Sink or Swim
Photo:
Ray Paulick
Editor in Chief
In its first three years, the NTRA has proven it can put out fires -- and there have been many. Recently, it put out the blaze started when Frank Stronach announced he was pulling his seven Magna Entertainment racetracks -- including Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park -- out of the organization. Magna reversed course and is back in the NTRA with a two-year commitment. There is a growing wave of optimism that another hot spot, this one involving the disenfranchised Mid-Atlantic tracks, may also be cooled by the firefighters from the NTRA, and there appears a good chance they, too, will become members again.

It's what happens next that is really important, because putting out fires was not what the NTRA's commissioner, Tim Smith, was hired to do. If Smith and his top aides no longer are required to spend most of their time and energy keeping the organization intact, we finally will be able to gauge how effective this national office for racing can be.

So far, the NTRA's co-op advertising program has worked very well for participating tracks, which are financially rewarded for their use of NTRA-branded advertising. It is the most compelling reason for a track to be an NTRA member, because it expands racing's marketing budget and helps "brand" racing under the NTRA name.

The advertising message, though, has not been consistent. The Lori Petty ads, which portrayed racing as an exciting, off-beat experience, were almost universally despised when they debuted in the spring of 1998. But something strange happened when the campaign's first-year run came to an end: people at racetracks actually were repeating what Petty said in her ads. In fact, her "Pay the Lady" line after a winning bet may have one-upped "Go Baby Go."

Instead of building on that, the creative people at the Merkley-Newman-Harty advertising agency took a different approach in the second and third years, virtually forgetting the "Go Baby Go" tagline. That was a mistake.

The NTRA's television strategy has yielded some progress, but not without setbacks. Paying to get a series of top races on FOX was a big step in the right direction, but our sport became roadkill on that network when NASCAR came calling and got an enormous rights fee for its broadcasts. A deal with CBS will fill some of the void left by FOX, and telecasts on the ESPN family of sports networks have been expanded. There remains plenty of room for improvement, however.

Sponsorship is an area where the NTRA must succeed over the next 18 months, and the recent marriage with the Breeders' Cup provides the opportunity needed. Host Communications, with a proven track record, has been brought on board to help make it happen. Look for Host to try to sell the road to racing's world championships the same way it sells the road to the Final Four in college basketball.

One NTRA program that has fallen far short of the mark is group purchasing, which works in many other industries but has not been successful in this one. Merchandising has been another laggard, in part because the NTRA's Internet and e-commerce strategies have failed.

A powerful strategic partner, IBM Global Services, has courted the NTRA, but not enough people were convinced that proposed technology projects, including development of an industry-owned tote company, were worthwhile.

The NTRA has had committees and task forces involved in other important areas, including drug testing, regulatory issues, and owner recruitment, but it's too soon to tell whether those efforts will be fruitful.

Too much energy has been wasted trying to keep the NTRA from falling apart, but that may be changing. If membership issues are resolved, the organization finally will have a chance to show what it can -- or can't -- do. It will then be time for the NTRA to sink or swim.

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