By Chip Tuttle
At the recent joint TRA/HTA conference in Fort Myers, Fla., there was yet another self-flagellating panel discussion on horse racing's supposedly diminishing media coverage. Anyone in the audience could have closed his eyes and imagined easily that he was listening to the same discussion at any number of industry confabs over the last 15 years. From Saratoga to Tucson, we hear the same sad song: "No one covers us anymore. It's not like the old days." Enough already. Yes, the number of American newspapers with a reporter dedicated to continual coverage of the horse racing beat has dwindled to a precious few. Horse racing's natural inclination is to say "woe is us," but any student of media could tell you the trend away from full-time Turf writers at major metropolitan dailies has more to do with lower circulation, loss of ad pages, and rising costs of newsprint than lack of interest in horse racing. Part of the problem, as the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out in March, is that younger people do not read newspapers. Only 30% of people aged 40 and younger read a newspaper regularly. These people get their news from radio, the Internet, and television. With the exception of baseball and football, very few sports have the luxury of a dedicated beat writer 24/7/365 anymore. College football, college basketball, hockey, golf, and tennis all share reporters with other beats. Even with the loss of a few year-round Turf writers, mainstream media coverage of racing is up substantially over the last three years. (Trust me on this, no one watches it more closely.) Some of it is for fortunate reasons (Funny Cide, Seabiscuit) and some for less fortunate (attempted fraud of the 2002 Breeders' Cup Ultra Pick 6, the death of Bill Shoemaker, Seattle Slew, et al.). A few examples on the plus side: ESPN, the television sports leader, has added coverage in various ways, including live SportsCenter telecasts from major racing events, previews of major races on SportsCenter and ESPN News, and key stakes results on ESPN2's "Bottom Line" crawl. USA Today, the nation's No. 1 newspaper by circulation, previews most major stakes, and runs television tune-in information, NTRA polls, and international rankings. Sports Web sites, including ESPN.com, have also expanded racing coverage--in many cases liberating horse racing from the dreaded "other sports" dungeon. TVG is in 18 million homes and growing. Ratings for its weekend simulcasts on Fox Sports in California are competitive with the Los Angeles Dodgers games at the same time. MSNBC ran Forrest Sawyer and Chris Young's Eclipse Award-winning documentary on Thoroughbred racing. HBO has a documentary on jockey Randy Romero upcoming, and, meanwhile, a year-long documentary on trainer Richard Mandella is nearing completion. Also, there are plans for two new shows in the "reality" genre. Mainstream business magazines such as Forbes and Worth have run features on prominent Thoroughbred owners, as did the Discovery Channel. For the fifth straight year, NTRA Communications worked radio row at the Super Bowl. This year jockey Gary Stevens generously donated his time and did more than 30 national and major market radio interviews.
Radio personality Don Imus has been talking up racing due to an NTRA-sponsored promotion on his show. This is not to say that anyone should give up on print. NTRA commissioner Tim Smith, Breeders' Cup president D.G. Van Clief Jr., and others have engaged in numerous meetings over the last 18 months with editors in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. There is always more that can be done to maximize coverage of horse racing. For those who love the sport deeply (including those who tend to sit on panels), there is no such thing as "enough" coverage. As an industry, we need to recognize the realities, challenges, and opportunities of the 21st century media landscape. The good news is that many in the industry already are.
CHIP TUTTLE is co-owner of Conover-Tuttle Advertising and Public Relations and an adviser to the NTRA.
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