WHAT THE NFL AND AMERICAN HORSE RACING HAVE IN COMMON

The National Football League and American horse racing are much different sports and businesses.  Yet they share one negative:

Some of the major financial beneficiaries of each sport/business take actions in the workplace that are bad for business and therefore counterproductive to their own livelihood.

In the case of the NFL, numerous players have alienated a significant percentage of their fan base by kneeling during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.  One reputable poll found that 55% of Americans called the players’ disrespect for the National Anthem “inappropriate” and another established poll revealed that 34% of Americans are less likely to follow the NFL owing to the players’ conduct versus 12% who are more likely.   DirectTV is even offering $280 refunds to subscribers who cancel NFL Sunday Ticket over the players’ behavior.

Most concerning to the NFL are television ratings; the teams could play before empty stadiums and still make money from TV revenues.  In the first three weeks of the 2017 NFL season television ratings were down about 10%.  While it is not possible to determine precisely how much of this decline is due to viewers boycotting NFL games, it is certain that at least some of the downturn in ratings is attributable to fans refusing to watch.  Any percentage loss is too much.

Noted sports journalist and TV host Jason Whitlock cogently summarized the NFL’s perilous path in a Wall Street Journal editorial: “…a social-justice month, as some players have suggested…might sound awesome on Twitter, but in the real world it’s likely divisive and poisonous for NFL TV ratings.  Professional football’s core customers have more in common with our Twitter-addicted president [Donald Trump] than with sanctimonious athletes posturing for social-media approval.”

Michael Jordan was once asked why he did not publicly participate in helping politicians running as Democrats.  He famously and sagely replied “because Republicans buy shoes, too.”  This kind of obvious advice is sound for any business or industry:  Do nothing to alienate your current or potential customers.

(During either the 2008 or 2012 presidential election, a racing publication took an unscientific sampling at the Saratoga race meet of how people involved with Thoroughbreds intended to vote.  D. Wayne Lukas replied “undecided.”  Smart businessperson, indeed…keeping controversial subjects out of his workplace…knowing that people with all sorts of opinions and political persuasions own racehorses and employ trainers.)

The NFL brouhaha comes at a time when football is already under increasing scrutiny for the brain damage it does to many players.

Horse racing also has an injury byproduct that turns off fans, breakdowns, with the most publicized being Eight Belles during the telecast of the 2008 Kentucky Derby.  Yet the non-response by most racetracks to breakdowns–including all the major venues–is to continue to hold the vast majority of races on dirt, empirically shown to be the unsafest of the three types of racing surface.  The industry then scrambles to explain to the public why, for instance, there were a rash of horse fatalities this year at Saratoga and last year at Del Mar.

Other prominent examples of self-inflicted wounds are readily available and include drug-abuse incidents that were described in a 2012 New York Times expose and the pervasive corruption at Penn National Race Course in 2017.

As long as various individuals and interest groups in horse racing resist uniform regulation and enforcement of drugs by an independent federally-sanctioned organization, as well as other measures–like installing synthetic racetrack surfaces and ridding the sport of whipping imagery–they will persist in the same detrimental “do what is bad for business” pathology as some of the current crop of NFL players.  Masses of people will tune out a sport they perceive as unnecessarily dangerous to horses and jockeys and unfair to bettors.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business

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