Hail the King - By Gary Fenton

I realize every Tom, Dick, and Harry has a diatribe on how to fix horse racing.

Add this to the list, sort of.

I’ve been in the TV business since I was 25. I was around when the FCC deregulated television networks in the ’90s, allowing them for the first time to own the programs they broadcast, and watched the industry adapt to an entirely new culture and business model. It took awhile, though. Sound familiar?

I’ll never forget my lunch with the president of NBC (who was just general counsel at the time) 12 years ago. He said, “I will never allow my viewers to TIVO our programs.” Ha. It’s truly amazing how every business adjusts to its customer base—except horse racing, which caters to the precious, now all of a sudden not really in the mood to buy, horse owners.

I am not here to fix horse racing, so much as to offer some helpful tips on how to improve the Breeders’ Cup TV ratings and overall TV exposure. Since “TV is King,” I figure we should start here and move on to the other horse racing issues another time.

As you know, the Breeders’ Cup telecast is longer than the Super Bowl. Did you ever wonder why NBC’s Sunshine Millions always draws considerably more viewers than the Breeders’ Cup? Eight races in two hours. People care about the live horse race, but that’s generally it. Everything in between is fluff, like halftime of a football game. If there were eight halftimes, the NFL never would’ve made it.

I have two possible solutions, and both start and end with the golden rule: “TV is King.” You adapt to its audience, not the other way around.

• You can’t compete with football right now. So stop trying. The Breeders’ Cup should run live on TVG and HRTV, and the races should also be shown live on network TV during football games—NCAA or NFL. A race is one-and-a-half minutes long. Networks do “game breaks.” One day a year they will do “horse racing breaks” throughout the day.

Then at 6:30 p.m., after seven “horse racing breaks” and numerous promos to watch the “big race,” you run a half-hour or hour show around the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). That’s right, just one race. Look at the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). There are so many other great races that day—but America only sees one. If America cared about the Breeders’ Cup “undercard” races or had the time to watch them, the Breeders’ Cup ratings would reflect it.

In TV, when you launch a show, you put it on after your top-rated program. Why? ’Cause that’s where the most eyeballs are. Viewers traditionally will give the next show a chance. Go where the eyeballs are instead of competing against them.

• You run the races like Sunshine Millions. Two tracks. Races every 15 minutes. If every track did this, attendance would skyrocket. Handle would go down? Nonsense. People adapt. You can wager every 15 minutes just as easily as every 30 minutes. I used to buy records in a record store and books in a bookstore—now I buy them online.

A few years ago when NFL games began running long, over their precious three-hour Sunday blocks, what did they do? They adapted for TV and shortened games. Go out of bounds; keep the clock moving. At no point did the NFL want to try and hold their attention-span-impaired audience beyond three hours. The Academy Awards did the same thing when its telecast started running over three hours. Horse racing executives most likely would’ve seen this as an opportunity to run more ads.

Sure, you will have jockeys who can’t have every mount and some owners who won’t be able to witness all of their races in person…but really is that why you’re not doing it? So that some jockeys don’t have to share their mounts? Sounds like a nice way to increase the pool of jockeys.

In the end, no one will be upset when the audience goes up. More eyeballs, higher purses. If a few owners can’t get to both of their races, the rest of the world will be OK. NFL owners didn’t like revenue sharing at first…until the value of their franchises started dramatically increasing.

TV is King. You fit inside its box. Not the other way around.

Gary Fenton is the managing partner/CEO of Little Red Feather Racing, which is based in Los Angeles.

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