ESPN’s recent online poll concerning the popularity of various sports had horse racing finishing in seventh position out of twenty. The unscientific methodology used would ordinarily call into question the findings, except in this case they are consistent with what the National Thoroughbred Racing Association found in its own surveys.

This is an outstanding showing for horse racing. The sports that finished in the first six places were all team sports. The exact order of finish was: NFL, college football, MLB, college basketball, the NBA, and the NHL. The sports that followed this half dozen were predominately non-team sports, leading off with horse racing and including, for example, tennis, boxing, and NASCAR. It would be accurate to say that horse racing came in first among the non-team athletic activities.

In terms of popularity, sports featuring individuals are unlikely to ever outrank major team sports because the former are inherently disadvantaged. The idea of a “hometown rooting interest” explains why. Professional sports teams are physically located in venues throughout the United States and Canada and carry the name of a city (Pittsburgh Steelers) or a state (Carolina Panthers) or a region (New England Patriots). Therefore, each has a dedicated resident fan base that follows the namesake franchise year in and year out. Likewise, a university fielding football and basketball teams has a provincial core of fans. Local media cater to and fuel their passion.

Large numbers of diehards gather at Wrigley Field to watch the Chicago Cubs irrespective of the team’s record. Players get traded or retire but the fan interest remains because it is the Cubs and these beloved underdogs belong to Chicago. Athlete turnover has a different outcome in racing because even the stars are brief-career nomads who are not associated with a particular city or a specific racetrack. During Funny Cide’s rags-to-riches Triple Crown campaign, he garnered an international following by conquering all comers in Louisville and Baltimore. Then he moved on to New York and the Belmont, where he lost and abruptly dropped from the consciousness of all but racing fans. Moreover, unlike team sports, there could be no hope of “wait ‘til next year” to win the Triple Crown.

In a city with a professional sports franchise, fans’ chitchat about who the team might draft or trade or who will start this week’s game. Similarly, college recruiting engenders year-round banter and armchair experts call sports-talk shows to voice their opinions about this or that. Yet relatively few people are aware of–much less enthused about–a budding cycling star or a 12-year-old swimming phenomenon or a blazing fast 2-year-old maiden stakes winner.

Given that horse racing does not have the built-in ingredients to develop and maintain the same kind of fan continuity as the main team sports, a seventh place finish in the ESPN poll is a winner.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business

Originally published in the Blood-Horse. Reprinted by permission.