By Carter Carnegie
During the Great Depression, horse racing developed into one of America's favorite pastimes as it became a welcome distraction from the hardships and fears of the economic climate gripping the country. Horses like Seabiscuit, Equipoise and War Admiral rose to prominence as they captured the imagination of a nation seeking a break from the challenges and uncertainties of everyday life. Unfortunately, starting in the 1960's, racing began its slow trajectory towards becoming a niche sport. Unlike the NFL, NBA, NCAA or even PGA, it did little to integrate the advances in sports viewing consumption and embrace the new technology of its time: television. Needless to say, racing has had a tendency of “missing the break.”
Today, horse racing is at a crossroads where it can either continue the path it is on or be bold and seize an opportunity to flourish by entertaining an American public clamoring for live sporting events and distractions under these difficult times. Due to restrictions related to the coronavirus and the mitigation efforts put in place to combat this pandemic, large gatherings at sporting events have been postponed for the foreseeable future. Resumption of the traditional sports calendar is unknown. As some racetracks have demonstrated, it is feasible for racing to successfully continue under spectator-free conditions filling a void in the sports world and providing an opportunity for viewers to watch and wager on a live event.
More importantly, the ability to have racetracks operational is also providing a vital means for the survival of the industry's ecosystem and the thousands of jobs that come from it. Although these are challenging, and for many families heartbreaking times, racing has an opportunity to not only grow its profile, but also help and support its workers.
By introducing a new generation of fans to the majesty and skills of both equine and human athletes as well as the excitement of legal wagering, our sport can regain some of the marketshare it has lost over the last few decades to other pastimes and forms of gambling. Unfortunately, not having a centralized governing body similar to other major sport leagues, horse racing seems to lack vision and leadership. As the last few years have shown, the sport operates in a passive, fragmented and reactive manner, addressing problems only after they have reached their apex which continues to damage its reputation and further its demise.
It is imperative that racing organizations come together in a collaborative manner to fund, create, and roll out a National Awareness Campaign of promoting what is currently the only sport in town. The overarching message should focus on welcoming both sports fans and betting fans to discover our game.
With overall advertising rates down since few companies are spending, a campaign to discover the joys of racing would take place in a landscape devoid of competition from any other sport at a fraction of what it would cost under normal circumstances. Through various crafted messages, this effort can be designed to attract new viewers and bettors in the short term and yield growth for the sport after this crisis ends. In addition to promoting a watch and wager message, the effort should also focus on addressing the various negative issues that have prevented wider acceptance by fans over the last few years.
Messages designed to improve and promote the game can be delivered through a mix of editorial content, paid advertising and live sports programming that would address:
-Live racing is important to the well-being and livelihood of thousands of jobs from the backstretch and beyond
-Tune in messaging to watch and wager on racing on TVG, FS1, and NBC
-Wagering delivers tax revenues to States that will have hard hit budgets after this crisis passes
-Horses are deeply cared for by their staff, loved by their owners and appreciated by the betting public
-Racing is working hard to protect the safety of its athletes
-Racing leadership is committed to a sport that is drug free
I sincerely hope that during this time of social distancing, organizations such as The Jockey Club, Keeneland, Breeders' Cup and others who have similar missions (growing the industry and its audience) can come together to harness a collective effort towards improving our common passion. By embracing the modern technology tools of our time such as social media, ADW platforms, television and live streaming distribution, the industry can promote the game we love, share beautiful stories about our treasured athletes and once again entertain America during a challenging time.
If this pro-active opportunistic strategy resonates with you, I would suggest you take the time to call/ email industry leaders/organizations to share this point of view and urge them to take advantage of this once in a lifetime window.
If Google and Apple can collaborate on developing a joint solution to help bring normalcy back to our lives, why can't racing work together on a common vision to bring fans to the sport?
Carter Carnegie is President of Metrical and has over 30 years of experience as a sports business professional both in racing and working with sports leagues and events such as the NBA, NFL and Olympics. Metrical offers marketing solutions and business strategies to brands and sports properties.