These Numbers Don't Lie

I have heard both directly and indirectly from a number of you in response to the consumer research reported in my blog last week.  I noted in that blog that in 2009, polling conducted by the NTRA’s long-time polling consultants (who we share with Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government) found that about 50.6 million adults in the U.S. qualify as Thoroughbred racing fans and that about 5.6 million adults say they attend a racetrack or an OTB or log onto an online wagering site and “bet a few times a month.”  Some of you have questioned these numbers. Here is a brief explanation of how these results were reached.    
 
Some questioned whether horse racing in the U.S. actually has about 50 million “casual” fans.  That is not only the conclusion of a recent 2000+ respondent, Internet-based survey of sports fans conducted by SocialSphere Strategies for the NTRA.  It’s a number that has been consistent over the course of the last 10 years of NTRA polling using a variety of online and offline methodologies.   Similarly, 10 years of ESPN Sports polls have consistently found that about 37% of adults (potentially 83 million people) described themselves as fans of our sport. 
 
Others questioned whether our business has 5.6 million “core” fans - fans who watch and wager “a few times a month”. This number (which given the statistical margin for error could be somewhat higher or lower) is likewise supported by years of research at the NTRA.  Once again, the ESPN Sports polls also confirm that roughly 2 to 3 percent of the adult population cite Thoroughbred racing as their “favorite sport.”  2.5 percent of the adult population of 223 million is 5.6 million fans.    
 
These findings are further supported by the size of total attendance at racetracks nationwide.  According to 2007 data, which is the most recent available, live attendance for 2007 at well over 200 thoroughbred, harness, quarter horse and mixed meet racetracks in 38 racing jurisdictions nationwide was approximately 20 million visits.  Twenty million annual visits puts horse racing as the #2 spectator sport in America behind only one other U.S. major league sport, MLB, and ahead of the NFL, the NBA, the NHL and NASCAR.  And many millions more racing fans visit the nation’s  1,100+ simulcast locations (including OTBs, dog tracks, jai alai frontons, casino race books, racinos and native American reservations) and ADW sites, many of which do not track attendance and which together account for about 90% of all handle.  A dying industry we are not.   
 
Think also about television viewership.  In years when a Triple Crown sweep is on the line, total viewership for the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes will approach as many as 30-35 million viewers.  Yes, there are overlaps in viewers, but the Kentucky Derby is routinely the fourth or fifth highest rated sports broadcast behind the  Super Bowl, the BCS Championship and the NCAA Men’s basketball finals – three sports that each have fan bases well in excess of 100 million.
 
Regardless of the specific numbers which some will always question, it is important to realize that the size and scope of horse racing in the U.S. are huge.  Nonetheless, the sport’s somewhat local or regional appeal—and its diffused impact on local economies—make it tough for anyone to ever see its full scale and scope except on rare occasions like Kentucky Derby day.  Both in terms of polling data from multiple independent sources and our own attendance data, there are millions of fans engaging with racing on a daily basis.  However, even industry insiders don't often see or “feel” the impact, and this makes it difficult for many of them to understand the overall magnitude of the sport. 
 
Our challenge as an industry, and specifically at the NTRA, is to bridge the gap between perception and reality – between the perception that declining live attendance means a dying industry and the reality that through progressive industry dynamics, we are adapting reasonably well to an increasingly Internet-based commercial and communications environment.   This is a challenge that must be addressed if we are ever to convince even our own industry’s insiders, much less the broader sports entertainment world, that horse racing is rising to meet the challenges of this new century. 
 
The mission of the NTRA is and has always been to help bridge this gap, to coalesce the human and financial resources necessary to establish Thoroughbred racing as a major sport and entertainment option in the U.S. After 10 years of effort, we still have a long way to go before our goals are reached, but it is important to realize that in spite of a vengeful economy and a few self-inflicted wounds, we as an industry have made progress and the public still loves our game. 
 
How do we bridge this gap between perception and reality - between local impact and national significance?  Let me hear from you.  

