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.