Tim Smith had reason to be upbeat during his opening talk at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's fifth annual meeting and marketing summit in Las Vegas on Sept. 22.
The NTRA's first and only commissioner, while enthused, didn't sugarcoat his remarks. Racing is going through a revival in popularity, and the NTRA deserves more than a little credit for its role in that recent success. But, Smith said, the organization is not "over the hump" yet and is not able to act as a league office similar to that of other major-league sports.
Smith used supporting facts to debunk three current myths: first, that "horse racing is a dying sport or one in decline"; second, that "people who think a movie like Seabiscuit or a story like Funny Cide and the Sackatoga Six can by themselves help racing's popularity are naïve and mistaken"; and third, that "the NTRA, with five years of operation and its recent progress, has now made it and is finally functioning like a real league office."
There are many positive signs to disprove myth No. 1, and Smith cited a number of them, including record or near-record business for big days like the Triple Crown races, the Travers (gr. I) and Haskell Invitational (gr. I), higher television ratings, and an overall increase in handle over 2002. "Good times have been happening, but the half-glass-empty crowd is a fiercely tenacious and highly skeptical lot," he said.
Further debunking the myth was a team of researchers who provided extremely encouraging reports on racing's popularity. One example: a recent ESPN Sports Poll indicated Thoroughbred racing now has a fan base of 34.8 million people, with 16% of the survey respondents saying their level of interest in racing had increased. It showed that 36.6% of the adult U.S. population are horse racing fans, a 6.4% increase from the two previous years.
Smith also defended racing's demographics, which skew toward an older male crowd among the three million who are its most frequent and biggest-betting customers. "However," he said, "a much larger group of about 30 million Americans identify themselves as horse racing fans, follow it as a sport--often on television, where the shows are particularly popular with women--but attend live racing less frequently, many just once or twice a year...this group of racing fans is a marketer's dream: younger, highly-educated, gender-balanced, affluent, and acquisitive.
On myth No. 2, Smith said: "Except to the terminally dim or cynical, there is no question...that the combination of Funny Cide and Seabiscuit has produced tangible marketing benefits for horse racing and has increased its visibility, appeal, and popularity with the American public."
Smith thinks it is no coincidence that, with Seabiscuit entering theaters July 25, national handle increased 5.5% in August, compared to a more modest 2.9% rise in July.
Now for the bad news.
It is wishful thinking to say the NTRA acts as a real league office, Smith said. He bemoaned the fact a 2004 television schedule is not complete, while many other sports are working on television schedules for 2005 and beyond. And this comes at a time when there is competition among the networks to acquire horse racing programming.
Lack of industry cooperation continues to be a problem, said Smith, who took aim at racetrack and horsemen's group "free-riders" that are not NTRA members but are benefiting from its good work.
"Shame on the free-riders," he said. "They are burdens on the progressive and positive elements of the industry. But shame, also, on those of us who have shaped and run the NTRA to date. A sign of a well-conceived and well-organized central office of anything--whether a major sport or a trade association of pizza parlors--is that the benefits and contributions of their constituents are fairly distributed, and free-ridership is impossible or strongly disincentivized."