Saturday, January 10, 2009
What exactly is racing’s “new media?”
The recently announced Eclipse awards for writing serve as a convenient mirror for the “old media vs. new” dialogue that has from time to time moved to the front burner in the “new media.”
Having served for the last two years as a judge in the features/enterprise competition, I have at least a short-term perspective of the material submitted for consideration. The depth of work produced in 2008 was impressive. Forty-three pieces were submitted and several would have been worthy winners in a competition ultimately won by Vinnie Perrone, former racing writer at the Washington Post for a skillfully crafted piece that appeared in Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred. If any of this material was born in the “new media” is was not apparent.
I have no idea how many submissions were considered in the news/commentary category but a column written by Billy Reed after he and his granddaughter visited trainer Larry Jones’ barn at Churchill Downs on the morning after the death of Eight Belles last spring, published in the Thoroughbred Times, was the winner. Reed is a 65-year-old veteran of Sports Illustrated, Louisville Courier-Journal and Lexington Herald Leader. Bill Nack, also past 60, veteran of Sport Illustrated, biographer of Secretariat and author of several other books, was runner-up for a piece that appeared on ESPN.com.
The common thread is that the Eclipse winners, and the contenders, are old-media figures no longer working for old-media enterprises. They are first writers whose credentials predate the Internet, people whose perspective spans decades marked by voluminous bodies of work. They have seen much, all of which they bring to every theme, new and familiar. But, the framework within which they built careers – the “old print media” – is rapidly disappearing.
Many newspapers will, in some form, endure the current storm of change but in a form unfamiliar to those of us who grew up reading great sportswriters and columnists of the last century and who aspired to follow. Eventually, racing and other niche sports will be forced to develop industry supported news agencies to service publications no longer capable or willing to expend the resources necessary to cover the even major events. No American newspaper outside Kentucky or New York employs a full-time beat writer/columnist to cover racing and the total number of these positions – three, four if you count the Los Angeles Times, which reacted at least temporarily to finding the Breeders’ Cup in its lap by assigning the demoted sports editor to the beat – is a sad commentary on both racing and the American newspaper industry.
But let us not confuse blogging with a new wave.
While there is journalism on the Internet, the blog – an awful word in its own right – in its pure form is not the “new media.” It is certainly an adjunct, providing platforms and voice to those who are passionate about any number of things, including racing and a forum for debate but certainly fails to pass the litmus test of credibility and authority. It has been embraced by almost all mainstream newspapers as a vehicle to retain reader involvement but has generally failed to translate into a meaningful commodity in terms of monetary value.
The blog in its pure form is an unfiltered personal journal but works far more efficiently as a collective effort, the only example of which was The Rail, published briefly during the last Triple Crown by the New York Times. That effort, which lent exposure to the authors of several personal blogs, compiled submissions from dozens of individuals, posted new material throughout the day and required a staff.
More typically, the racing blog is a solitary effort of a person whose income is derived from real-world employment but who is passionate about the sport and perhaps a specific area – history, betting, politics or combination of the sport’s many facets. The trade publications, including the Daily Racing Form, have embraced the format largely in the manner of mainstream publications, but of the old-school racing writers who publish such sites, only Maryjean Wall, a fixture at the Lexington Herald-Leader for decades, maintains a blog in the pure sense. Others – including the one you are reading – depart sharply from the pure form.
A successful personal blog is one that elicits reaction from readers and becomes almost participatory. While the authors of scores of racing blogs – many well done and thoughtfully written -- have successfully broadened the dialogue, they have contributed little to either the journalism or literature of racing. Before that happens, another step or two in the evolutionary process will be required that will determine its place in a changing landscape. At the moment, so called “citizen journalists” are essentially hobbyists.
A good deal of the fodder of digital subject-matter in this realm centers upon the changing media landscape.
Writing in the Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn provides a glimpse at what looms as a dramatic development in the media world that could see a change in the paper of record unimaginable only a few years ago.
“VIRTUALLY ALL THE predictions about the death of old media have assumed a comfortingly long time frame for the end of print—the moment when, amid a panoply of flashing lights, press conferences, and elegiac reminiscences, the newspaper presses stop rolling and news goes entirely digital. Most of these scenarios assume a gradual crossing-over, almost like the migration of dunes, as behaviors change, paradigms shift, and the digital future heaves fully into view. The thinking goes that the existing brands—The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal—will be the ones making that transition, challenged but still dominant as sources of original reporting.
But what if the old media dies much more quickly? What if a hurricane comes along and obliterates the dunes entirely? Specifically, what if The New York Times goes out of business—like, this May?
