MOST POPULAR SPORTS AND HORSE RACING

The 2018 World Cup telecasts showing huge stadiums full of passionate soccer fans from nations of all sizes got me thinking about how extremely popular the sport is across the globe.  Soccer is inexpensive for kids to play and therefore capable of cultivating lifelong fans to watch it in person and on television.

Compared to other major sports events, the 2018 World Cup does not garner high television ratings in the United States but it is a huge draw globally.  The reason is apparent:  soccer is the world’s most popular sport and the second-place finisher, cricket, is not even close.

Horse racing is correctly referred to as a “niche sport” and its popularity varies vastly across the countries in which racetracks are located.  People don’t grow up “playing” horse racing so it is at a considerable disadvantage in creating a love for the sport.

When one looks at the popularity of various sports, the ratings differ considerably according to how the term is defined.  For example, popularity can be measured by the number of people actually playing a sport, watching as a spectator only, or both?

The World Atlas ranks sports on the metric of “estimated global following,” which is vague.  Its latest rankings are shown below, with the sport listed first and then followed by its estimated number of fans.  Note that the list is comprised entirely of sports that people can play as well as watch.

Soccer, 4.0 billion estimated followers
Cricket, 2.5 billion
Field Hockey, 2.0 billion
Tennis, 1.0 billion
Volleyball, 900 million
Table Tennis, 875 billion
Basketball, 825 million
Baseball, 500 million
Rugby, 475 billion
Golf, 450 billion

The number of fans a sport has following it does not automatically translate into cash flow, profitability, and television ratings.  American football is not in the World Atlas top-10 rankings but the National Football League is the runaway fan favorite in the United States and thus is a commercial goldmine.  Table tennis may be more popular than the NFL but is certainly not as lucrative.

That horse racing is not a top-ranked sport globally is to be expected because it has no presence at all in many countries.  Additonally, it is beyond the financial means of most people to participate in horse racing as an owner.  However, horse racing is a top-5 or top-10 fan favorite in some major venues where it has a long tradition, such as Ireland, Great Britain, France, Australia, and Hong Kong in China.  While horse racing is not close to being a top-10 fan favorite in the United States, telecasts of Triple Crown races typically do well.  For instance, the 2018 Preakness had the lowest TV rating of the three Triple Crown races, yet had a higher rating than the fifth and concluding game of the National Hockey League playoffs.

Copyright © 2018 Horse Racing Business

THE LASIX DEBATE ARRIVES ON CAPITOL HILL

On June 22, 2018, a subcommittee of the House of Representatives heard differing views about the proposed Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017. Much of the hearing pertained to the use of raceday furosemide (Lasix) on horses to mitigate pulmonary bleeding.  Following are excerpts of remarks by four of the key people who voiced their opinions about a drug that is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency because it can be used by athletes to mask the use of other drugs.

Perspectives on humane treatment

Point:  “If Lasix is not permitted, you withdraw water from the horse for at least 24 hours prior to competition.  And you withdraw food.  That’s how it’s done.  Don’t think for a second that horses don’t bleed in Europe.  They may not be able to use Lasix on raceday, but the most effective therapy for a horse that bleeds is to withdraw water 24 hours prior to competition.  Now, is that humane?  Is that in the best interest of the horse?  (Alan Foreman, chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association)

Counterpoint:  “There’s no indication they’re [racehorses in other countries] ailing or suffering because they’re not using raceday medication.  It is a standard we think the United States also should be able to meet.  And as it has been mentioned, these [U. S.-based] horses do travel internationally, and when they’re in those other countries, they’re racing just fine.  In an effort to bring the U.S. up to the global standard, I think [the Horseracing Integrity Act] is necessary.”  (Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States)

Perspectives on whether Lasix is performance-enhancing

Point:  “If it prevents EIPH from occurring, it’s going to allow a horse to perform at its natural talent.  If bleeding does occur beneath the alveoli of the lungs, then yes, that would inhibit the horse from just gaining the advantage of his natural talent.”  (Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association)

Counterpoint:  “Bob Baffert had a horse in [the 2018 Pegasus World Cup in Florida] called West Coast…he was offered a five-pound weight allowance.  He would carry five pounds less if he didn’t administer Lasix before the Pegasus.  And Bob Baffert chose to administer Lasix.  So I think at least Bob Baffert is saying it’s a performance-enhancing drug.”  (Stuart Janney, Chairman of the Jockey Club)

Questions and still more questions

While Mr. Foreman and Mr. Hamelback dutifully acted as spokesmen and advocates for their employers, the talking points the gentlemen conveyed raise questions that undermine their arguments.

