A scheduling conflict kept me from attending the Breeders’ Cup in person, but I watched the Saturday card on television.  The next day I went to see the NFL game between the Cleveland Browns and the New England Patriots.  The league-leading Patriots were heavily favored, but the Browns jumped out to a 10-point lead and ended up winning 34-14.  The day was clear and crisp and Lake Erie next to the stadium was glistening.   The pregame ceremonies honored military veterans and some surviving  members of the Tuskegee Airmen were introduced to a huge ovation.  The playing of the Star Spangled Banner was followed by a thunderous and proud flyover by four US Air Force jets.  As the game wore on, the large crowd grew increasingly loud and sometimes raucous.  All of this got me thinking about the recipe that makes the NFL so attractive.  The main ingredients are:

Hometown Rooting Interest.  Fans in the cities and states with NFL franchises spend the season talking about how the home team is doing and devote the offseason to debating hypothetical and real trades, draft choices, and coaching changes.  Horse racing does not have this built-in advantage because there is little continuity with the horses running at local tracks.  Even during the Triple Crown season, when the most media attention is focused on racing, the horses are in the limelight for five weeks and then disappear from the public radar.  The nearest I’ve seen to a hometown rooting interest was in 2004 when Smarty Jones was at Philadelphia Park.

Star Power.  At the Browns-New England game, the main stars were the celebrated New England quarterback Tom Brady, arguably the best in the business, and Cleveland’s baby-faced University of Texas rookie quarterback Colt McCoy (his backup is racehorse owner Jake Delhomme).  A woman sitting near me said she had traveled from Michigan to see Brady play because he once quarterbacked the University of Michigan.  A twenty-something man from Nashville, Tennessee, told me he drove to Cleveland to watch the game because he is a lifetime Browns fan.  Zenyatta is racing’s star.  I have not seen this kind of outpouring of sentiment for a racehorse, including for Secretariat.  Funny Cide and Smarty Jones evoked emotion, but the intensity quickly dissipated after they lost the Belmont Stakes.  The support that Zenyatta has received from fans for Horse of the Year–more so since she lost the Breeders’ Cup Classic–is visceral.  Previous champions have been admired, Zenyatta is loved.

Familiarity with the Game.  Football is well understood by the general public because so many people play it and/or watch little leaguers, high schools, colleges, and the pros.  Sports-radio call-in shows demonstrate that lots of people think of themselves as experts.  When America was an agricultural society, racing had the same interest.  The average citizen was familiar with horses and racing was a popular pastime going back to colonial days.

Competitiveness.  Unlike Major League Baseball where there is no salary cap and the major-market teams dominate, the NFL has a salary cap and the lowliest teams have a structural basis to improve their lot.   Horse racing has this sort of competitiveness and favorites can be upset, even Man ‘o War, Secretariat, and Zenyatta got beat.

Television.  More than any other sport, football is compatible with television in that it is easy to follow.  The 1958 NFL title game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants was shown nationwide and went into a nail-biting sudden-death overtime.  This is often referred to as the greatest NFL game ever played and it certainly launched the NFL into prominence, so much so that it passed baseball as the most popular sport in the United States.  By contrast, racing executives in the 1950s were afraid that television would ruin their live gate and therefore did not embrace the new medium.  Racing has a detrimental history of resisting innovation, including exchange wagering today.

Central Control and Brand Equity.  Because the NFL is a league, the commissioner has broad powers of authority to establish and enforce rules and to punish unacceptable behavior.  He can also ensure that each and every team works to maintain and build on the NFL’s mega brand equity.  Racing, being decentralized and under individual state control, has no power to enforce anything across all states.  Efforts to install a commissioner or a coordinating body like NTRA have largely been unsuccessful because the central entity is or would be toothless.  Churchill Downs has the most brand equity in the sport with the Kentucky Derby.  The Breeders’ Cup has made progress toward building brand equity, but, the judgment here is that the name does not resonate with the public.  A better choice than Breeders’ Cup is necessary to achieve cachet.

Years ago, an oldtimer from Chicago told me a vignette about his friend George “Papa Bear” Halas, who co-founded the NFL in an automobile showroom in Canton, Ohio (near the present Pro Football Hall of Fame) and was the owner/coach of the fabled Chicago Bears.  In the earliest days of the Bears franchise, Halas would write checks on Sunday after the game to cover expenses, such as player salaries, and then rush to the bank on Monday morning to deposit the game receipts so the checks would not bounce.  What I saw last Sunday at the Browns-Patriots game is the lineal descendent of this meager beginning.

Thoroughbred horse racing cannot become a force like the NFL (only European pro soccer is on par with the NFL), but it can incrementally increase its popularity through the crafting and implementation of at least a few of the same ingredients that the NFL has leveraged.

The NFL is facing a contract dispute with the players union for 2011 and there could be a lockout.  The owners want to redo the 60% of revenues that is currently paid out to players and to increase the season to 18 games.  Racing does not have these kinds of problems, as the players in racing can be satisfied with a clean stall and ample servings of hay, oats, and water.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business


  1. Bill, what about gambling? There’s a lot of action on that game you attended – whether it be with a bookie, in pools, or in fantasy.

  2. Bill Shanklin says

    Very insightful point, Steve. The money put down on NFL games is huge and drives a lot of the interest.

  3. Professor Shanklin wrote:

    University of Texas rookie quarterback Colt McCoy (his backup is racehorse owner Jake Delhomme).

    So the race horse owner is a backup to a QB named “Colt”. Interesting.

    As for the correlation of a salary cap dispute, I’d remind everyone that the signal fees is a major problem that impedes progress.

    These fees between racing host and signal taker are preventing what needs to be done – the wholesale lowering of takeout rates.

    People attend the NFL for a variety of reasons.
    But horse racing has set the hurdle so high that it’s normal to “lose money” for more than 95% of those in attendance. That’s not a good business strategy and needs to be corrected.


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