Horse racing aims high Industry united, set to gamble millions on raising stature

Slogan: 'Go, baby, go'

NTRA wants a place in sports' top five

January 24, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Faced with declining attendance and increased competition for the gambling dollar, the horse racing industry is uniting behind an ambitious effort to transform itself into one of the top five sports in America.

In a meeting yesterday with reporters at the Keeneland Race Course, two leaders of the movement detailed plans of the recently created National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Set to begin operation April 1, the NTRA is designed to be the centralized office racing has never had.

"We can tell you today, the NTRA is a go," said D. G. Van Clief Jr., interim chief executive officer of the association. "This industry really does stand on the brink of a major, major breakthrough, one that's going to allow us to take this sport and this business to the next level."

According to NTRA-sponsored research last summer, horse racing ranks at the bottom in popularity among sports. Of 500 people asked what was their favorite sport, .4 percent said horse racing.

"The awareness of racing is so low we're told it doesn't even merit consideration on the graph," Van Clief said.

To become one of the top five sports, horse racing must supplant hockey, auto racing or golf. They are the sports ranked fourth, fifth and sixth in popularity, respectively.

To do that, the NTRA is following the strategy of the NHL, NASCAR and Professional Golfers' Association: Form a league office, adopt a catchy slogan, market like never before, get on television and enhance customer satisfaction.

"Examples of success of centralized marketing exist everywhere," Van Clief said.

"NASCAR has done a tremendous job taking -- I hope I'm not offending anybody -- what a lot of us might think is just a good-ol'-boy redneck sport and making it one of the most viable commercial entities in the country."

The NTRA's first-year budget of $25 million and four-year budget of $150 million are scheduled to come from all segments of the industry: racetracks, horse owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys, sales companies and, if they want to join, fans.

Joseph A. De Francis, principal owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, has signed on, as has the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. De Francis and the horsemen have each pledged about $500,000 the next two years to the NTRA.

"Every major racetrack in the country is a full participant," said Nick Nicholson, interim executive director of the NTRA.

He and Van Clief said they have never seen such unification in horse racing, an industry often fragmented by disparate elements scratching for every penny it can from every gambling dollar it's able to draw.

Alarmed by continuing declines in attendance, an aging fan base, limited exposure on TV and competition from other forms of gambling, especially slot machines and casinos, the industry is finally coming together to try to reverse the trends.

The NTRA has hired the New York advertising agency of Merkley Newman Harty to design high-end commercials that will begin airing this spring. It plans on buying time on national TV networks so viewers can watch more horse races.

It even plans on grouping races so that fans can easily follow them, especially races leading to the sports premier events -- the Triple Crown in the spring and Breeders' Cup in the fall.

In addition, the NTRA will provide racetracks with cooperative advertising, joint purchasing, enhanced merchandising, corporate sponsoring and training in customer service and customer retention.

"It's often been said that the quickest way to bankruptcy court is to spend a lot of good dollars on a bad product," Van Clief said.

"And obviously there's no point in having a successful marketing program to attract people to racing if once they get there they have a negative experience."

Following the lead of the NBA, ("I love this game") and Nike ("Just do it"), the NTRA has adopted the slogan "Go, baby, go!"

Yesterday, Van Clief and Nicholson showed a video produced by the advertising agency that hints at the marketing to come. It went something like this:

Shots of stressed-out people at work, in traffic. The words, "We all need a place where we can cut loose." Shots of excited people at the racetrack. The pounding music of Billy Joel's "Pressure." The underlying chant of "Go, baby, go! Go, baby, go!"

Favorite sports

In a survey last year by Market Opinion Research of Arlington, Va., fans were asked to name their favorite spectator sport:

No., Sport ........ Pct.

1. Football ....... 36

2. Basketball ..... 19

3. Baseball ....... 18

4. Other .......... 7

5. Hockey ......... 6

6. Auto racing .... 5

7. Golf ........... 3

8. Tennis ......... 2

8. Soccer ......... 2

10. Horse racing .. .4

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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