surprising that 25.4 million people watched a women's soccer game. It might be more surprising it wasn't 40 million.
For those of us who watched but don't play soccer, is there anything we can do to consume the sport, or do we have to wait four years for the next World Cup? No, we can support the sport just fine, thanks. Major League Soccer is a 20-team league that's been expanding. You can learn everything you need to know about it at mlsoccer.com, the industry website. They have an Apple TV app with games, news and highlights. They have an ownership structure unlike other sports leagues, where many of the profits are sunk right back into the sport.
Soccer is a true success story and much of it was spawned from one event, really: hosting the World Cup in 1994.
On the first Saturday in June, 18.6 million people watched the race portion of American Pharoah's Belmont victory, securing him the Triple Crown. On Sunday, he was on the front page of newspapers and he was all anyone was talking about. Is this the sport of horse racing's 1994 World Cup moment?
Unfortunately, the way racing is set up, it's a tough hill to climb.
If a few of those 18.6 million want to consume the sport as an owner – like enrolling their son or daughter on a soccer team – it's not exactly easy. Partnerships are a minefield of red tape, state by state. A stable “mutual fund” where a regular Joe or Jane can invest in some yearlings or two-year-olds-in-training is often talked about, but it's not something that's widespread or available. A friend of mine the other day asked me about buying a yearling, and what logistics he needed to examine beforehand, as a new owner. I was tongue tied and ended up having more questions for him than he did for me. This might be the major reason why the good press and millions of eyeballs from Funny Cide's or California Chrome's Triple Crown tries – little guys with a modest investment striking it big – has not been felt on the ownership side in racing.
What should be the quickest and most seamless way to consume the sport – and perhaps the most needed – is by becoming a fan and entering the betting pools online. Not only does that directly contribute to purses, we all know how it can hook you for life. Out of those 18.6 million that watched, and the millions of others who saw the headlines, this should be a slam dunk right?
Not so fast.
“The fan that says 'this looks like fun and I want to bet' can be hard to convert into a paying customer,” said Ed DeRosa, Director of Communications for Twinspires.com. “It can be difficult to shepherd them through the process.”
The process Ed refers to is a sales funnel that can be full of leaks.
States like Texas, Hawaii, Alaska, Utah and several others don't even allow online wagering on horse racing. Some credit card companies don't allow funding of online horse racing accounts because it's labelled “gambling”. A lot of people have real trouble giving personal information online, like social security numbers, and they (for many years) were required to open online horse betting accounts (although relaxed rules now only ask for the last four digits). Those funnel leaks throw a big wrench into conversions.
“It's legal, but these potential customers are having to give up more information than they do for other similar sites.” DeRosa noted.
When we compare the process for this year's Belmont Stakes sponsor Draft Kings, we see the stark difference. You can fund a Draft Kings account in a couple of minutes and be fielding a fantasy team right away (I did, it was ridiculously easy). How ironic is it that it's easier to become a paying customer of a Daily Fantasy site on Belmont Day than it is to make a bet on American Pharoah?
These aren't Twinspires issues; they more than probably anyone wish they weren't issues at all. They're industry issues and they've been around forever.
We haven't even touched on the fact that if someone does sign up online to wager, they then need to learn the sport, and that's an uphill climb. They aren't going to the track with a parent or brother or sister to guide them like you and I did. Sure there are resources, like Rich Eng's book Betting for Dummies, the excellent newbie website Helloracefans.com, American's Best Racing and others, but I don't know if the sport is doing a good enough job promoting those handicapping avenues either. The fine art of handicapping deserves all hands on deck, and all hands aren't.
In 1994, U.S. Soccer had a plan to convert the free media and goodwill from hosting the World Cup of soccer for the first time. That plan and vision helped create an environment where 21 years later over 25 million watched a women's soccer final; where more than 20 million play the sport; where 20 teams are now playing in a professional league that's profitable. With upwards of 20 million watching a potential Triple Crown try each year, racing needs a similar long-term vision. Fractional ownership is something that needs to be explored and made seamless. Streamlining the signup process for ADW's and lobbying all states to allow legal wagering on horse racing online should be a priority. Creating a vibrant handicapping education environment – creating an accessible surrogate 'parent' to take newbies to the races – should be in the mix, too.
It took soccer a generation to achieve their success. It will take racing some time, hard work and vision, too. In my view, it would be well worth the effort.