By Bill Finley
Because of the coronavirus and the resulting cancellations, comparing 2020 handle numbers to 2019 numbers is an inexact science. But something clearly has gone right for NYRA this year. Entering December, the daily average all-sources handle number for NYRA races was $11,829,355, a 19.6% increase from this time last year when an average of $9,894,226 had been pushed through the windows.
For the year overall, NYRA's all-sources handle is down 14.2%, a modest decrease when considering that the amount of races offered has dropped by 25.1%.
That the increase in daily average handle has coincided with a significant increase in the number of hours devoted to NYRA race coverage on the Fox Sports networks is probably not a coincidence.
“It would not be an overstatement to say we have no idea where we would have been without television this year,” said NYRA's chief revenue officer and the president of NYRA Bets Tony Allevato. “Television played an important part in NYRA's strategy long before I got here. They had always looked at the future as being television and distributing the content to a mass audience. But nobody could have foreseen (the pandemic) coming. Thank goodness we had in place what we had in place. Otherwise, I'm not sure what would have happened.”
NYRA first teamed with Fox Sports in 2016 when the network televised 80 hours of racing from Saratoga. The total hours Fox Sports devoted to racing continue to climb, with the network broadcasting 385 hours in 2019. Another major expansion was ushered in for 2020. A total of 775 hours of coverage will be shown. For much of the year, virtually every race run at the New York tracks could be seen on a Fox Sports network.
The show, America's Day at the Races, will air for the final time in 2020 Saturday when the Aqueduct card is topped by the GI Cigar Mile The broadcasts are expected to resume in the spring of 2021.
“We were really able to get our programming out and in front of, in our opinion, a new audience,” Allevato said.
The 2020 Fox-NYRA agreement called for NYRA to pull its races off of TVG, a calculated risk considering how many people watch that network and make their wagers through its ADW platform.
“We did worry about that,” Allevato said. “TVG had been a great partner with the New York Racing Association for almost 20 years and, obviously, they do a lot to drive handle. We didn't take that decision lightly. We just looked at the difference in the type of coverage we could get for New York racing on Fox and compared it to what we were getting on TVG and we thought this gave us the best opportunity to really push our content.”
It was not just the increase in the total number of hours. Last year, the extent of NYRA racing coverage on Fox Sports 1 was all of one hour, with the remaining coverage airing on Fox Sports 2. This year, Fox Sports 1 picked up 206 hours of NYRA coverage. According to Allevato, Fox Sports 1 is available in 80 million homes, while Fox Sports 2 is available in just 55 million homes.
“The viewership difference between the two channels is pretty big,” Allevato said. “We will see three to five times the viewership when we are on Fox Sports 1 versus Fox Sports 2. Our hardcore audience is still watching when we are FS2. but we are seeing that we are getting that causal sports fan to watch when we are on Fox Sports 1. There were days during the summer that our show on Fox Sports 1 drew more viewers than a major league baseball game on the same day. Right now, our ratings on Fox Sports 1 are comparable, or higher than, college basketball and major league soccer. That's a pretty big accomplishment for horse racing, in my opinion.”
In an attempt to track whether or not the shows were creating new racing fans, NYRA offered Fox viewers incentives to sign up with the NYRA Bets ADW, including a free $20 bet when someone signed up for a new account. Allevato said that the number of people who made additional deposits and became at least semi-regular bettors after opening up an account to take advantage of the free offer exceeded expectations.
It wasn't the hardcore player or the existing fan that already was betting a lot that we were getting,” he said. “We were getting new people. Those types of customers are how we can grow this sport.”
To acquire 800 hours of air time on a national network and to put together the shows is not inexpensive, especially when you consider that NYRA produced the shows. Allevato said that when it comes to “America's Day at the Races,” NYRA looks at more than the bottom line.
“One of the great things about NYRA is that NYRA is a not-for-profit,” he said. “So, when you look at what the team is trying to do here it's not a short play, it's a long game for us., It's really about making sure that horse racing in New York succeeds and we also believe that for horse racing to be successful in New York we need horse racing to be strong across the country. Sometimes some of the decisions we make short term probably don't pencil. But we are not about the short term, we are all about the long term. While we have not lost money on the shows–and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to our sponsors, America's Best Racing, Claiborne and Runhappy–it is certainly not a lucrative short-term proposition for us. It is something we do because we feel it is the right thing for NYRA and the right thing for the sport.”