I'll Have Another's late scratch from the Belmont Stakes is being seen by some as crushing to the thoroughbred racing industry.
But the extra television viewership and betting around this weekend's Triple Crown attempt was not going be enough to revive the sport over the long term.
A recent study by McKinsey & Company commissioned by the Jockey Club, the breed registry for thoroughbred horses in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, found the sport is losing fans at a rate of 4 percent per year. By 2020, the fan base is projected to be just 64 percent of what it was in 2010.
The study lists five main causes for the popularity decline. None was the absence of a Triple Crown winner since 1978.
The major issue? Brand perception.
Just 22 percent of the general public was found to have a positive impression of thoroughbred racing. Interestingly, even those who identified themselves as fans of the sport seemed to have negative associations: Only 46 percent would recommend the sport to others. For comparison, fans of baseball and football recommend their sport to others at rates of 82 percent and 81 percent.
A large component of the negative brand perception is that only 2 percent of consumers feel they have access to the information they need to know about the sport. In other sports, that number is 71 percent.
Limited distribution of racing on television was found to be a cause for consumer disinterest and lack of knowledge. In 2011, just 43 hours of horse racing appeared on national television. As recently as 2003, that number was more than four times higher. Pro bowling had more national television time than horse racing in 2011 with 92 hours of coverage.
John Hartig, CEO of the Daily Racing Form, a news source in horse racing since 1894, notes the year-round nature of horse racing as a culprit.
“Racing is 364 days a year,” said Hartig. “It’s not really focused or concentrated into a season, so there’s less opportunity to get viewers’ attention.”
Hartig said events like the Breeder’s Cup and Triple Crown races have long been used to get attention on television, but that NBC is now experimenting with coverage of races at Saratoga, Delmar and in Dubai to see how that might draw interest.
“When we looked at fans who joined racing in the last year, virtually zero joined because of television,” Dan Singer of McKinsey & Company told the Jockey Club at its Annual Round Table Conference last year. The reason: lack of exposure on TV.
“It was about 1 in 1,000 who said television was the reason they became race fans,” said Singer. “That’s virtually no fan development from television, and as a sports consultant, I can tell you that without television, you’re simply not going to reach and develop a new fan base.”
McKinsey suggested the industry increase its television exposure. But it also will need to take a more long-term view where the increased exposure develops new fans, who will become online players and track visitors, and how to inject revenue into the industry.
Simply getting fans to the track won’t be enough. On-track betting, something that once brought fans to the track, is described as “an artifact of 1940s and 1950s technology” by the study.
Intense competition from other forms of gambling was found to be a primary reason for the fan base’s decline, particularly online and casino gambling which have greater availability and an easier learning curve.
The study suggests the industry must capitalize on the popularity of online gaming. The development of a free-to-play online game could help simplify race wagering for new fans. Twenty percent of consumers surveyed for the study said they don’t bet on thoroughbred racing because it’s too complicated. A free-to-play site would introduce new fans to race wagering and deliver a “substantially younger demographic,” according to the study.
Then, through innovations in online gaming, the industry could move those fans into more substantial wagering.
“Online platforms represent the future of thoroughbred racing,” Michael Lamb of McKinsey & Company told the Jockey Club last year.
Hartig agrees that online wagering is an upward trend the industry can rally around.
“The exciting part of racing right now despite the industry contraction of live racing -- about 27 percent since 2007 -- is the online business. The amount of dollars wagered has grown about 50 percent in the same four-year period.”