Distribution Plan Has Potential, Some Bumps

Major racing distrution plan has positives, but not without some bumps.

A transition of simulcast signals to the DISH Network offers long-term positives for the horse racing industry—including the possibility of new revenue—but in the short term, the road has been a bit bumpy.

Roberts Communications Network president and chief executive officer Todd Roberts, in a detailed presentation Dec. 8 at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming, outlined the project and its ramifications. The plan to shift from decoder-based transmissions to high-quality satellite delivery began about four years ago for the Las Vegas-based company.

“Challenging doesn’t describe it,” Roberts said, noting a promise he made to control costs to the industry. “We’re working through some issues.”

One major issue is delay in the signal feed. With C Band and decoders, a signal may be delayed about three seconds; the new system will increase that to about 4.7 seconds, but in some cases so far during the transition, the delay has been as much as nine seconds, officials said.

Officials in the harness racing industry said privately they found out about the problem from big bettors, who often wait until “off time” to place bets so they can watch horses line up behind the mobile starting gate. The delay has impacted Thoroughbred racing, but not as much, they said.

At one harness track, “bell ringers,” as they are called, attempted to make simulcast bets with the horses behind the starting gate based on the video feed but the pools had closed because the race was already under way, officials said. With the situation unresolved, the big bettors decided to watch and play the races at the live venue, where they could see the action in real time and wager accordingly.

The host track benefited from a strong increase in ontrack handle, while the nearby simulcast outlet suffered a comparable decline in handle.

Bruce Soulsby, president of Avatar Ventures, which operates an advance deposit wagering service, said the delay with DISH Network transmissions is five to six seconds.

“It’s critical with harness racing not to have a delay,” Soulsby told Roberts. “People bet at the bell, and they’re having issues. They can’t bet within the last five to seven seconds of dispatch (of the horses).”

Roberts said that currently, the C Band network feeds the DISH Network, creating a sort of “double hop” that had been common with tote systems. Roberts said he had wanted to launch the DISH system at the same time for all wagering outlets but was told it wasn’t feasible; thus, the transitional feed has been used, creating the longer delay.

Using the old decoder system in the meantime brings the delay back to about three seconds. But that will do nothing for the pari-mutuel business in the long run, Roberts said.

“We understand that angle of it,” Roberts said of the bettors. “But we think 4.7 seconds is livable” given the benefits.

The RCN plan is multi-faceted. At some point, about 80 channels through the Racetrack Television Network will be available through DISH Network, creating a subscriber-based simulcast-feed service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. Each channel currently carries a track’s live feed uninterrupted, something that appeals to core horseplayers.

Roberts said the service will cost $50 a month on DISH Network, $9.95 a month through the Internet, and $5.95 a month through mobile applications. RTN offers signals for all forms of pari-mutuel racing and jai-alai.

“This will fill a void in television distribution,” Roberts said. “It’s what the viewer wants. Hopefully it will be the single-most way to show racing in the future.”

Roberts likened the system to other distribution channels in major league sports such as NFL Sunday Ticket.

The benefits for the racing industry, Roberts said, include larger audiences and potential for advertising revenue in which racetrack partners could share, as well as better signal quality. He said the ability will exist to approach major companies about advertising, and then allow the tracks the option to buy in.

“We think we’ve made it easier to expand commercial distribution (of racing),” Roberts said. “A bigger audience and bigger advertising potential is something this industry hasn’t taken advantage of. But when trying to implement new technologies, there’s always a trade-off.”