Under a new flag, united they run

Racing: A fledgling organization is working to promote and advance an often disjointed sport

May 15, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- There's more thoroughbred racing on network television than at any other time in decades. A snappy ad campaign has caught the attention of Generation Y. And racing is creeping back into the national consciousness.

So far so good for the 1-year-old National Thoroughbred Racing Association, racing's answer to the front offices of the major-league sports.

Now comes the hard part: keeping a fast pace long enough for the sport to catch on before the NTRA's money runs out.

Over its 300-year history, American racing has resisted the unification that brought prosperity to other sports. It has no all-powerful commissioner like Major League Baseball. No guiding figure like the National Basketball Association's David Stern. No sophisticated broadcasting department or shared TV deals like the National Football League's.

In fact, races with the greatest mass appeal, such as today's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, make money chiefly for the host tracks and not for the organization charged with returning the sport to the mainstream.

Creating a "national brand" and unifying an unstable amalgam of horse breeders, owners, jockeys, trainers, vendors and more than 65 tracks will take more than a smart logo and ads. It will take money.

A lot of money.

So far, the NTRA has survived on membership dues and contributions from a handful of benevolent organizations. In the fiscal year that ended last month, the NTRA raised and spent $22 million.

Such generosity has limits. Other sports leagues pool revenue from TV and merchandise sales and pay their member teams. If the NTRA can't find ways to at least become self-sustaining, memberships and contributions may dry up.

"I would say they have another two years from now," said John Von Stade, a vice president of Millsport LLC, a Stamford, Conn.-based corporate consultant specializing in sports marketing.

Von Stade said he is impressed with what the NTRA has accomplished. Corporate advertisers long averse to gambling, including some of Von Stade's clients, are giving racing a fresh look.

"I'd say racing has taken an upswing. But I wouldn't call it a huge upswing," he said.

The numbers bear out Von Stade's assessment.

Only 5 percent of Americans identify themselves as avid fans of horse racing, according to research by ESPN/Chilton Sports Poll. That means racing is roughly as popular as such second-tier sports as arena football and women's pro basketball. The number hasn't budged over the past year, despite the NTRA advertising onslaught.

In March 1998, polling showed 30.2 percent of Americans had some interest in the sport. Three months later, after Real Quiet came within a nose of winning the Triple Crown, the fan base grew to 34.7 percent. By February, it had dropped back to 30.1 percent.

"I think it's like cracking the lid of a jar. They've loosened the lid," said Daniel M. Kaiser, executive director of the Sports Poll.

Contradictory numbers

Other indicators are contradictory. Wagering nationwide on thoroughbreds rose 5 percent last year, but the number of races run continued to fall -- only three-quarters of the number staged 10 years ago. This year's Kentucky Derby TV ratings were practically unchanged from a year ago and below the previous two.

"If our objectives for Year One were create a brand, get some TV and start showing the industry that more can be accomplished collectively than separately, I think that happened," said Tim Smith, the NTRA's commissioner.

"I think we're off to a good start but have a lot left to do," he said.

Racing is conducted coast to coast, but only about one of 45 Americans visits a track or off-track wagering facility in any given year.

And those who go tend to be gray-haired, suggesting a sport that is at risk of dying with its fans.

Age is an issue for advertisers, who use sports as a way to reach young consumers.

"The problem has been that in the past 20 years horse racing has done nothing to promote itself," said Rich Muhlstock, NTRA vice president of advertising.

That is why the TV ads rolled out last year featured a lithe, 20ish actress surrounded by fresh-faced extras, ages 25 to 30. The tag line: "Go, Baby, Go."

"We want to make it more youthful and more hip, like has been done with martinis and cigars," Muhlstock said.

New ads this year feature middle-aged character actor Rip Torn, who research indicates is popular with young moviegoers. He is paired with an actor who looks like Tom Hanks at 25.

The campaign exudes attitude. A flier the NTRA paid to include in a recent Sports Illustrated dares readers not to allow "this politically-correct, calorie-counting climate we're living in turn you into a cream puff."

The NTRA will spend about $13 million on ads and other marketing this year. Another $3 million goes to put races on TV.

Buying air time

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