By Jim Gagliano
Our economies, our businesses, our families have all been affected in some way by this pandemic. Major sports were hit especially hard. Baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, golf, and even the summer Olympics and Wimbledon had to cancel or postpone their schedules.
The same was true for horse racing, but because of its unique nature, horse racing was able to resume long before other major sports, although without the benefit of spectators.
The Jockey Club and Breeders’ Cup spearheaded an industrywide collaboration to position horse racing as a viable and entertaining sports betting option to a captive audience of sports fans yearning for action during this unprecedented time. Fox Sports, NBC, and TVG have jumped on the opportunity to provide live racing to their viewers, with insightful commentary and coverage all while social distancing. A national ad campaign was launched to showcase horse racing and the thrill of wagering on races, providing insight on how and where to bet. Racetracks, ADWs, and other companies are providing free betting tools and spending advertising dollars to attract fans.
And it’s working. Fans are viewing and betting on races online via ADWs. Because of the ad campaign, there have been nearly 50,000 pageviews to a dedicated landing page on America’s Best Racing, with 98% of them being new users. And according to executives at Fox Sports, racing has been invaluable during the pandemic. Total viewing of horse racing on Fox networks through May is up 677% over last year, and combining Fox and NBC networks, excluding last year’s Triple Crown dates, total viewing of racing is up 793%.
Although racing without spectators and on a smaller scale has resulted in most of our sport’s economic indicators’ being down, at many of the tracks that have re-opened, handle has almost doubled, and in some cases, such as Lone Star Park and Ruidoso Downs, it has almost quadrupled compared with last year.
Another positive is that field sizes are up.
Overall, year over year through the end of May 2020, average wagering per race day was up 38.94% and average field size was up 6.64%.
Year over year for the 15 tracks that ran in the first week of June 2019 and June 2020, average wagering per race card was up 12.11% and average field size was up 16.76%.
This is fantastic, but as more racetracks open for business, these trends are not expected to continue.
To keep them from reversing, racetracks need to work together to ensure the product stays healthy and attractive, not only to our tried and true fans, but to the new fans and bettors who have grown to love our sport over the past few months.
At the 2017 Round Table Conference, Ben Vonwiller, a partner at McKinsey & Company, discussed better race scheduling through big analytic data.
“Our hypothesis is that if you maximize the share of attention bettors can focus on any one race, they will bet more often,” Vonwiller said.
Based on a scheduling study it performed for the NFL, McKinsey created a scheduling model for horse racing that could predict handle using approximately 40,000 races from 2015. The model proved the hypothesis that if our sport can maximize share of attention through optimized scheduling, people are more likely to bet.
The need for better race scheduling was actually first discussed at the 2011 Round Table Conference. From Michael Lamb, principal, media and entertainment practice, McKinsey:
- It has been well known in the industry that field size matters, but our extensive regression allowed us to quantify this relationship, from which we see a strong correlation between field size and handle. In this example, adding an eighth starter to a mid-sized race drives a handle increase of nearly 11%.
- Another dilution problem is overlapping race schedules, which make it hard for off-track bettors and fans to follow the best races. For example, in 2010 more than 77% of races at top tracks–defined as those with average purses in excess of $200,000–occurred within five minutes of a race at another major track.
- These overlaps reduce handle. As an example, we analyzed three Grade I stakes races that occurred within 22 minutes of each other at Oaklawn, Keeneland and Aqueduct. Had these races been spaced out to occur at least 15 minutes apart, they would have generated 6% more handle in total, with each participating track significantly better off.
Here we are in 2020 with handle and field size up as racetracks re-open, and what are some tracks doing? They are running their races on top of already scheduled races and on days when other tracks are already racing. They are taking attention from each other, confusing fans and bettors, and devaluing our product. Some tracks intentionally drag their post times to conflict with other races, which not only is unproductive, but also is dishonest and shows a lack of integrity.
Last year, Equibase launched a scheduling hub that enables racetracks to compare off times. Through the hub, racetracks communicate with Equibase and one another on race days to help clear conflicts. It’s up and running, it’s free, and tracks have signed on, but they aren’t making the most of the information.
On June 5, the day before what would have been the GI Belmont S., two major tracks had races going off at the exact same time, twice, and another instance where the post times were one minute apart.
If racetracks would focus on running races when other tracks aren’t, we could keep the positive trends in racing moving forward.
This has been proved by tracks such as Fonner Park, Tampa Bay Downs, Lone Star Park, Fair Meadows, and Will Rogers Downs, which all shifted schedules to decrease competition and have had great wagering on their cards for Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Imagine the impact if tracks would also race later in the day or in the evenings, when sports fans are even more likely to sign on to ADWs.
As other sports start resuming play, horse racing needs to retain the fans and bettors it has attracted, who have realized that horse racing is an exciting sport that is fun to watch and provides a great wagering experience.
The NFL, MLB, NHL, and other major sports leagues know that overlapping schedules are bad for business. Racetracks know that, too, and it’s time for them to do something about it. With the Belmont S., this year’s first leg of the Triple Crown, being run this weekend on the same day that almost 20 other tracks will race with four tracks running graded stakes races, we owe it to our fans to give them the best experience possible.
There is a lot in racing that needs to be fixed. This fix is simple, and it should have been done a long time ago.
Jim Gagliano is President and Chief Operating Officer of The Jockey Club