In the not-so-distant past a predication of the following year’s Thoroughbred foal crop size was the most pressing news reported during The Jockey Club’s annual Round Table Conference.
Other topics have been discussed. Over the last 20 years, for example, the topics have included drug testing, federal legislation as it affected taxes and wagering, updates on research funding, and ways to grow the sport—but most years have passed without substantive change. The next year’s conference came, the issues were discussed, nothing changed, and so on...round and round.
Fifteen years ago was an exception. The industry got reenergized by the creation of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, a new organization that offered the promise of giving Thoroughbred racing something akin to a central office. The NTRA was expected to create and coordinate nationwide marketing and television strategies that would give racing a brand and the feel of a major league sport.
“If we don’t form a national cooperative structure…if we don’t have a national television strategy, including cable and interactive capability…if we don’t promote the sport at the same level of professionalism as other sports…then I guarantee to you that racing will be stuck in the same rut it’s in now,” said The Jockey Club chairman Ogden “Dinny” Mills Phipps in 1997.
Here we are 15 years later. Funding for the NTRA has fallen from initial revenues of $21.4 million in 1999 (grown to $30.25 million the next year) to $8.3 million for Fiscal Year 2010, and all the potential for a major league-like office has faded.
The major metrics for Thoroughbred racing are down—handle is down 37% since 2003; number of starters is down 23% since 1990, and number of race days is down 14% since 2000. Over the past 12 months 5% of racing fans abandoned the sport while 3% say they are new to racing, according to research done by McKinsey & Co. and published this month in its “Driving sustainable growth for Thoroughbred racing and breeding” report, which was commissioned by The Jockey Club.
The sport is still stuck in its rut, but the rut is deeper.
Fortunately, the Round Table has begun a transformation of its own from a spinning wheel to one rolling forward.
A call by The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Safety Committee in June 2008 to ban anabolic steroids and the subsequent adoption of this ban by all U.S. racing jurisdictions seems to have been an eye-opener and motivator—proof that real, meaningful, and timely change can be made.
So when the 59th annual Round Table kicked off Aug. 14 at Saratoga Springs, no one was leaving the room without a list of action items in his or her back pocket. The meeting could have been more of the same—a presentation and nine recommendations derived from McKinsey’s report. It could have ended there, but it didn’t. Instead, The Jockey Club followed with a $5-$10 million commitment to make several of these recommendations happen and an announcement that negotiations with television networks had already begun.
Besides putting more races on TV, The Jockey Club is committed to creating a better online scheduling tool through its InCompass subsidiary so racetracks will avoid stacking their best racing days and best races on one another; to developing a racing-related social game and a free-to-play “betting” game; and to creating a new interactive online site to promote ownership.
No new organization had to be formed. No new sources of revenue through racetrack and horsemen’s association memberships or voluntary contributions need to be found. Quite frankly, having The Jockey Club step up was the only way any of it was going to happen because it is the only industry organization with the resources.
The recommendations by McKinsey for more exposure on television and fewer, higher-quality racing days are certainly not groundbreaking, but the decision by The Jockey Club to take immediate action and pay for it is.
For that reason we’re optimistic the recent changes in the dynamics of the Round Table are real and will lead to real progress.