Thursday, September 30, 2010

ESPN’s Sports Center: If It’s News, It’s News To Us

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 30, 2010--Either ESPN hates horse racing, won’t recognize equine greatness when they see it, won’t acknowledge it or uses extremely poor news judgment on their flagship “Sports Center” broadcasts or all of the above.

Or maybe since the news that reigning Horse of Year Rachel Alexandra had been retired and won’t appear on its Breeders’ Cup telecasts that this news would take something away from the event. And that might hurt the bottom line.

I not even sure why Thoroughbred racing casts its lot with ESPN. Seems like a colossal waste of time and treasure. Suits on both sides can say what they want, but racing always seems to get the back of its programming hand.

I seldom watch Sports Center routinely, so they probably don’t care what I think. I will when there’s a major story, a game of national import on the professional or college level and, of course, the very occasional horse race.

I’ve given up on the idea of looking forward to racing telecasts since I don‘t know if I need to tune into ESPN Classic, ESPN News, ESPN 2 or ESPN, the mother ship. But “Sports Center,” that red zone compendium of highlights of modern look-at-me athletes? No thanks.

But I had a reason to tune in early Wednesday morning in addition to the pennant and wildcard chases; to find out if they reported anything beyond what I learned from press releases received after returning from dinner hours earlier.

There must have been some reason why Rachel Alexandra was suddenly retired one day after recording her second straight bullet workout.

It wasn’t until 4:05 a.m. before I could tune in, and here’s what I got--at 4:59 a.m. To paraphrase:

The host whinnies: “Hey, the Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra, has been retired, but here’s the good news. She’s going to be bred to Curlin.” Co-host: “I’d sure like to have some of that offspring.” Host whinnies again: “Good night.”

Obviously, there was no getting back to sleep. Besides, maybe I missed something in those first five minutes. I didn’t. From 5 a.m. to 5:05 a.m., not a word. And if there was a blurb in the left margin announcing upcoming stories, or a note in the news crawl below, I never saw it.

Now before some flak writes or e-mails to say the network is planning a Rachel feature on Saturday’s 90-minute broadcast on ESPN Classic from Hollywood Park starring Zenyatta--a race that also will be seen live on ESPN between football games--or that it’s planning an extensive interview with Jess Jackson during its Breeders’ Cup offerings, that won't be good enough. This is what’s called old news.

There was an interesting, well reasoned explanation of the ESPN-Horse Racing relationship phenomenon in a Jessica Chapel blog posted this week. In my view, it nails what the modern Entertainment and Sports Network is all about. To wit:

“Well into the 1990s you could say ESPN was a true sports network, with an eclectic line-up that included football, baseball, soccer, golf, bass fishing, and the X Games. If people played it, ESPN aired it.

“Changes came with ABC/Disney ownership, competition from other networks, and an ambitious expansion plan that rode the rise of cable and the web, turning ESPN into the TV-radio-digital-print behemoth it is now.

“There’s a downside to this dominance, though, a homogenizing of sport, an emphasis on the popular and lucrative. Think of it this way: ESPN is to sports as Playboy was to sex.

“Like Hugh Hefner’s groundbreaking men’s magazine, ESPN transformed an industry, becoming hugely influential to a generation of young men and radically reshaping their perceived interests.

“Along the way, it became less a celebration of all that is athletic than a platform for aggregating massive advertiser-friendly audiences. That means fewer small-market sports, whether hockey or horseracing, and more major league sports and specious news coverage.

“When all of sports was a niche, more sporting niches thrived. Gone mainstream, broadly appealing sports narratives gain prominence…”

According to a poll conducted recently by--wait for it--ESPN, horse racing placed in the lower half of the Top 10, ahead of NASCAR, a sport that television elevated to pop culture status. This apparently fails to impress “Sports Center” producers.

Not all this disinterest is the network’s fault; television isn’t the only industry that worships at the alter of the bottom line. A lot of it is the fault of the racing industry, one that’s fractured to its core.

It’s too easy to blame the National Thoroughbred Racing Association for doing a woeful job of promoting the sport. With the hits it has taken this year, the result of some of its major members pulling the financial plug, the industry is unable to bring racing to the masses in the manner of NASCAR.

According to industry sources, it costs $225,000 to put on a live hour of horse racing programming. And if the NTRA can’t afford to pay for it, or enlist the aid of organizations with a vested interest in the industry’s health, then who will?