First, why is it that trainers in the preponderance of countries with organized horse racing are able to send out horses without Lasix and trainers in the United States are not?  Mr. Foreman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association asserted that European (and by inference, the other places with bans on raceday Lasix) practices to keep horses from bleeding are inhumane.  Are European trainers really knowingly causing harm to their racehorses via their anti-bleeding regimen?  Was such alleged animal abuse also an accurate characterization of trainers in the United States in the more than 200 years before raceday Lasix was permitted by state racing authorities?

Second, Mr. Hamelback’s comments concede that Lasix is a performance-enhancing drug when he refers to Lasix preventing exercise-induced pulmonary bleeding and thereby allowing “a horse to perform at its natural talent.”  What other recognized and reputable sport can one cite as an example in which the contention has been made publicly or to Congress, by a governing body or a players’ union, that its athletes must rely on a performance-enhancing drug to unlock “natural talent”?  If Lasix has such salutary properties why is it banned by every major professional sports league in the United States and worldwide by the Olympics?

Lastly, and most importantly, why would prominent horsemen’s groups, whose members derive their very livelihood from the horse-racing industry, persist in alienating (or risk alientating) the people without whom there would be no commerical horse racing:  bettors?  Surveys of horse players have consistently found that bettors overwhelmingly prefer no raceday medication.  Try telling a bettor that racehorses are strictly tested for illicit drugs, with the qualifier that horses are allowed to run on Lasix even though it can mask the use of other performance-enhancing drugs.  Moreover, a cursory Internet search will leave no doubt that the image of horse racing has been tarnished by breakdowns and, rightly or wrongly, the widespread perception among the general public of “drugged” animals as the root cause.

Copyright © 2018 Horse Racing Business

ASSESSING THE TELEVISION RATINGS FOR THE 2018 TRIPLE CROWN

Television ratings for the 2018 American Triple Crown races did not stack up favorably with those of previous years, yet a compare and contrast with other 2018 May and June sports events yields a more optimistic conclusion.

First, a review of the TV ratings for the just-completed Triple Crown races:

  • The Kentucky Derby experienced its lowest rating in 12 years with a metric of 8.5 and an audience of 14.9 million viewers.
  • The Preakness Stakes had a television rating of 4.9 and 7.9 million viewers, the second-worst performance since NBC acquired the TV rights in 2001.
  • The Belmont Stakes earned a rating of 8.1 with an audience of 12.7 million viewers (compared to a rating of 3.2 and an audience of 4.9 million in 2017 when no Triple Crown was on the line.)  The number of viewers for the 15-minute segment of the telecast encompassing the actual race increased to 15.3 million.  When American Pharoah won the Triple Crown in 2015, the television rating was 12.3.

Sports Media Watch provided insightful historical context for the 2018 rating for the Belmont telecast by pointing out that…”it is not unprecedented for a sporting event to fall off after the end of a long drought [referring to American Pharoah’s Triple Crown feat in 2015 that ended a 37-year hiatus].  When the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, ending an 86-year drought, their sweep of St. Louis averaged 25.4 million viewers.  Three years later, their sweep in the 2007 World Series lost a third of the 2004 audience, averaging 17.1 million.”

For additional context, consider how several other May/June 2018 sporting events fared in terms of TV ratings and viewers in the United States.

  • The Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend earned its lowest TV rating since the race was first broadcast live in 1986, with a rating of 3.4 and 4.91 million viewers.  NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, held in the evening on the same day as the Indy 500, had a rating of 2.83 and an audience of 4.1 million.
  • The National Basketball Association Finals averaged a 10 rating and an audience of 17.7 million viewers, the worst numbers in 11 years due largely to a sweep of the series.
  • The closeout fifth game of the National Hockey League Finals had a rating of 3.9 and a TV audience of 6.6 million viewers.
  • The FIFA World Cup is averaging 1.86 viewers.
  • The French Open Finals in tennis had a rating of 1.1 and an audience of 1.62 million viewers.
  • The PGA’s U. S. Open had a rating on the final day of 3.6, the worst number on record for the event.  By contrast, the World Cup soccer match between Mexico and Germany earned a 4.3 rating on Telemundo.

While horse racing is a niche sport in the United States, television ratings for the Triple Crown races typically exceed the ratings for marquee events in other niche sports held in the spring of the year, including in years when a Triple Crown sweep is not possible.  Even the 2018 Preakness, which had the lowest ratings of the Triple Crown races, produced a rating and an audience size that bested the closeout fifth game of the 2018 National Hockey League Finals, and the NHL is considered to be one of the four major sports leagues in the United States.

Copyright © 2018 Horse Racing Business