Ray Paulick

Ray Paulick

Lean and Clean

I knew early on the National Thoroughbred Racing Association was going to under-deliver on expectations when a guy standing next to me at a racetrack men’s room complained about the lack of paper towels.

“Shouldn’t the NTRA be doing something about this?” he fumed, flinging water off his hands as he walked out.

Clean, fully stocked bathrooms were just one small part of the mission some had for the broad-based industry organization that began operations in April 1998. But lofty, unrealistic, and sometimes ridiculous expectations resulted from the NTRA’s own initial business plan, an ambitious and far-reaching strategy built around the following mission and objective:

“To increase Thoroughbred racing’s public awareness, fan base, total handle, and purses...Main objectives are the creation of a centralized national structure, the successful implementation of comprehensive marketing and television strategies, and the achievement of significant revenue increases and cost savings for the industry.”

For the first time, the Thoroughbred industry seemed to be getting its act together, working together and trying to emulate other successful sports driven by a league office.

Brand-building began with the creation of the NTRA logo and a series of television and print advertisements featuring the slogan “Go Baby Go.” There was genuine excitement and, as then-commissioner Tim Smith said in the NTRA’s first-year report, “A new sense of optimism about the industry’s future.”

The NTRA’s initial annual budget was nearly $25 million and there were bullish projections it would grow substantially, first through the operation of a national wagering hub for interactive betting (which some NTRA members blocked) and second through a joint operating agreement with the Breeders’ Cup (which recently ended). That hasn’t happened. In fact, the NTRA will have a 2007 budget of just more than $8 million.

Budget isn’t the only thing downsized. Staffing has been severely cut. Racing’s exposure on television has been trimmed. So has the NTRA’s strategic plan, which no longer puts national marketing, advertising campaigns, and branding among the “issues of paramount importance to its members.” At least those were the words expressed by former Churchill Downs president Alex Waldrop, who was named president and CEO of the NTRA Dec. 27.

Waldrop replaces Greg Avioli, who held interim dual positions as head of NTRA and Breeders’ Cup following D.G. Van Clief Jr.’s mid-2006 retirement. The Breeders’ Cup board insisted on separate chief executives as part of their separation from the NTRA, and Avioli remained with the Breeders’ Cup.

In a teleconference with reporters, Waldrop listed four key areas on which he plans to concentrate: racing and wagering integrity; advocacy in Washington, D.C.; increasing the industry’s profile in mainstream media; and exploring ways to improve the economics of account wagering.

Without a doubt, the NTRA’s biggest success has been its lobbying efforts, and that is reason enough for every racetrack and horsemen’s organization to retain its membership in the NTRA. Avioli, who served as president of the NTRA’s Horse PAC, has been the industry’s point man in the nation’s capital, putting together a successful lobbying team and building relationships with members of Congress and, just as important, their staffs. Waldrop has big shoes to fill in that regard.

Even though he failed to mention marketing during his teleconference, Waldrop said in a subsequent interview that he isn’t going to shut down the NTRA’s marketing department (but with only about 20 full-time NTRA employees, and half of those involved in group purchasing and sponsorship fulfillment, there’s not many left in marketing). The NTRA is expected to continue offering marketing services to racetracks and will fine-tune its “Who do you like today?” advertising campaign that can be used in local markets.

But no national advertising will be done on behalf of the sport, something that was part of the NTRA’s original mission.  Without that to worry about, perhaps the NTRA can finally do something about dirty racetrack bathrooms.