Horse racing's media makeover is paying off

After courting new, younger and female fans, major events see TV ratings rise

May 08, 2010|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

Less sport and more style. That's the winning ticket at the racetrack these days, as the horse racing industry is trying to reinvent itself in an effort to attract new, younger and female fans.

It's happening on TV screens with shows emphasizing the people as much as the horses, while the major races themselves are being recast as lifestyle events rather than just competitions. And it's happening on computer and mobile screens, with fans and riders connecting on Facebook and jockeys using Twitter.

Using a cable TV contest with hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes and a TV series that built up to last week's big race, the Kentucky Derby last week enjoyed its largest television audience in 21 years, with 16.5 million viewers. A similar media mix helped the Kentucky Oaks, a race for 3-year-old fillies held the day before the Derby at famed Churchill Downs, break its attendance and TV ratings records. And if the Derby and the Oaks are Exhibit A for using media to redefine the image of horse racing, Saturday's Preakness is Exhibit B.

"The racing model that was in place over the past 40 years needed to be redefined," says Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club. "Racing can still be the centerpiece, but you need other activities and events going on in conjunction with it to draw a new and younger demographic. We've been trying to work toward that goal over the last year or two."

Executives of the major races and largest tracks didn't have much choice. In 2008, with attendance, purses and TV ratings for most races in decline, something clearly had to be done.

"The races were being covered [in the media], and the handicapping was covered, too, but we were losing our audience. They weren't going to the track; they weren't tuning in. They'd lost interest," says Liz Harris, vice president of Churchill Downs Inc., owner of the track at which the Derby and Oaks are held.

Thinking maybe they were "maxed out with the traditional audience of men and handicappers," Churchill Downs management sought a way to "reach out to another audience, more audiences," according to Harris. And the audience they went after first was women.

That strategy was crafted by Churchill Downs CEO Bob Evans after seeing data from NBC Sports that showed there are only three major sporting events that have more female viewers than male.

"They are: Winter Olympics, Summer Olympics and the Kentucky Derby," says Mike McCarley, senior vice president of marketing for NBC Sports. "And when you dig beneath the demographics … you see there are things that are inherent in major horse races that appeal to women that aren't inherent in other major sports events."

They include food and drink: "the mint julep and the black-eyed Susan," McCarley says.

"And fashion — everybody knows that for the lady going to a race, her entire outfit starts with her hat," the NBC executive says.

Also part of the mix are celebrities and parties.

"That last one was pretty shocking to us — how important entertaining around horse racing was with people throwing parties, much in the same way they throw Super Bowl or Oscar parties," McCarley says. "And while the Preakness and Belmont have more men than women, it is very close, almost 50-50."

Not surprisingly, Churchill Downs joined with NBC Sports to try to reach that much wider audience of women who are not hard-core racing fans. In addition to the reach of the network. Churchill was also attracted by what Harris called NBC's "family" of cable channels such as Bravo, USA and CNBC.

Last year, Bravo, a channel with a large female audience, covered the Oaks for the first time, and the TV audience for the event more than doubled, to 49 percent from 21 percent, according to Harris.

This year, Churchill Downs and NBC Sports presented a "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series — three broadcasts featuring six Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown prep races leading up the Derby. That series saw an increase not only in overall viewership but also a significant rise in the number of women watching. The audience shifted from 40 percent female in 2009 to 52 percent this year, and the average age of the viewer dropped by three years.

As important as Churchill Downs and NBC have been the past two years in trying to redefine the industry image and expand the audience for horse racing, they are only part of a minor media zeitgeist. It includes an upcoming HBO series, "Luck," set in the world of horse racing and starring Dustin Hoffman, and a Disney feature film, "Secretariat," which recounts the exploits of the 1973 Triple Crown winner, set to open in theaters in October.

And then there's reality TV. In early 2009, the Animal Planet cable channel launched "Jockeys," a reality TV series set at a California racetrack. By its second season, the series was seen by about 7 million viewers, according to Nielsen research provided by the Discovery-owned channel in Silver Spring, Md.

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