For NTRA, Membership Scheme a Priority for 2005

With membership contracts set to expire at the end of 2005, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is formulating a long-range strategy that is expected to rely on dues in some form. Meanwhile, the search for a chief executive officer won't begin until the master plan is in place.

The NTRA board met Dec. 1-2 in New York City to review priorities for 2006-2010. A transition and search committee chaired by board member Robert Clay is expected to report back to the full board by the first week of March 2005.

NTRA commissioner D.G. Van Clief Jr. said the plan for 2006-2010 would be presented to the industry after the board of directors approves it.

"Membership contracts are up for renewal at the end of 2005," Van Clief said, "and the strategic plan obviously will play a major role in communications with the membership in the latter three-quarters of 2005. We're examining options to the current dues formula, but fundamentally we're looking at a similar membership structure."

The NTRA has employed a handle-based formula for membership dues. Its first business plan indicated a desire to move away from a dues structure, but projected revenue -- primarily from interactive wagering -- hasn't materialized.

The organization also is reassessing priorities, including its role as a facilitator of advertising programs. During the NTRA annual meeting in September, Van Clief said there could be a shift toward public relations and use of television time to promote horse racing.

"We've taken that general approach and applied it to development of the (strategic) plan," Van Clief said. "Much of the assessment has been of what the organization has done well, and what it hasn't done well. We're looking for bang for the buck."

The cooperative advertising program has combined NTRA creative materials with what amounts to a kick back in dues for members that have used it. Van Clief said the concept is good, but in reality the materials haven't gotten consistent use. Now, the board will look at "the best way to spend market dollars," he said.

One of those is development of television as a strong marketing tool, Van Clief said. That will include "upgrades" in the entertainment value of racing broadcasts, he said.

Van Clief was named commissioner in late summer. He said he wanted the executive search process to be completed even though he has expressed an interest in remaining commissioner. Because the strategic plan won't be approved until at least March, Van Clief said it's possible he could remain commissioner through at least 2005.

In other business, the board approved a preliminary budget for 2005 that includes $66 million in revenue and $65.8 million in expenses. The biggest line items are $26.3 million for marketing, promotions, sponsorships, and group purchasing, and $21.2 million for purses and awards. The Breeders' Cup board of directors will give the spending plan a look at its regular meeting in January.

The board also received an update on a industry-wide plan to upgrade tote systems, and learned that Magna Entertainment Corp.-operated racetracks, as well as the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, renewed memberships for 2005.