11 Comments

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Alex'sBigFan

Mr. Waldrop I find these numbers quite inconceivable, or should I say "UN BE LIE VA BLE."  I fit into the core fan base, an avid racing enthusiast, and one who loves and supports this sport and industry.  50.6 million U.S. adults qualify as racing fans?  Indeed!  I agree with the 2.5%, or 5.6 million being the core fan base, but the other figure seems absurd based upon the fact that mainstream America has no idea who Zenyatta, Uncle Mo, Big Brown, Afleet Alex, Bernardini, etc. is.  With owners such as Mr. Repole and Jerry and Ann Moss who have connected the fan to the horse and understand the whole marketing concept, I could see where that 50.6 figure could become a future reality.  They have "bridged the gap" between (I'll say it again, I've already said it in 3 blogs already) the two key elements at the core of horseracing, the fan and the horse.  If these two elements can be connected successfully, that should be profitable for the sport.  Yes, people love the sport but where is marketing to go out and capture them?  Inroads have been made in marketing but there is so much more to be done to keep and nurture the bettor and fan and attract a new and younger fan base.  TV race coverage is all over the board, fans don't know whether to watch a race on NBC, ABC, CBS, ESPN, ESPNII, TVG, HRTV, MSG, MSG+, etc.  If you conduct a simple test and go out in your daily travels and ask 20 people at random about Zenyatta, I guarantee you will get about 20 blank stares back.  So my answer to your question of bridging the gap between perception and reality is to first bridge the gap between fan and horse, market and promote, and have some uniformity in racing rules and states.  Yes there is a great love for this sport out there but that love has to be nurtured.  I guess as you say the figures are what they are, but I just can't see them.  All the best to the NTRA for 2011.

17 Feb 2011 8:34 PM
goodwin

Thoroughbred racing has to put all the state -run jurisdictions aside, and have one entity in charge, just like the Big Four sports in the US. That would even the playing field in regards to medication, which should be abolished, just like anywhere else in the world. It would go a long way to clean up a very suspect sport (hopefully). And since most Americans who own a horse view them as pets, a national retirement program MUST be implemented.

17 Feb 2011 10:05 PM
Alex'sBigFan

Yes, a Commissioner position may be helpful.  This is such a regal and glorious sport, where such majestic creatures are the athletic participants. The fan gets to combine the love of a sport with the love of animals all at once.  If only the frenzy that this country experiences on Derby Day could be translated to every major stakes race in the country then we would have the most outstanding sport of all.  If it can happen on Derby Day then it should be able to happen on Travers Day and Haskell Day as well.  "Horse first" mentality must be implemented and adhered to and the retirement package suggesion of goodwin in the last post is a great idea.  Equine athletes deserve the same benefits that human athletes get, and maybe more because they have no voice to express their concerns or defend themselves.

17 Feb 2011 10:59 PM
Pedigree Ann

The stakes programs of the major tracks around the country need to be better conceived and coordinated so that each race can field a competitive field. A commissioner could do that.

Look at Santa Anita last weekend - a 8.5f 5-runner G2 for females 4 and up on Saturday and a 9f 4-runner G2 for 4yo females on Sunday. Put these two together as a prep for the Santa Margarita, and you have a race worth watching. (The two 4yo series for males and females at Santa Anita have lost any meaning; they have become cheap graded black type, when once they had status.)

18 Feb 2011 10:01 AM
New Orleans Lady

whew...that's a lot of verbage and too many statistics! Why is it that there's always these polls, but I never get a call? Perhaps I have caller ID, but I want to let you know, I don't fall into the typical trend...I love horses, and I love horseracing, but I don't bet. I am an avid horseracing fan, but I think that horses have bad days that can't be diagnosed, just like humans...e.g., a headache.  Anyway, I have HRTV and TVG at home, and Internet capabilities, and perhaps that factors into my decision to go to the track, FG; however, just talking to individuals leads me to believe that the novice only knows what the media presents to them. So, if the media obsesses with the dark side of racing (ie, recently Barbaro and Eight Belles), then that's all they know, and so what do you think they are going to remember and think of our sport?

18 Feb 2011 2:53 PM
MJ

"  It’s a number that has been consistent over the course of the last 10 years of NTRA polling using a variety of online and offline methodologies.   Similarly, 10 years of ESPN Sports polls have consistently found that about 37% of adults (potentially 83 million people) described themselves as fans of our sport.  "

 So you are telling us that in 10 years the work of NTRA has made NO impact! Maybe it's time to give the "Slush Fund" to a different family and friends?

Also if you believe 37% of adults are fans of our sport your on drugs and live in another USA! I'd say it's closer to 3.7%! If the Triple Crown gets a total of <40 million viewers what are your so called 87 million fans watching?

