by Richard E. Glover, Jr., National HBPA Director of Communications
Let's face it - if horse racing was in a horse race with the other major sports regarding media strategy, our industry would be lagging behind in last place more often than not. And we don't traditionally mount a Zenyatta-like rally that takes us past almost all our competitors. We tend to stay in or near last place by fearing instead of embracing new technology at most junctures.
Where are we lagging behind this time, you may be asking? In television again, of course. While almost every other major sport is broadcast in high definition (HD), only a small handful of racetracks around the U.S. have invested the necessary resources in HD cameras and the technology to broadcast their signals in the crystal clear format that many sports viewers now demand. And of that handful (Keeneland, Charles Town, and the four tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc. - Churchill Downs, Arlington Park, Calder Race Course, and Hollywood Park), Churchill's CEO Robert Evans recently characterized his company's investment in HD broadcasts as throwing $750,000 "down a hole."
Of course, in Evans' defense, he said that largely because only 42 of the currently approximately 1,500 locations taking Churchill's signals are taking the HD signal. Evans pointed out that Churchill spent $1.2 million per track to upgrade their cameras and equipment to be able to broadcast in HD. But it is an investment in the future that should pay off in the long run.
To read more about the issue, click here to read Matt Hegerty's article about it in the Daily Racing Form.
For racetracks dealing with dwindling handle and attendance (and most of them are) and a poor economy that just seems to be lingering on and on, investing the money on upgrading video equipment and broadcasting in HD seem like unnecessary expenses.
Unfortunately, our industry needs to hurry up and figure out a way to pay for the upgrades for - at the minimum - all of the major tracks if we want anyone to tune in to watch horse racing on their big screen HDTVs. Maybe the tracks pay for all of it, or maybe the horsemen and the racing channels like TVG and HRTV will need pitch in some of the costs. Regardless, racing cannot afford to continue falling behind its fellow sports competitors.
I can say first hand that when I watch a major racing broadcast on ESPN or NBC or another network in HD on my big screen TV and then switch over to watch a non-HD simulcast feed on TVG, the decrease in graphic quality is dramatic and unmistakable. If it were a sport about which I just had a passing interest, I would probably just go ahead and turn the channel to watch something else that was broadcast in HD. It is not an issue I have to face very often watching football or basketball or even mixed martial arts (which is the fastest growing major sport largely because its focuses its marketing efforts on the younger generations).
We all worry and wring our hands as racing continues to see handle and sales declines month after month, year after year. Unfortunately, while we are wringing our hands and trying to figure out how to supplement our purses with other forms of gambling, we aren't doing a good job of providing one of the most basic things that is expected from the younger generations - a steady stream of high-quality video content. And if we can't capture the interest of some new, younger fans and horseplayers, our industry will be sunk.
As an industry, it is time for us to spend a little less of our time and resources fixated on testing horses to ridiculous femtogram (one quadrillionth of a gram) levels under the guise of "integrity", use a little common sense, and spend a little more of our time and resources providing content worthy of garnering some attention in the digital age in which we now live. And that needs to begin with HD broadcasts from all of our major tracks.
It's time to suck it up, face our fears of change and technology, work together, dig deep, and find out exactly whether we have what it takes to mount a rally and grab a bigger share of that purse that is the sports marketplace. Otherwise, our sport will only be able to trail the sports field for so long before we're put out to pasture.