Except for four days a year, racing creates no buzz on a national level. That’s the reality that allows ESPN and mainstream sports media to tell racing to buzz off. But this snub is about more than the sport of horse racing.

To ignore the fans of a Horse of the Year champion, a story that became national news during the 2009 Triple Crown campaign, is irresponsible at best, disgraceful at worst.

“The Sports Reporters” is an entertaining and informative ESPN program fueled by events of the day. “Outside the Lines” is a fine example of magazine programming excellence.

But then there’s Sports Center, which can turn a shockingly disappointing news announcement into a punch line. And a lame one, at that.

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gulfstream Night Racing: Max Out After Dark?

ELMONT, NY, September 22, 2010--Taking a page from rival Churchill Downs’ playbook, it appears that MI Developments, parent company of Gulfstream Park, wants to get into the Friday Night Lights business.

Night racing, long believed to be a possible savior/future of the sport, is on a mini-roll. Even the not-quite-night twilight programs, such as the one offered the last two years in Saratoga, have been a positive experience.

Hollywood Park has done pretty well with its Friday night programs, too, and when Oak Tree-at-Hollywood opens September 30, Thursdays and Fridays nights will offer concerts after the last race.

Historically, racetrack concerts have not been home runs, but the notion that modern tracks are inspired to become destination venues with special events driving the action is sound, especially if the idea is to get new blood into the building. Once inside, racetracks must figure the sexiest way to sell its product.

Based on results, Churchill seems to have figured something out. Their “Downs After Dark” Friday programs drew nearly 30,000 fans per night on the three cards held under temporary lighting last year.

This spring, over 27,000 supported each of four Friday nights. More programs are scheduled for Fridays this fall, the first coming two weeks after Breeders’ Cup, November 19.

Now MID wants to target Thursday and Friday nights. And why not? The racing will be top class, or a reasonable facsimile, the Villages will provide an alternative to those who would rather shop while their mates partake of casino or racino action.

Or it just might be a good way for people, especially sun-tanning snowbirds, to become familiar with the facility after first having dinner at one of the many trendy Village restaurants: Anything to raise awareness beyond racing’s aging fan base.

Gulfstream Park will need a change in the state law prohibiting Thoroughbred racing after 7 p.m. And there’s some support in Tallahassee to do so providing there’s something in it for all other parimutuel entities in the state.

If the legislature grants permission for night Thoroughbred racing in Hallandale Beach, it would require permission from the Thoroughbred horsemen, which cannot happen without a new contract.

Both sides will have plenty of time to work out any issues since the legislature won’t discuss the possibility of night Thoroughbreds until the 2011 session opens in March. Gulfstream opens January 5, but light stanchions could welcome the opening day crowd nevertheless.

MID has figured correctly that it might be useful to make the game more accessible to a wider audience. Toward that end, it’s the reason they’re considering Thursday and Friday programs when Gulfstream opens in 2012.

When the subject of night racing at Gulfstream Park was broached in the past, the Florida HBPA leadership said that many trainers, including those from New York, New Jersey, Canada and the horsemen have no interest in racing at night.

But considering that those trainers don’t have a vested interest in Florida racing the other nine months of the year, maybe it shouldn’t be their call, no matter how influential or politically connected they might be.

More likely, the real concern is that the big ship-in outfits might consider winter racing at the Fair Grounds instead. There already has been some not so subtle pressure put on trainers that call Churchill Downs home.

Dennis Mills, MID Vice-Chairman and CEO, is on record as having been influenced by the overwhelming success of Churchill’s Downs After Dark program, and how MID indeed would be derelict of duty if they didn’t at least consider the option.

And everyone knows what his boss, Frank Stronach, thinks of racing’s current model. When it comes to increasing shareholder value, not much has gone right for them. That they have a duty to be creative in this area is to seriously understate the case.

Meanwhile, Calder Race Course, a CDI property, thus far has sat back, stalking the nightline pace set by Gulfstream while Tampa Bay Downs to the north is unlikely to have a dog in this fight.

The Oldsmar, Florida track has been transformed into a highly attractive simulcast product after taking advantage of the window created by Fair Grounds’ closure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But as the fictional Gordon Gekko has already instructed; money never sleeps, pal, and now greed is apparently legal.

There are plenty of other parimutuel industries; Florida’s dog, harness racing and jai alai frontons, and even the Seminole Tribe’s gaming operations, that have something to gain from legislation enabling night Thoroughbred racing.

The jai alai and dog racing interests currently are suffering from a malaise even deeper than the one effecting the Thoroughbred industry. With palms open, they will find their way to the negotiating table.

