by Richard E. Glover, Jr., National HBPA Director of Communications
On January 20th, Harris Interactive released the results of a poll in which it asked people, "If you had to choose, which ONE of these sports would you say is your favorite?" The easy winner in this poll - no surprise - was pro football, with 31%. Baseball was a distant second with 17%, and college football was the only other sport that earned over 10%, ranking as the favorite of 12% of the responders. Horse racing, on the other hand, was languishing in an embarrassing tie for 14th place with boxing, women's tennis, and swimming with a whopping 1%.
Click here to see the whole poll.
To put the poll's numbers in perspective, half as many people chose horse racing as their favorite sport as chose bowling. Moreover, only three sports on the poll - women's , which was started in 1985, have experienced a decline of more than 2% on the poll since 1985. Those three are baseball (6%) due in large part to a labor strike, men's tennis (3%), and horse racing (3%).
And the numbers for several sports could have been lower if some newer sports like mixed martial arts were included in the poll. After all, that is the fastest growing sport on the planet right now.
Frankly, I'm a little surprised and disappointed that the release of the results of this poll did not seem to bother more of the racing media and bloggers. I thought the poll was a telling and important indictment on the leaders of our industry's refusal to work together and change with the times.
The only consolation in looking at the poll results is that the question required respondents to pick only one favorite sport. So many respondents that chose other sports as their favorite could at least be interested in horse racing.
The popularity of sports over time are a function of many things, but there is no question in today's world that effective marketing can play a huge role in increasing a sport's popularity. Whether is is through advertising campaigns, effective media and public relations that land positive articles in the media, or effective use of tools like social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) to drum up grass roots popularity and give fans more interaction and buy in, marketing helps shape the size and loyalty of every sport's fan base.
If this Harris poll is any indicator, horse racing is clearly failing in its marketing efforts. And we have been failing for some time. Not only are we not gaining ground on competing sports, but we continue to lose ground to many of them.
Sadly, it can't be much of a surprise to anyone paying close attention. After all, most of the sports that have been most successful in using marketing to gain popularity have a league office with authority and some centralized marketing efforts. Racing, instead, generally lives by the axiom, "Every man for himself."
When the NTRA was formed in 1997, it was supposed to function as somewhat of a league office and be a central marketing arm for the sport. And it tried for a while. There was the "Go Baby Go!" advertising campaign featuring Lori Petty that was soundly panned by the racing industry but was better received by outsiders (i.e. the people to whom we needed to be marketing). And the NTRA created ads that its member tracks could tag with their own logos/information. Some tracks thought this was great and took full advantage of it, and others continued using their own campaigns instead of trying a more uniform approach.
In the end, NTRA members kept demanding changes in the NTRA that led to a drifting from the original focus of marketing to other areas. Today, the NTRA still tries to do some industry marketing, but with a much smaller budget and staff than it had at one time. Moreover, it is a league office in title only, as it has no authority over its members or the industry it is marketing.
Clearly, the industry's every-man-for-himself approach has been and continues to be a failure. The NTRA's efforts aren't enticing fans in droves. Most racetracks continue to see falling attendance and handle year after year, and those that don't are mostly tracks that are propped up by some other form of gaming like slots or poker or full casinos that have become the primary draw over the actual live racing. The breeders organizations aren't doing any better, and thanks to the falling wagering handle most places, they are having to do more with less as their budgets and programs (and often personnel) are slashed.
The horsemen's associations make some marketing efforts, but most are non-profits with the specific purpose of serving the needs and protecting the rights of their local horsemen. Thus, they typically have small or non-existent marketing budgets. And many have seen their budgets hit hard by the downturn in wagering over recent years.
So can horse racing gain back any of the market share it has been consistently losing over the last 25 years? Yes, it can. But it will take something our industry is terrible at - cooperation and putting the good of the whole over the good of each party's own little piece of the racing industry pie. We have to let the NTRA or some other entity act as the national marketing body of horse racing, developing a consistent marketing strategy for the sport that is applied both nationally and locally. There will need to be consistent messaging, the use of every imaginable marketing platform (the NTRA should get credit for already attempting to gain some traction with every marketing platform commonly used these days), and enough money allotted by the industry for these efforts to give the campaigns a chance to succeed (including hiring marketing experts that have a proven track record of success with other sports or businesses outside of racing and actually letting them do their job - we have to remember that these campaigns will be targeted at marketing to non-racing fans trying to get them interested, not at making our current racing fans and leaders like the campaigns).
If we can increase our market share through more effective marketing, all facets of our industry will benefit. More fans mean higher attendance, higher wagering, and higher television ratings. Those lead to higher purses and eventually a stronger bloodstock market. They lead to more companies interested in sponsoring races and racing organizations and events and advertising in racing publications.
A truly successful national marketing campaign can yield tremendous benefits that could help decrease racing's dependence in so many places on money from other forms of gambling. After all, state legislatures can continue to whittle away at the percentage of alternative gaming money that go to racing in their states. It would be a lot more difficult to take away money racing earns for itself through new fans and direct wagering on its live product.
Conversely, if the horse racing industry continues down its current path with no true central marketing body, we are likely to continue to slip in popularity until we completely fall of the rankings in the Harris poll (much like women's professional and women's college basketball have). Is it really acceptable to fall FURTHER behind sports like bowling? I, for one, certainly believe it is not.