While owners were deciding whether or not to take a chance at the big dance on Nov. 4 and trainers were getting their charges ready for what could be the biggest races of their lives, executives of Breeders' Cup Ltd. and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association were quietly toasting the consolidation of the two companies, which formally occurred on Oct. 19.
On Breeders' Cup day, nearly all of racing's championships are decided. Fans of the sport sit up and take notice, whether they travel to the host site to watch the event live, view the NBC telecast at home, or head to their nearest simulcasting outlet. But is the Breeders' Cup truly attracting the attention of those outside racing's core of support, the same way the Kentucky Derby gets the average American to stop for two minutes on the first Saturday in May?
Since the inaugural Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park on Nov. 10, 1984, pari-mutuel handle has soared by nearly 500%, from $16.5 million that first year to $96.5 million in 1999. The number of North American simulcast outlets has grown from 19 in 1984 to more than 900 in 1999, and account wagering (legitimate and otherwise) makes wagering possible in virtually every household.
Not everything with racing's championship is growing, however. The number of television viewers has declined precipitously, from an estimated 4.5 million households in 1984, when the Breeders' Cup achieved a rating of 5.1 from the A.C. Nielsen Co., to fewer than two million in 1999, when the ratings hit an all-time low of 1.9.
Sponsors have not been flocking to the event, either. In 1984, five of the seven championship races had national sponsors. In 1999, only two races attracted sponsors (and one of them, Alberto VO5, is owned by Thoroughbred owner and breeder Leonard Lavin).
Declining television ratings and growing indifference from the corporate world are not positive signs. Breeders' Cup and its marketing partner (now part of SFX but for years known as Sports Marketing and Television International) have not done a good job attracting sponsors by any measure. Failure of the event to catch on with a larger television audience can be blamed on several factors: proliferation of cable and satellite channels offering a multitude of sports broadcasts on Saturday afternoons; a marketing effort that has failed to brand "Breeders' Cup" as the sport's championship event; unimaginative programming from NBC; and a sport generally seen as in decline.
If the NTRA was created to boost racing's popularity with the general public (and early returns from the ESPN Chilton poll show it has made some progress in the last two years), then using that same organization to raise the awareness of the sport's championship day is a logical progression. The NTRA can help make the Breeders' Cup bigger and better, and the Breeders' Cup can make the NTRA's role as the sport's central marketing office a lot easier.
(Already the Breeders' Cup has been a major financial and strategic partner of the NTRA, and the recent consolidation means the NTRA's operating deficit has been eliminated by an infusion of cash from the Breeders' Cup. Certain operations will continue under the Breeders' Cup umbrella, and its cash reserves are to remain separate from the NTRA.)
One challenge of the combined operation will be to broaden awareness of what the Breeders' Cup is all about. Ask the man on the street if he's heard of the Breeders' Cup or knows what it is, and there is a pretty good chance you'll be greeted by a blank stare. Though the event was created by the marketing savvy breeder John Gaines and funded through nominations paid by breeders, the Breeders' Cup is much more than that today. It is the World Championship of Horse Racing. Perhaps its name should reflect that.