Marketing alone won't save horse racing. And now neither will a Triple Crown winner.
The injury and subsequent withdrawal from tomorrow's Belmont Stakes of I'll Have Another, the chestnut colt that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and was gunning for the first Triple Crown in 34 years, is a massive disappointment for both racing and NBC Sports.
The sport has been battling scandal, decrepit tracks and mistreatment of the animals, which in part led to a freefall in horse-racing popularity in the past decade. A 2011 study by The Jockey Club found that track attendance is down 30% from 2000, and the total amount bet on races is off by 37%.
The network, meanwhile, had been heavily promoting the Crown in hopes of a big ratings boost due to the rarity of the event. The last time a horse had a shot at the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes was Big Brown in 2008.
"Having a Triple Crown [chance] happens so rarely and so seldom that , when it does, it captures the imagination of everybody," Jon Miller, president-programming for NBC Sports and NBC SportsNetwork, told Ad Age earlier this week. NBC could not be reached for comment about I'll Have Another's dropout from the race.
According to executives close to the network, NBC had hoped to approach the 15.7 million total viewers who watched all three Triple Crown races in 2003, when Funny Cide nearly took it all. A year later, 21.9 million viewers tuned in to the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont to watch Smarty Jones' chance at history.
NBC has 11 hours of programming scheduled across its networks Saturday devoted to coverage of the Belmont Stakes. "Our job is to be the storyteller and to put our resources against our investment," said Mr. Miller earlier this week. The promotion push began the moment the Preakness ended three weeks ago -- NBC had staffers in the production room cutting a new spot to promote the possibility of a Triple Crown winner, which aired that night on "America's Got Talent."
"This is devastating all around, and I'm not just talking about NBC's audience, because those spots have been sold in advance," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of research at Horizon Media. "The breeding rights to the horse will fall, the attendance at the track will fall, and certainly the amount of dollars that would have been bet will be less."
NBC is the rights-holder for all three Triple Crown races, as well as the Breeder's Cup races in November, through 2015. The network had blown out its coverage for the possibility of I'll Have Another becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed won 34 years ago. The push included 60-second spots on "Law & Order" and the Stanley Cup Finals, as well as 30s on NBC, MSNBC, CNBC and its regional sports networks. NBC also took out a half-page color ad in today's USA Today to trumpet the Belmont.
In a statement, NBC said its financial impact will be "minimal" as it concerns advertising. "The vast majority of our advertisers buy a horse-racing package, which includes the three Triple Crown races as well as others that air on NBC and NBC Sports Network. Only two units were sold [to two advertisers] subsequent to I'll Have Another's victory in the Preakness, as all other inventory was already sold out. We will work with those two advertisers on a suitable solution to make them whole."
So much for advertisers, but what about horse racing as a whole? Experts said that even if I'll Have Another had raced and won, it would not have been enough to revive the sport. "A Triple Crown win -- while an incredible story -- would not increase viewership of horse racing [overall]," said David Schwab, VP at Octagon Sports. "Horse racing is a niche sport that gets its moment three times a year."
"A Triple Crown would give a temporary boost to horse racing, but nothing significant over the long haul," said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, and the author of the annual Sports Marketers' Scouting Report. "Average fans only care about three races a year; jockeys and trainers rarely, if ever, possess the charisma to inspire the non-racing demographic, and horse racing simply has too much competition from other sports and entertainment choices to make inroads with new, younger fans."
None of that is exactly news to the Breeder's Cup, a series of races run over two days that brings together horse racing's best, and is planning a branding campaign for Fall. However, Craig Fravel, president-CEO of the Breeders Cup, said marketing alone won't revive the sport.
"Absolutely not," he said. "We've heard from inside the industry that the problem is the marketing. The fact of the matter is , if you look at every sport, the greatest successes have been when the investment is made in the product itself."The Breeder's Cup is set for Nov. 2-3 at Santa Anita Park in California. The tagline for the campaign, from Boston's Conover Tuttle Pace, is "The Best Is Yet To Come."
"The brand itself and our marketing approach hadn't been evaluated in the last five to 10 years," Mr. Fravel said. "We wanted to refresh our look and make sure our messaging is consistent across all platforms. We emphasize the event experience more than the horses. It's a 'must do' type thing, a bucket-list type of thing."
"I think horse racing has to reposition itself," Mr. Adgate said. "It has to appeal more to the masses. You need star power. Even though we're talking about a horse, it's like Tiger Woods in golf. This is like Tiger Woods going for the grand slam and blowing out his knee."
One thing horse racing might have right in trying to attract younger audiences is social media. In fact, I'll Have Another has his "own" Twitter account and, apparently, a sense of humor. When the horse was moved to a "detention barn" at the stables at Belmont Park to avoid further injury, I'll Have Another weighed in with this tweet: "We are starting to think of songs to sing inside the barn. I vote Jailhouse Rock. Suggestions?"