In one sense, horse racing's television presence has never had better continuity. After years of the major events rotating networks, racing's high-profile properties are finally under one umbrella – the NBC Sports Group.
From the Road to the Kentucky Derby through the Triple Crown races to the summer staples at Saratoga and the Breeders' Cup, partnerships with NBC have created stability for the sport and its fans.
But what might be the next step forward for racing on TV? Ratings have remained consistently low for most events outside of the Triple Crown, and it's hard to argue, based on handle and attendance figures, that TV has been a significant driver of new fan interest.
For one thing, even though racing is on the same network throughout the year, NBC has several different partners in funding and creating the productions. The Jockey Club and the host racetracks collaborate on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs, Inc. partners with NBC on the Derby, the Stronach Group for the Preakness, the New York Racing Association for the Belmont, and the Breeders' Cup for the year-end championships. Each of those interests has its own vision, its own motivations, its own goals.
“At the end of the day, everybody kind of watches out for themselves,” said Billy Rapaport, an independent producer/director who has worked on racing telecasts since the 1980's. “Having it under one roof, the way the NFL does, for example, could be better. But it would take a very unique, unifying person.”
Certainly, having a commissioner or a national “league office” for racing might help the sport harness its TV exposure for better results, but past efforts to unify the sport have failed, and there is little current progress on that front. What else might help racing parlay its television presence into new fans?
Rapaport believes racing's unique opportunity is that it is unlike any other sport on TV. In most sports, the competition takes up nearly all of the TV time. In racing, the action lasts less than five minutes per hour.
“Horse racing should be a presentation. It should not be ‘covered' like other sports,” Rapaport said.
“There's so much focus on the brown horses running at the track that they lose what a racetrack is all about. What has been devalued in Thoroughbred racing programming is the on-track entertainment experience, and that's what I think will save the sport.”
Rapaport said TV productions too often cut away to videotaped features instead of staying “live” at the track to convey the unique experience of the venue, whether it be Saratoga, Churchill Downs, or Santa Anita.
“How about cutting away live to the Jim Dandy bar at Saratoga?” he said. “The experience of the racetrack is hard to describe to people. One thing TV hasn't done well is share that experience.”
In the Internet era, TV can also be a “billboard” – a means to an end. Television can drive people to online games and contests, and those interactive platforms in turn drive viewership. ESPN's popular Streak for the Cash, for example, is a contest challenging people to correctly predict sporting events, many of which air on the network's TV channels. With a large cash prize at stake each month, players pay attention to sports they might not have followed before. The game also encourages the skill of “handicapping,” obviously something racing would like to do.
One niche sport that has maintained a consistent TV presence for decades is bowling. The Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) still airs regularly on ESPN. Like horse racing, bowling pays for most of its TV coverage. It's expensive but a necessity, said PBA commissioner Tom Clark.
“We need to be on TV just to maintain the fact that we exist,” Clark said. “For our model now, we need the hours on television to attract the sponsorship dollars that we require.”
Still, the PBA is looking for ways to be less reliant on TV and get the most bang for its buck with the exposure it does get. The new PBA League features teams “owned” by current and former pro athletes, including Terrell Owens, Jerome Bettis, Chris Paul, and Billie Jean King. The idea is to add an element of celebrity that might attract viewers and generate buzz on social media. The PBA has also cut production costs by taping several events at a time, then airing them over consecutive weekends.
“What we find is that most people who watch our shows don't know what happened,” Clark said. “It hasn't really impacted our audience numbers.”
Clark said bowling's core audience has bristled at the idea of taped matches, but they can watch them live online, and the PBA wants to reduce costs while keeping the TV product appealing to a wider audience. Pouring too much money into TV can backfire for sports with niche audiences.
“It comes down to when you're on,” said Clark. “When you follow a highly-rated show, you do better. When you're up against a highly-rated show, you won't do as well.”
Rapaport agrees. Horse racing could also use creative thinking in how, when, and where it is presented. Is racing making the best use of its limited TV budget by primarily airing on traditional sports networks Saturdays from 4 to 6 p.m., sometimes against more popular mainstream sports? NBC/Comcast, for instance, has a wide portfolio of channels.
“You don't have to be next to these other sports. How do we make them understand it's more of an entertainment experience – the social, the fashion, the food,” Rapaport said. “Maybe it's the Travel Channel. Maybe it's FX. The sports side is covered. Are you gaining new fans from it?”
Some of Rapaport's ideas include a dating game show or a treasure hunt at the track.
“There are so many fun things that can happen at a racetrack,” he said. “The bottom line is, racing needs to be presented, not covered.”
Another unique aspect of racing compared to other sports is that many of its stars hail from Spanish-speaking countries. Are there ways TV broadcasts can connect with this country's growing Latino population? Bilingual interviews, for example?
“I think we are missing the boat. There's a natural Hispanic element to the sport,” said Rapaport. “There are little nuances we can do to be more relevant in the current environment. It's recognition of wanting to widen the circle and be inclusive.”
Celebrity, interactivity, entertainment, inclusiveness – these are particularly important elements for a sport where the action lasts two minutes, and there's a half-hour between races. In a world with hundreds of TV channels and endless possibilities online, there may be no shortage of opportunities for racing to make better use of its limited TV time.
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