It’s certainly plausible. Earnings reports released by the New York Times Company in October indicate that drastic measures will have to be taken over the next five months or the paper will default on some $400million in debt. With more than $1billion in debt already on the books, only $46million in cash reserves as of October, and no clear way to tap into the capital markets (the company’s debt was recently reduced to junk status), the paper’s future doesn’t look good …
“ … The collapse of daily print journalism will mean many things. For those of us old enough to still care about going out on a Sunday morning for our doorstop edition of The Times, it will mean the end of a certain kind of civilized ritual that has defined most of our adult lives. It will also mean the end of a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind. And it will seriously damage the press’s ability to serve as a bulwark of democracy. Internet purists may maintain that the Web will throw up a new pro-am class of citizen journalists to fill the void, but for now, at least, there’s no online substitute for institutions that can marshal years of well-developed sourcing and reporting experience—not to mention the resources to, say, send journalists leapfrogging between Mumbai and Islamabad to decode the complexities of the India-Pakistan conflict. “
At the moment, newspapers lack the resources to send journalists leapfrogging from Miami to Lexington, Louisville, Baltimore, New York and Saratoga, as was once the practice for those who once tilled these fields -- a now virtually extinct breed of racing journalists –people who thought nothing of covering the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah on Saturday and the Santa Anita on Sunday.
Nothing currently in racing’s digital space can possibly fill this void and there is no new breed.
That ship has sailed – and sunk. --PM
Written by Paul Moran
Check out Paul Moran on Blogspot At the Races
Saturday, December 13, 2008
The blind lead the blind, deaf and dumb
In a revealing Monday analysis of declining betting receipts that began late in the 20th Century and has since steepened that appeared on his site, Ray Paulick raises the point that corporate ownership of racetracks has been a unanimous failure while the few remaining privately owned tracks – Tampa Bay Downs and Oaklawn Park – have flourished while swimming against the tide of declining attendance and betting receipts.
Meanwhile, in Tucson, where the annual excuse for golf and cocktails wrapped around the annual symposium hosted by the University of Arizona Racetrack Industry program, there is universal agreement that an effort to draw fans and bettors back to racetracks is essential to the sport’s future.
This is more or less the equivalent to saying: My portfolio is down by 50 percent. But I’ll survive the recession if I can win the lottery.
A potentially lethal brew of misconception has become racing’s Kool-Aid. The corporations that own most American racetracks have no understanding of the audience and the people to whom they look for solutions have no understanding of the sport’s
structure and underpinning.
There are no fans to bring back and bettors are reacting to an unpalatable product by reducing risk. This is more a financial market than a sport.
Corporate types that make decisions nowadays are focused on the bottom line and responsible primarily to shareholders. Magna Entertainment, the largest corporate owner of racetracks including Santa Anita and Gulfstream Parks – is a monumental failure even while, as Paulick notes, the shareholders have seen more than 99 percent of value evaporate beneath the weight of fearless leader Frank Stronach’s dementia. His first mistake was the notion that people come to racetracks to be entertained, which is entirely fallacious. Horseplayers show up, if at all, to bet on horses.
A matter of months after a 1-for-20 reverse split undertaken to avoid delisting, the stock is again trading at less than $1, closing at $0.785 on Wednesday. It is difficult to imagine Magna’s long-term survival is unlikely and the most devastating failure in the racing’s history is almost assuredly at hand.
Private ownership, while working nicely at Tampa and Hot Spring, Ark., can also be disastrous in the wrong hands. Two words support this observation: Hialeah Park.
The real problem is that the people who operate racetracks lack an understanding of the sport and its audience. They continue fruitlessly ludicrous attempts to emulate the business practices of other sports, which are organized in leagues and franchises and enjoy central authoritative organizations. Racing is by comparison a herd of cats attempting to solve the same challenges that began to manifest themselves decades ago when the handwriting first appeared on the wall.
Recall forecasts made in the ‘70s that predicted the day when only a few of the largest tracks would survive, racing would become a studio sport and horseplayers would place wagers by telephone. This was evident long before anyone imagined the current advances in technology.
Now that these predictions have become the reality, there is alarm.
Racetrack operators have not suffered the loss of a live audience; they have encouraged the migration to alternatives venues. This is neither accident nor unfortunate but was premeditated. Lamenting the result is ridiculous. Aside from the most important days of the racing season, there will never again be a vibrant atmosphere at most racetracks. Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar, along with Tampa Bay Downs and Oaklawn, are the exceptions and share the strength of the short, clearly defined seasons coupled with inviting ambiance.
This is the result of expanded simulcasting, the emergence of off-shore, Internet-based wagering alternatives that offer more attractive rebates, 12-month racing calendars in major markets, neglected facilities, price gauging, arrogant management, the absence of meaningful customer service at most tracks and a generally substandard product of which there is no better example than what is being passed off as horse racing at the moment in New York.
Racing differs from other sports in every conceivable way.
Most importantly, it is not a spectator sport but rather participatory through wagering, which is its central nervous system. Defined seasons are local and absent in the major markets. Racing goes on throughout the year. Its most attractive draw, the “big” horse, is of dubious value because of careers shortened by economic expediency and injury. Jockeys lack the star quality they believe they possess. Trainers, most of whom prefer to remain in the background, and owners, seen largely as passive participants, are not marketable. Even George Steinbrenner, larger than life in the world of baseball, and Joe Torre, perhaps the nation’s most recognizable baseball manager, are seen as celebrities who dabble in racing, not horse owners and breeders who happen to be involved in baseball. Racing has no equivalent to Mark Cuban but certainly could use such a personality. In this sport, original thinking and an outside-the-box approach will surely be rebuffed.
