Cut Down to Size
by Ray Paulick
Date Posted: 7/11/2006 8:40:08 AM

The downsizing of staff at the Breeders' Cup/National Thoroughbred Racing Association is in step with the reduced business plan now in place for the two organizations working together under a joint operating agreement.

The Breeders' Cup will continue to focus on the growth of its World Championships, while the NTRA most importantly will serve as a trade association, sponsorship sales office, and legislative advocate.

That's a severe retreat from the November 1997 business plan for the NTRA, whose stated mission was to "create a new, national organization and work together as an industry to increase Thoroughbred racing's public awareness, fan base, total handle, and purses." The NTRA vision was for racing to "be one of the top five sports in North America, as measured by wagering, attendance, TV ratings, and sponsorship growth."

Priority programs for the NTRA at that time included national sponsorship, group purchasing, licensing and merchandising, interactive/account wagering, and legislation.

Clearly, some programs have worked better than others. Legislative efforts have yielded positive results in Washington, D.C., television exposure has broadened, and national sponsorships and group purchasing have been a success.

However, branding and national marketing have been abandoned, and licensing and merchandising have never taken hold outside of the Breeders' Cup World Championships. Interactive and account wagering were snatched out of the NTRA's hands by track operators who failed to see the benefits of a fan-friendly national account wagering company.

The original 1997 plan listed several critical success factors, including an "adequate level of industry support and unity," "adequate start-up capital with a viable plan for self-funding over time," and a "commissioner/CEO position with sufficient strength and authority."

The latter, "strength and authority" for the CEO, fell far short of the mark, and was a leading contributor to some of the NTRA's failures to achieve the league-office status of other sports organizations, including the NFL, NBA, PGA Tour, and NASCAR. For example, racetracks and horsemen's organizations have been unwilling to cede enough decision-making to the NTRA commissioner/CEO on something as simple as race scheduling.

In light of the industry's reticence to hand over any real power to the NTRA, downsized expectations and downsized staffing make perfect sense.

Policing a Sport

The world's most famous bicycle race, the Tour de France, has been turned on its ear in 2006 by doping allegations and the ejection of a number of the top contenders hoping to replace retired seven-time winner Lance Armstrong as champion.

Interestingly, however, not a single banned cyclist failed a drug test. All were asked to leave by their team directors, who abided by the sport's new code of conduct that calls for the banning of cyclists named in credible doping allegations. Team directors were convinced these allegations were credible after seeing the evidence from a police investigation in Spain.

The investigation focused on a former cycling-team doctor in Madrid. Police seized medical records, drugs and blood-doping products, and wire tapped his phones. Eventually, they linked 58 cyclists allegedly being treated with illegal performance-enhancing products to codes that turned out to be the names of the athletes' pets.

Horse racing hasn't yet been the subject of this extensive of an investigation. Given the persistent rumors in stable areas that illegal, undetectable substances are fueling any number of the high-win-percentage success stories among trainers, can a serious investigation be that far away?

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