For a sports-hungry kid growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the menu was fairly simple. The only college bowl games that mattered took place on New Year’s Day. Major League Baseball had two leagues, the American and the National, each with eight teams; the World Series, with all games played in daylight, ended by mid-October. The National Hockey League had just six teams. The National Football League consisted of two six-team conferences, and the championship game was held in late December.
Fast-forward 40-plus years. Franchises have been added to every professional league, playoffs expanded, seasons extended, and most televised championship events don’t finish until it’s well past the bedtime my parents imposed on me.
Blame the TV networks, the league offices, or the franchise owners. Sports have changed. They are big business today.
Expanded playoffs and night games increase revenue, and revenue drives the business of just about every major professional and amateur sport.
That’s why it’s interesting and exciting to see the board of directors and executive staff overseeing horse racing’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships get serious about growing its revenue streams and making some changes to its nearly quarter-century-old format. The Jan. 8 announcement of the expansion of the Breeders’ Cup to two days, along with the addition of three new $1-million races—the Dirt Mile, Filly & Mare Sprint, and Juvenile Turf—is symbolic of the organization’s dynamic new leadership, one that is willing to take some chances.
Change came very slowly to a program inaugurated in 1984 as a $10-million day of seven grade I, championship races. Other than minor tinkering in the order in which the races are run, the first significant change came in 1996, when the purse for the Classic was increased from $3 million to $4 million, the result of that year’s inaugural $4-million Dubai World Cup won by two-time Horse of the Year Cigar.
An eighth race, the Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT), was added to the Breeders’ Cup menu in 1999, but it was not until the 2006 championships at Churchill Downs that a large infusion of purse money was added, bringing the grand total for the day to $20 million.
This past year has seen numerous changes, not the least of which was the first broadcast of the World Championships by ESPN after a long run on NBC. Ratings, as expected in a shift from network to cable, were down, but ESPN’s position as the “worldwide leader in sports” will help grow the Breeders’ Cup brand over the life of the eight-year deal that runs through 2013.
ESPN played a big role in forming the Breeders’ Cup Challenge, a televised series from six major tracks featuring a “Win and You’re In” concept that general sports fans will find easy to understand. The challenge, announced in October, begins this year.
These and other changes stem from a November 2005 decision by the old Breeders’ Cup board to revise the articles of incorporation and bylaws involving governance. A new 13-member board of directors was elected in January 2006, replacing the 46-member board that previously governed the operation. Bill Farish of Lane’s End Farm was elected as the board’s chairman.
“The 13 people on this board are very engaged, and the management team is very active and excited about the possibilities for growth,” Farish said the day the three new Breeders’ Cup races were unveiled. “This board wants to see the contributions to the industry from the Breeders’ Cup step up a notch, and I don’t think the changes are stopping with this announcement. We are going to keep trying to innovate, hoping that we strike on some things that work, that move the sport forward, and build the brand of the Breeders’ Cup.”