Op/Ed: Oh the Places We Could Go

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Pat Cummings

By

Pat Cummings is Executive Director of the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation

“Oh, the places you’ll go,” hoped Dr. Seuss.

There are reasons to be optimistic about the future of Thoroughbred racing in North America.

Our future could be far brighter than the present, but it is all very conditional. A massive effort to modernize the sport is needed. “Modernization” does not just imply technological or other sorts of novel innovation, but rather, change to long-standing practices that will improve the outcomes of our sport for all stakeholders–horses, owners, bettors, fans, etc.

More than 3,000 people descended on Boston this weekend for the 14th annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC), a two-day gathering of leaders, mostly from the sporting world, to discuss how sports have evolved and will evolve. Few topics went untouched across the 90 sessions and nearly every major sport got discussed. That included swimming and table tennis this year, but not horse racing.

I was attending for the second consecutive year. The august panels assembled do not have to touch on racing directly for those attentive to our sport to be triggered. Ideas abound at every turn.

You can look back at the sessions from the 2020 SSAC and previous years via their YouTube channel. I’ve extracted a few of the key lines that resonated with me from this year’s event, framed in light of racing on this continent.

  1. “Nothing is sacrosanct” – Evan Wasch, NBA Senior Vice President of Basketball Strategy & Analytics

As a few professional basketball executives discussed a host of ideas to completely revise the league’s season structure, it struck me that the line Wasch offered was highly unusual for an organization and sport that is otherwise considered highly successful. Would you expect to hear “nothing is sacrosanct” from a professional league that is at the height of its global success or one that was tremendously struggling and trying to maintain relevance?

If racing is going to succeed, embracing transformational change in areas that may have otherwise been seen as off-limits will likely be necessary. Those who have resisted such change must come to the table and accept a new normal that will impact everyone.

Whether you want to use a clearly defined metric such as inflation-adjusted handle declines (down nearly 50% in less than 20 years) or something more anecdotal but just as obvious, such as the rising threat of racing’s social license to operate, our collective industry is not performing at a level that would allow us to continue onwards without challenging what may have been long-standing conventions.

If the NBA can suggest nothing is sacrosanct, then North American racing stakeholder groups can not legitimately defend the opposite.

  1. “The status quo is a recipe for disaster, or at least irrelevance” – Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN President

In the world of cord-cutting, streaming services and 5G, imagine if ESPN was relying purely on their cable business. The greater Disney family of networks, which includes ESPN+ and Hulu are generating nearly $800 million in monthly revenue only from streaming services, with over 70-million subscriptions as of February. That doesn’t mean it’s profitable, but it is clearly getting plenty of resources.

North American racing is still distributed via satellite contracts, with some tracks still broadcasting in standard definition despite The Jockey Club incentives to share costs of upgrading. The stranglehold that these contracts have on tracks–and their budgets–must loosen in the future with some outside-the-box thinking met with more modern technology.

What is the harm of attempting change? A quicker failure? Job loss (considering the already low turnover in our business)? If the majority of metrics in our business are trending down, surely cover exists in every corner to give new ideas a shot.

The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation’s latest white paper, “American Racing’s Sustainable Future,” suggests that many tracks lack incentives to grow racing, a factor which surely stifles experimental change. Racing isn’t going away tomorrow, or next week. As long as there is time on the clock, we should be trying to win the next possession, the next quarter, the next half…not just playing out the string.

Eliminate claiming races for a meet and test a ratings-based handicap system. Institute a high-churn, low-takeout wager for six months. Refund admission charges in the form of a “must-be-used” $5 betting voucher.

  1. “I think that betting on Egaming [Esports] is going to be a massive category, bigger than anyone knows, no one would really have understood how big of a spectator draw Esports was going to be five or 10 years ago, and I’m of the belief that anything that can be a spectator sport should have an Egaming or fantasy component to it” – Jason Robins, Draft Kings Founder & CEO.

Esports, essentially competitive and interactive video gaming, is massive.

If you don’t know about it, or if it sounds silly, I’d suggest a few minutes of research. Viewership numbers (yes, of people watching others playing video games, for monster prize money) are projected to rise between 9 and 13% over the next few years, to nearly 700 million viewers annually. It is open for betting, has emerging integrity oversight and is far bigger than most imagine.

Is it possible that riding virtual horses could be far more popular than actual horses? Our industry should be at the forefront of this, seeking collaborative input and finding amenable partnerships as opposed to mockingly questioning whether Esports is even “a thing,” as happened at a racing and law panel I participated in less than two years ago.

  1.  “I’m quite bearish on football…The fact they are [considering] adding games to me is bearish, because it means they are trying to maximize the short-run revenue. I think it’s a bearish indicator” – Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight Founder.

Ponder this one, particularly in light of the NFL’s concussion crisis, and the connection to racing’s ongoing concerns.

We have tremendous opportunity to grow our own troubled asset. A brighter future is possible.

Oh, the places we’ll go…but we have to actually start moving.

The value of investing in a transformed business will be shared by all existing stakeholders. The difficulty that comes with change will yield a better, brighter future for our horses, our sport and those who dedicate their lives to it. Let’s go together!

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