Most racing executives look to NASCAR as the standard for growing a fan base but nothing about NASCAR applies. Most people own automobiles and enjoy driving fast, so the process beings with a visceral connection. Few humans ride horses, fast or otherwise. And if NASCAR staged 10 races a day, five days a week, 12 months of the year at 20 tracks, the stands would soon become unoccupied except on the biggest days – just like the nations nation’s racing hippodromes.
The term “fan” in racing, except in rare and short-lived circumstance, is not applicable. There are only horseplayers, most of whom have no interest in being at Aqueduct or Hawthorne or Laurel Park on a daily or even occasional basis.
When racetrack crowds were large, there were no legal gambling alternatives outside Nevada, clearly defined seasons, no off-site options, no Internet and no in-home simulcasting. Racing has implemented most of these things in order to make the product, even a bad product, conveniently available or in reaction to an absurdly widened gambling market that places racetracks in competition with among other things the lotteries operated by the states that regulate the industry. There are too many things wrong with this picture to count.
So, between cocktails in Arizona, people are telling racing executives that they must bring back the fans and others are taking these lame warnings seriously.
Repeat after me: There are no fans. There are only horseplayers. They are already out there. You just don’t see them. They pay attention but they are not particularly happy. A look at the races being run today at most tracks may provide some insight as to the source of this displeasure. So, lacking opportunity, they put less money at risk. To make matters worse, they are suffering the same economic hardships that plague pretty much everyone in the world at the moment.
Bringing them back to Aqueduct, Hawthorne, Laurel Park, Turfway Park is not an option.
Work with what you still have. -- PM
Written by Paul Moran
Check out Paul Moran on Blogspot At the Races
Saturday, December 06, 2008
Belmont: The Huns return to the main gate
For the record, I still hold fast the belief that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess and moderation is for those unable to reach a decision. There are, however, exceptions.
The local weekly paper in Floral Park, the community adjacent to the northern and eastern perimeters of Belmont Park, last week carried this headline: “Plan for Mall, Motel, VLTs At Belmont A Done Deal.”
This is, of course, not exactly true but it is nevertheless alarming.
The more accurate headline would have read: Politicians continue bogus promises; effort to desecrate North America’s most-important racetrack not dead yet.
The questions left to fester unanswered: How many slot machines and VLTs exceed the number of one too many? How many forms of regressive taxation – lotto, megaball, scratch off games, quick draw (video crack) – does the government need in the nation’s most highly taxed state?
With only the mayor of Floral Park expressing opposition to the desecration of Belmont Park, local and state politicians support a video lottery terminal on Hempstead Turnpike. Construction of such a facility at Aqueduct is expected to begin in early 2009. As the crow flies, Aqueduct is six miles from Belmont. To the north, a similar casino has been in operation at Yonkers Raceway for some time. Down the road, about half the casinos in Atlantic City are facing Chapter 11 filings. Out west, Las Vegas is bleeding red ink. So, the thing to do in Elmont, NY, is install more video terminals. Gambling options have reached critical mass and single-game video lottery facilities are not tourist attractions
Stupidity of this magnitude is almost performance art.
Jobs and taxes are the politicians’ mantra here. You want jobs? Fix the roads and bridges. A strip mall and a hotel at Belmont Park is no more likely to create jobs or widen the tax base – the state owns the land per its agreement with the New York Racing Association – than another fast-food franchise on the street on which the main gate at Belmont is situated.
Another question: How many bankrupt gamblers does it take to create a job?
Where is the feasibility study that supports this wish list? Where is the environmental impact study? What would be the effect of about 9,000 slot machines in two facilities 6 miles and a couple of traffic jams apart?
Belmont Park is in need of work and enlightened thought. It is not in need of repurposing. NYRA, meanwhile, has wasted a great deal of money on a study that will likely recommend another version of the desecration of the track. This will undoubtedly be horrific to those who appreciate the place for what it is and support the preservation of a unique and historic place.
The argument is often made that the building at Belmont is too large in light of the off-site migration of the audience. This is true. But it is not difficult to envision a racing museum in part of the underused space, an art gallery in another and perhaps on the main level as sales pavilion that would allow NYRA to develop another revenue source. (Alas, the inevitable result of presenting creative options to Masters of the Obvious is chaos.)
The track’s focal point – the 12-furlong main course and two turf courses and sprawling infield – should be untouchable. This is a configuration that exists nowhere else in the world and the scene of more racing history than has been written in any single racing venue in North America. Fix it. Find ways to utilize unused and seldom needed space in a manner consistent with its place in American racing. But preserve its character at all cost. --PM
Written by Paul Moran
Check out Paul Moran on Blogspot At the Races