18 Feb 2011 5:09 PM
Oldie

All previous coments have great merit and largely address what I believe are the core issues: 1 - there needs to be one governing body for Thoroughbred racing in the US or even North America; 2 - get rid of all drugs raceday - no diuretics, painkillers, etc; 3 - marketing - I (and many others) have said annually that the more each horse and all the humans connected with him or her has a story known to an audience wider than regular readers of the Blood Horse, the more eyes will be watching and the more dollars will be wagered.  Zenyatta has lots of fans not only because she won, but because people were permitted to feel as if they knew her and her people.  

Regular old people - who could be fans and bettors - shouldn't have to spend hours trying to figure out simple things like what time a race is really going to be run and where it might be televised - does anyone wonder what time and channel to tune in for NFL games?

Once you have the NHRL and standardize the rules of the game, you gain legitimacy in the eyes of the would-be fans who see you making a big-league effort to level the playing field - so they can see a NY horse run in CA and know they had to abide by the same regulations, therefore the only difference is the track surface and weather, not the drugs they were allowed to have on board.  Morning works could become a whole new revenue stream for tracks, just as pre-season games have become for Baseball and Football.  Teach the public the importance and history of more than the Triple Crown races, educate them about how a horse is prepared for each part of his or her career, and they will watch, just as they have learned the tiniest details about how a Nascar team gets a car on the starting grid.

But this is just my opinion, I could be wrong ...

18 Feb 2011 5:32 PM
Frankie Conditions

Not enough time or space to adequately reply. In brief, yes coordination of dates, stakes, etc. will go a long way. Yes a commissioner would be a positive move. Fewer dates with better purses. Why does AQU, Parx and Penn run in January when weather is prohibitive and cancellations frequent, not to mention the unsafe footing for the horses AND riders ?

Go to Mike Repole and Kevin Plunk and ask them. They know a little something about building succesfful businesses. Don't you think they could cut through the bs and siloh's in the industry and put together a busienss plan where all stakeholders can particiapte ? Ask Mr. Repole's employees at Vitmain Water if they shared in the success of the enterprise. What about it ?

18 Feb 2011 5:36 PM
MJ

?

19 Feb 2011 10:22 AM
Michael F.

If this sport is ever going to come back, a lot of changes need to be implemented.

To start, we need to get rid of so-called "permissive medication" pronto. Allowing horses to run on Bute, Salix, or other medications cheapens the sport, damages the breed, and leaves us open to charges of manipulation snd cheating.  This step would also reduce injuries and breakdowns.  This is one reason why the rest of the world has completely lost confidence in American breeding.

Secondly, something is going to have to be done to get horses to race more frequently and not retire so early.  For Lookin at Lucky, a good but hardly exceptional three-year-old, to retire after his three-year-old season was ludicrous.  The horse never won at 1 1/4 miles, never ran a truly fast race, and bombed in his two major tests: the Derby and the Breeders' Cup Classic. Yet he was hustled to the stud.  Along the same lines, it is equally ludicrous for sound horses to run once every six weeks or two months.  For years, horses ran every two or three weeks.  Fixing these issues would ensure fuller fileds and bring back rivalries that fire up the fans.  

Finally, the comments about rationalizing the racing calendar and the stakes schedule are right on the mark.  One thing that has to be fixed somehow is the paucity of high-quality distance races for older horses on the dirt.  Incredibly, there are exactly four main track major races for 3-year-olds-and up or four-year-olds or up at ten furlongs left in America (and two of them, the Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic, are run on synthetics.)  

This is just a start--this sport could be great if we fixed it.

19 Feb 2011 1:19 PM
Everything Zen

You have to make changes to get the public to take notice.  Horse Racing has got to be televised on national television more often.  Most people are unaware of racing other than the triple crown races.  More has to be done to make racing exciting to the public.  Design some other triple crown like series for older horses or turf horses.  You have got to do more to address horse slaughter.  More has to be done to protect the jockeys and horses.  When trainers are caught for drug violations they need to be penalized severely enough that it will deter them from doing it again.  A slap on the hand does not cut it.  The suspensions I have seen are meaningless and usually served "after" the big stakes race that is coming up.  We wouldn't want to make him lose that big purse money, that would be unfair.  That is like grounding your child after the prom is over with.  Punishment has to fit the crime to be meaningful.                

19 Feb 2011 9:13 PM

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