Did you know that the first Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park in 1984 drew a bigger crowd than the first Super Bowl at the Los Angeles Coliseum did in 1967? It's true.
When the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League played the Kansas City Chiefs of the upstart American Football League in a game that wasn't yet known as the Super Bowl, the LA Coliseum was not even two-thirds full. Only 61,946 of a possible 94,500 showed up. Ticket prices were a paltry $6 to $12.
Seventeen years later, when the inaugural Breeders' Cup was run, a crowd of 64,254 turned out. Ticket prices were no different than the daily general admission at the “track of lakes and flowers” that the late Marjorie Everett ran with an iron fist.
Not unlike the Super Bowl, the Breeders' Cup has changed since that first running. Unlike the Super Bowl, however, its course, nor its growth, has always been steady.
The Super Bowl has had explosive growth in the past 46 years, thanks to the cohesion of a strong league office led by commissioners allowed to carry out a long- term vision. The game is the most watched television show each year, and has been for more than 20 years. Viewership in the United States alone is north of 100 million households.
Unless you know someone, you're not likely to get a ticket for the Super Bowl, and the prices are considerably higher than $12. Wherever the game is played, the local airports are lined with private jets carrying high-rollers from the corporate world who are no bigger football fans than you or me but feel compelled to be part of the scene.
It started out as a game, evolved into a weeklong event, and now is an integral part of the fabric of American life. TV viewers look forward to the commercials that debut on the Super Bowl telecast, they have come to expect A-list entertainers for the half-time show, and tune in for what seems like an endless pre-game show.
The Breeders' Cup would like to follow that example, even with only modest ambitions.
Hollywood Park secured the first Breeders' Cup in part because of Everett's friendship with movie and television stars like Cary Grant, Liz Taylor, John Forsythe and others. She promised to make it more than a day of racing – although an extraordinary day it was, with seven races offering an unprecedented $10 million in prize money. The track was populated with celebrities. It made for a good sideshow to the racing, with organizers hoping non-core racing fans who tuned in might stay around for a while and find themselves liking the sport.
That certainly didn't happen in 1985, when the Cup shifted to Aqueduct, which in November is about as picturesque as an abandoned warehouse. The racing was good, but the television package was awful. So was attendance, which fell to 42,568.
Over the next several years, the Breeders' Cup vision evolved from an “event” to a big day of racing. It still decided year-end championships, and there was extraordinary competition on the track. TV ratings sank, and because of the slump in the bloodstock market revenue from stallion and foal nominations declined significantly. Simulcast wagering, which grew steadily, kept the Breeders' Cup financially sound until the stud fees rose again, making the organization flush with cash at the turn of the century.
Seven races expanded to eight, with the addition of the Filly & Mare Turf in 1999. It spread to two days in 2007, with three new races, then eventually four more for a total of 15 by 2011 (the Juvenile Sprint was dropped this year).
Betting did not increase exponentially with the addition of all these new races, and when stud fees began to fall in 2009, revenue became a concern again for the Breeders' Cup Board.
Meanwhile, all hope of making the Breeders' Cup a popular sporting event on television was gone. ESPN lost interest and the Cup, except for the Classic, was relegated to the NBC Sports Network that many viewers did not have (or could not find) on their cable package.
Adding to the Cup's challenges is the expansion of other racing festivals around the world: Hong Kong, France, England, Ireland, and Dubai now have major events with which the Breeders' Cup must compete for horses and prestige.
The focus has come full circle, back to celebrities, fashion and food, in the hope that the Breeders' Cup can become an “event” again in a city like Los Angeles where celebrities and fashion are an industry. So it's back to Santa Anita Park again in 2014, for the third year in a row.
Can any momentum it gains in the entertainment world be sustained once the Cup leaves for colder climes back East?
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