A lot of discussion has taken place lately regarding horse racing’s position in the general public’s consciousness compared to those of other major sports.
For those of you who have not been keeping tabs on the situation, racing is so far behind the big four sports (I still count hockey, damn it), it makes Nicanor’s finish look like a neck and neck stretch duel (zing!). The issue has been discussed in the Blogosphere and at the industry meetings, and it seems as though everyone involved is trying to figure out the best way to catch up.
I can’t say I have an answer. I’m not the one getting paid the big bucks to figure these things out. What I do have is a point of improvement (with an assist from a previous comment by Amateurcapper) that someone with more time, energy and resources than I could use to increase awareness for the sport and perhaps boost the handle a bit.
One of the big reasons racing lingers behind the major sports, both team and individual, is because fans are given little reason to follow their favorite horses and people outside of the few minutes they have have a ticket in their hand with the horse’s number. More effort must be made to get the fans to personally identify with some aspect of the game – to follow a horse or a stable with such passion that said horse or stable comes to represent the people that cheer them on. Once their stake in the game becomes something more than monetary, the fans will keep coming back.
The reason the major team sports have their fanbases is because their operations represent cities, states and other geographic regions. Whether or not people identify with the players themselves, they identify with the colors and logos on their jerseys and what they stand for. If the Dallas Mavericks suddenly became Mark Cuban’s Mavericks and only considered their hometown a loose base of operations, the people of Dallas would likely care significantly less about the team.
As for the individual sports, the majority of the fanbases tend to follow particular athletes for two reasons: 1) Sheer dominance (Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, The Williams Sisters), or 2) The fan hails from the same city/country as the athlete (Every athlete to have competed in the Olympic Games. Would anyone in the U.S. care about Michael Phelps if he came from Latvia?).
The exception to this rule is NASCAR, but you already know how I feel about NASCAR.
Now that we have identified what draws the fans in, we must examine what the sport of horse racing offers that can generate that same passion.
The obvious answer to this problem is ownership. The races take on a whole new meaning when one of your own is in the gates, and with partnerships and syndicates on the rise and horses going for firesale prices at the sales, opportunities to get in the game are becoming more and more plentiful. Of course, with the current state of the economy, owning even part of a horse is nearly impossible to justify financially for the average person, even at the lowest levels.
As for attracting fans based on dominance, the only standard anyone outside of the know respects is the Triple Crown, and those are too hard to come by to rely on for anything more than a welcome boost. Next.
This brings us back to regional pride. Every horse comes from somewhere. Where the horse is bred and where it is stabled means it represents the home team for up to two different groups. Personally, I feel a great sense of pride when a Michigan-bred goes to another track, especially a big one, and wins a race. If there were a way to channel this “my state is better than yours” mentality into some kind of yearlong competition or series of races, it could have the potential to get people interested in rooting for their home team.
The big problem with this idea is that the overwhelming majority of the national-level horses are based or bred in Kentucky, New York, California or Florida. Any kind of direct state vs. state competition would be thoroughly dominated by the big dogs unless the states were put into divisions based on size and class like high school sports.
The powers that be have already tried the regional competition idea on a global scale in the Breeders’ Cup with a sort of “U.S. vs. the world” angle. The general American dominance in both wins and entries has put a damper on this drawing point in the past, but with the success of the European-based turf horses on Santa Anita’s Pro Ride surface, this could definitely be something worth looking at for this year’s World Championships.
Like I said, I really don’t have any answers. Just a few thoughts to ponder.
What this sport needs is a way for the casual (or at least low-to-non-betting) fans to connect with some aspect of the game, be it the horses, jockeys, trainers, owners or otherwise on the level that their successes and failures become “our” successes and failures. When the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals in last Sunday’s Super Bowl, no one in the Steel City was exclaiming “they won!” Though a small number of people actually accomplished the feat of winning the Super Bowl, millions claimed the win as their own. Once racing can accomplish this, it will be in business.