Eric Allen is a serious sports fan. He has season tickets to the Ravens, makes about 30 Orioles games a year and even has trekked to Washington more than a dozen times this season to cheer on the Capitals.
"I love hockey," said the 37-year-old Baltimore actor and salesman, who can just as easily debate Orioles manager Ray Miller's lineup shuffles as critique the NFL draft.
But horse racing? No thanks.
"I support all four major-league sports. But horse racing hasn't grabbed me. They need to make it more interesting to more people. They need some flash," Allen said.
The survival of racing may well depend on its ability to attract fans such as Allen, something its leaders say they now recognize after years of neglect. They have formed a league-like association, hired a New York ad agency and are vowing to try to become America's fifth-most-popular spectator sport - behind the NFL, NHL, NBA and major-league baseball.
They have much work to do. Once among the most popular sports in America, racing entered a long slide in the 1970s that has reduced it to a diversion pursued by an avid, but shrinking base of fans.
"The fact is, we're at the bottom of the totem pole. We nearly don't register. It's not that people think poorly of the product. They just don't think of it," said Rick Baedeker, vice president of marketing for the new association, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
In a time of stunning growth for sports and gambling in America, the pastime that most directly combines them is fighting for its life. Tracks reported a respectable attendance of 34million last year. But the NTRA figures only about 6 million people actually went, most of them going over and over. Its fans are overwhelmingly gray-haired and male, and have failed to pass on a passion for the ponies to the next generation.
How bad is it? When the NTRA's ad agency quizzed 203 people in shopping malls across the country, one-third said they'd never been to a track, but might try it someday. Another third said they either wouldn't set foot in a racetrack or would prefer not to. In a separate telephone poll that asked Americans to list their favorite sports, horse racing was named by less than 1 percent.
"Horse racing has just fallen off the menu of sports options for mainstream fans," said Max Muhleman, a Charlotte, N.C.-based sports marketing consultant whose clients include executives in the NFL, NBA and stock car racing.
The reasons for horse racing's decline are not secret. Over the past two decades, lotteries and casinos have spread quickly, giving racing a run for the gambler's dollars. Racetracks, which once enjoyed a virtual monopoly on legal gaming, now attract 2.5 percent of the nearly $600 billion wagered every year, according to International Gaming & Wagering Business magazine.
At the same time, other sports have emerged to compete for the attention of fans. In one of the strategic blunders of the ages, racing leaders resisted television in the 1960s and 1970s, fearing it would keep people from coming out to the tracks.
Leadership has also been a problem. As in the lack of it. Racing has been operated, but hardly governed, by a loose affiliation of often-bickering interests: racetrack operators, horse owners, jockeys, state regulators, trainers. Even the new NTRA is really more of a marketing cooperative than a governing body.
But Tim Smith, the NTRA's newly hired chief executive officer and "commissioner," said he can corral these stampeding forces. "I'm not ready as some are to say that racing is at rock bottom. Purses are up, handle is up and tracks are getting 35 million in attendance. This is not a sport on life support. But it is a sport that has looked at the trend lines and said, 'We better take action,'" said Smith, a 49-year-old attorney and former deputy commissioner of the PGA Tour.
Among the actions he has initiated: the industry's first national advertising campaign, a smart series of television and print ads carrying the tag line "Go, Baby Go." The NTRA is committed to spending $10 million this year on the ads. With incentives for tracks to run the campaign in their markets, total spending on the campaign could hit $20 million.
The NTRA is also trying to develop a "brand image" for the sport, coordinate sponsorships and even do some event planning. An NTRA handicap series is planned for later this year, stitching together existing races for mature horses and award points, similar to the Winston Cup auto racing series.
Smith promises to go strongly after television, for obvious reasons. Of the 1,500 hours of sports broadcast nationally last year, 11 hours were devoted to racing. Smith said the NTRA will even buy blocks of air time and produce its own telecasts if need be.
"As you look at the research, racing's first problem is awareness," he said.
The emergence of the NTRA, funded by a diverse collection of tracks, horsemen's groups and other racing-related entities, has raised hopes that industry cooperation may finally have reached the starting gate. A previous effort to establish a racing commissioner in 1994 failed because it was backed only by the tracks.
"They have done something that nobody has been able to do: They've gotten the tracks and the breeders and the owners together," said Bob Leffler, head of the Baltimore-based Leffler Agency, a marketing firm that counts Pimlico among its clients.
"I think they are off to a great start," Leffler said.
The initiative also comes at a time when simulcasting, off-track wagering and telephone betting services are bringing some financial stability back to the game.
Will it work? Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, said a properly executed marketing campaign could boost racing's fortunes. But the competition is not standing still. Motor sports, "extreme games," beach volleyball, golf, tennis, soccer and a slew of women's sports are all trying to do the same thing.
"The number of sports and sports leagues is not going down. You're looking at market share, whether you measure it with ratings or attendance or however, and horse racing has a lot of competition," he said.
Racing has another problem, consultant Malcolm Gable said: Betting on it is hard.
"It's easy to go into a riverboat and pull a lever on a slot machine," said Gable, director of the sports, entertainment and leisure practice of Coopers & Lybrand in Dallas.
In a trend that doesn't bode well for racing, casinos are seeing business shift from "table games" of skill such as blackjack and poker to slot machines, he said. "People don't want to think. They want to put their money down."
Muhleman predicted a rough ride for racing. "I don't know if it can be done," he said. "Here's Major League Soccer struggling to make it. They are only about 500 feet up the Matterhorn - and that is a sport that is being heavily promoted."
But the sport of kings has some regal assets, Muhleman said. "I think it has a fundamental legacy that is a good foundation. It's got some history and some premium events.
"You can't build those things overnight."
Pub Date: 5/14/98