Can Even ESPN's Sports Muscle Save Horse Racing?

Network's Multiplatform Strategy for Breeder's Cup Hopes to Reverse Ratings Decline

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- ESPN is using its multimedia muscle to shove this weekend's Breeders Cup into the faces of young male viewers everywhere, but whether the cable-sports behemoth can make them care about horse racing remains an open question.
Marketers appear to be buying into what ESPN touts as its ability to connect with its coveted young-male audience via its multimedia heft for the Breeder's Cup.
Marketers appear to be buying into what ESPN touts as its ability to connect with its coveted young-male audience via its multimedia heft for the Breeder's Cup.

Ratings for the Breeders Cup, which moved to ESPN last year after 22 years on NBC, have fallen steadily for years, and continued to decline with last year's jump to cable.

Playing to a younger, upscale crowd
In an attempt to reverse that, ESPN is trying to push the Breeder's Cup as a series of 11 national championship races split, for the first time, over two days. The hope, ESPN and Breeder's Cup executives say, is to offer a glut of high-stakes racing that appeals to racing's older fan base, but also draws in a younger, more upscale crowd by playing up the prestige of the season-ending world championship races -- and the $23 million in prize money that goes with them.

That potential demographic mix has produced a fairly schizophrenic sponsor base for this year's Breeder's cup, with disparate marketers such as Dodge and Grey Goose, and John Deere and Emirates Airlines. Schizophrenic, perhaps, but full: "We're sold out of our inventory for the first time I'm aware of," said the Breeder's Cup chief marketing officer, Peter Land.

Marketers appear to be buying into what ESPN touts as its ability to connect with its coveted young-male audience via its multimedia heft. It aired the selections for the races on ESPN2, put the draw on ESPNEWS, is planning simulcasts of all the races via broadband at ESPN 360 (as well as on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Radio), and centralized the coverage in a Breeder's Cup portal on ESPN.com.

The race is also being plugged constantly on ESPN shows such as "SportsCenter" and "Mike & Mike in the Morning" and also in a series of short spots. "We're going to capture the fans because we're going to make it available wherever they consume," said Len Deluca, ESPN's VP-programming. "We're going to get the younger viewers because, first, we hit all the platforms. ... Second, we've got great storytelling to draw them in."

The right strategy but ...
But doubts persist over whether even ESPN can revive horse racing, which -- except in rare cases of a Triple Crown contender -- has had trouble arousing public interest in recent years. "It's the right [media] strategy, but what are they doing that's relevant to the younger consumer they're trying to get?" asked Wally Hayward, chairman-CEO of sports-marketing agency Relay Worldwide. "Ultimately there has to be something about the event itself that gets them hooked."

The race has made a number of structural changes it hopes will do just that, by stretching out over two days (as the Triple Crown races do), increasing the number of championship races, and adding a win-and-you're-in series of qualifying events that starts over the summer. Those were the first of what could be many tweaks in a profit-sharing broadcast deal that runs to 2013.

The first measure of success will be evident after Friday's and Saturday's races. "If it doesn't work, we have six more years to iron it out," Mr. Land said. "This is an evolutionary process."
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