Gulfstream and its horsemen should embrace the opportunity to present night racing. The Monmouth “elite” and Churchill’s “night” experiments have provided something of a workable template for racing’s future. Big time Florida racing would do well to follow their lead.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, September 10, 2010

One Small Step for Delaware, One Giant Leap for an Industry?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 9, 2010--There’s a lot Delaware Park doesn’t have. It doesn’t have New York’s classy horses or the horse population of neighboring Pennsylvania, and it’s purses are nowhere near current New Jersey levels. What it has is the courage to try new things.

To get people into its racetracks last year, tracks in Delaware hoped to do so through sports betting. But after the hypocritical anti-gambling lobbying from the sports leagues and other gaming organizations, it had to settle for parlay wagering on NFL games, combining at least three teams. Sorry, no college sports.

As one might expect, it was no home run. But during its two months of operation in the fall of 2009, it handled nearly $6 million. The net was approximately half that, better than the proverbial sharp stick but no bonanza for either the state, the tracks, or the horsemen.

Year two of parlay betting started today, so it follows that handle is likely to grow, the same way it did as the 2009 season lengthened. Toward that end, the state’s three tracks, including Delaware Park, will introduce a new wager.

The new bet combines the traditional element of football betting--beating the spread--with an end-of-season contest with a sizable grand prize. It probably was the only way the Delaware Lottery people could do it legally and not incur the ire of the leagues.

To play the contest, a fan must be willing to wager $250 for an entire season’s play. Players then choose from a slate of six NFL games each week, trying to pick the winners against the spread.

Whoever picks the most games correctly wins a $50,000 first prize at the end of the regular season. The leading handicapper at the end of each four-week period, and one five-week period, collects $5,000.

It’s a good, relatively inexpensive way to keep players engaged for an entire season with a chance for a top sports handicapper to make a tidy score. Entries must be made each Sunday on track by 11 a.m.

The weekly parlay cards demand a minimum of three teams to win. Obviously, the more teams included on a parlay card, the higher the degree of difficulty and the higher the payoff. Players can choose from a variety of six different types of parlays.

Bettors can also try to sweep the card, picking the winners of all 15 games against the spread. Get that right and collect $100,000. That parlay card costs $5. The bet was not hit last year, although one player did pick 14 winners. Tough beat, that.

What’s going on at Delaware Park is far from a perfect wagering world. But at least it is trying to bring people into the building, bettors not tempted by horses or slots. It’s working, albeit on a small scale.

This year, Delaware created an incentive for horseplayers which, if it caught on at other tracks in America, could be one answer to attract stay-at-home horseplayers to the track.

Delaware Park currently is offering a sizable 10 percent rebate for on-track-only exacta players. This is a huge tax break on one of racing’s most popular wagers.

Simulcast players would be able to bet on and cash winning exactas, of course. In order to get their rebate, on-track fans need to take winning tickets to designated windows where the payoff is increased by 10 percent. Logistically and practically, this is the only way the exacta rebate can work.

The following is not an original thought, but this mechanism can be used by racetracks wishing to offer rebates to all their customers who bet live at the track.

Not only is it a good way to reward their loyal customers and possibly attract new ones but it’s a great way for tracks to market wagering in general, especially in the multiple pools with their higher rates of takeout.

Billed as a promotional tool, the exacta, trifecta or Pick 3 rebate would be a way for tracks to minimize the influence of state government mandates. Takeout rates are set by state law.

“Promotional rebates” in certain pools might be a clever way to conduct new business. It very likely would be able stand up in court if a challenge was made. Of course, this would require a pair.

Even if it were allowed to, racetracks could not conduct sports betting given existing legal mechanisms. Why? Because the house could lose and state‘s only play games that are rigged in their favor.

To avoid losses, legal bet-takers move the point-spread or make bettors pay a premium to lock-in a certain price. It’s how they avoid “exposure.” It’s not so much book-making as it is book-balancing. The other way is to conduct wagering through the parimutuel process.

But it’s good to see that at least one racetrack is trying its best by introducing new wagering elements in the hopes of attracting a wider audience. They apparently recognize that there is some symmetry between football bettors and horseplayers, via the process of handicapping.

Wouldn’t it be good if more venues tried an outside-the-box approach, not by creating new models but by tweaking existing ones? Everyone knows that organizations don’t change as much as they entrench.

If the industry is seeking bold innovations, all it needs to do is take a baby step or two.

Written by John Pricci

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