The USA Today headline on October 8th read “Sagging NFL TV ratings leave owners scrambling for answers.” When the television ratings for America’s most popular sport drop that is a cause for concern for all sports.
Explanations for the ratings decline have been numerous, ranging from American’s focus on the presidential election to a glut of sports offerings. But hard data indicate that viewers have increasingly been cutting back on watching sports on television and therefore the causality is not a temporary event like the election. Indeed, ebbing viewership is a trend rather than an aberration.
For example, in 2010, ESPN had approximately 100 million subscribers. By 2015, the cable network had 92 million subscribers for a decrease of 8%. The downturn has picked up steam in 2016: October was the worst month in ESPN’s history, when it lost 621,000 subscribers and had a 24% decline in ratings for its crown jewel–Monday Night Football.
What has happened at ESPN is plaguing most television programming, whatever the genre. While several contributing factors are at work, the most prominent causality is that people are being inundated with information and their attention spans are shortening. Why watch an entire NBA or MLB game when one can catch the highlights on a smartphone and also forgo the expense of paying for a sports channel on cable?
Horse racing is fortunate to have a format that fits well with the new reality. Its showcase events–the Triple Crown races–each last in the vicinity of two minutes. Tune in, say, at roughly 6:00 PM eastern time on the first Saturday in May and be done watching the Kentucky Derby shortly thereafter. Similarly, a viewer can avoid the clutter of the marathon two-day telecasts of the Breeders’ Cup by accessing the telecast precisely at the post times for the races he or she wants to see.
A personal example: On Saturday afternoon of Breeders’ Cup day, I looked up the post times for the races I most wanted to watch and did errands in between. It takes the most patient and avid fan to sit in front of a television for hours on end watching any sporting event, much less one in which there are 30 or 40 minutes between races, as in the Breeders’ Cup.
Bettors with accounts on wagering platforms have a daily potpourri of races to wager on from racetracks around the world. Someone in the eastern U. S. time zone can bet on and watch a race from Europe before breakfast and then head off to work, or take in a race or two from Australia before turning in for the night.
Events like the Super Bowl, the World Series, the World Cup, and the Kentucky Derby will attract a large television audience. However, an NFL game on Thursday night, an NBA contest in February, or a third-tier college football bowl game are all swimming against the cultural tide in a society of fragmented audience interests and truncated attention spans.
Horse racing, as a sport and betting option, has structural and cultural weaknesses but its inherent characteristic of extreme brevity (in presenting races available at all times of the day and night) is its only inherent advantage in today’s milieu…but a valuable one.
Copyright © 2016 Horse Racing Business