Shaping Opinion

By Mel Moser

Since the Triple Crown TV ratings were announced, everyone has been offering their opinion on what the ratings really mean. While the significant increases are welcome, they are only tangentially related to the real question: How to add to the three million core handicappers the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has identified as providing almost all of the nationwide betting handle? On that question, the one thing most published opinions have in common is they ignore what is already known about human behavior. In fact, one wonders if the writers ever asked themselves why they got involved in the industry, whether as an owner, breeder, trainer, or handicapper.

In 1928, a new seed corn was introduced in Greene County, Iowa. Even though the seed was vastly superior, it took 13 years before all but two of the 259 farmers studied were using the new seed. It took five years before a handful of farmers classified as "innovators" were using the seed. The 37 farmers who started the next two years were considered "early adopters," defined to include opinion leaders and thoughtful people, who watched and analyzed what the innovators were doing and then did it themselves.

In the next four years the largest group, consisting of 179 farmers, began using the seed. The researchers likened this large group to the deliberate and skeptical masses, who were unlikely to try anything until more respected farmers had tried it. The 17 farmers who finally tried the seed during the last two years of the study were classified as the most traditional and cautious of the group.

This sequence has been duplicated for a large variety of activities. What it means is that with the exception of a relatively small group, virtually everyone makes decisions overwhelmingly because of the example and opinions of others they respect, be it a parent, neighbor, peer, or someone they think is "cool." Of the many examples of this, one of my favorites is Hennessy's decision to pay cool people in New York City to order martinis in popular bars. Case sales for Hennessy more than doubled over a five-year period.

Do these principles apply to horse racing? To know the answer, one need only consider how the Breeders' Cup and NTRA were formed and grew, not to mention the descriptions of what sparked a love affair with horse racing which regularly appear in the human interest stories in this magazine. If additional confirmation is necessary, The Matrix Group's recent study indicated 77% of new owners say that established owners influence their decisions.

This research does not mean television advertising should be abandoned. Rather, it means that television advertising should either be done by or directed at opinion leaders, a goal which is not going to be accomplished by running ads on race replay and other shows which are watched by horse players. An even more effective technique would be to publicize the fact that opinion leaders are involved in horse racing because it's something they enjoy doing. Like it or not, in today's celebrity culture, one of the best ways to convince the largest number of people quickly an activity is worthwhile is for the masses to find out it's something stars like to do.

That's one of the reasons it was so disappointing this was the only publication which covered Tiger Woods' visit to Godolphin's stables when he competed in the Dubai Classic. And why it doesn't make sense that the only thing anyone knows about the horse named after Anna Kournikova is that it races in Australia.

In order to implement a strategy of identifying and relying on innovators, it is not necessary, or maybe even advisable, to rely solely on stars, although there should be an ample supply of those, given the extensive ties between horse owners and the worlds of sports and movies.

There are opinion leaders in every community where there is a racetrack, and virtually every city now has magazines and newspaper columns devoted to reporting what such people are doing. There is even a small industry of individuals who arrange and publicize the events which are reported. Given the social standing of many in horse racing, there is no reason to think it would be difficult to stage, at a local racetrack, the kinds of events that would attract the right kind of people and publicity. Doing so should be part of any marketing plan to create new players.

MEL MOSER is a Pittsburgh attorney and longtime handicapper.