TESTIMONY BY THORFAN BEFORE NYS SENATE RACING, WAGERING AND GAMING COMMITTEE
the New York State Senate Committee on Racing and Wagering
February 7, 2010
Chairman of the Board of Directors
Chairman Bonacic and members of the New York State Senate Committee on Racing and Wagering, thank you for inviting us. I am here representing ThoroFan to discuss how racing fans can be an integral part of the solution for improving racing and wagering in New York State.
ThoroFan is a national, non-profit (501(c)(3)) Thoroughbred Racing Fan Association, Inc. that was founded in 2008 and is headquartered in the racing capital of the United States, Saratoga Springs, New York.
Our mission is, “To foster growth of the Thoroughbred racing industry by providing racing fans with an organization that will actively support their interests.” We believe that the fans of our sport are so critical to its survival that they must be engaged and embraced by the industry.
But, first let’s talk about the fans. Thoroughbred racing fans are an interesting amalgam. We are of all ages, genders, social strata and professions. We love the horse, the experience and wagering on races. Some of us make a living in the industry. For some of us we follow racing the same way others follow baseball, football or any other of the mainstream sports.
A study undertaken a few years ago collaboratively by NTRA and ESPN found that there were as many as 29 million Thoroughbred racing fans in this country. They included folks who watch the Triple Crown races each year to those that play the races regularly. Extrapolating from census data to New York State, it is safe to say New York has well over 2 million Thoroughbred racing fans.
Another way to understand the importance of the fan is their participation in pari-mutual wagering. Nationally, fans wager approximately $12 billion per year on Thoroughbred racing. As some argue, with a blended take-out of approximately 20%, that portion of a wager that is sacrificed by the fan to the support the sport is approximately $2.4 billion. All this is to say that the fans in New York and across the country are serious financial stakeholders in the sport of horse racing. Just as fans pay real money for Jets tickets or golfers pay greens fees, racing fans pay to go to the track. That take out contribution - $2.4 billion a year, is fan participation.
Today, I have chosen from the list you provided three points of which the fans have knowledge to address:
1. REBUILDING THE FAN BASE
2. IDEAS TO BETTER THE SPORT AND
3. INTERSTATE RACING COMPACT
REBUILDING THE FAN BASE
At the 2010 Eclipse Awards ceremonies last month the word used most frequently in acceptance speeches was “ fan.” The headline on an article about the awards in the Thoroughbred Times read, “ All About the fans: Eclipse Awards pay tribute to racing’s often forgotten crowd.”
Mike Repole, owner of two-year-old champion, Uncle Mo and likely Kentucky Derby favorite, said it best,” I want to thank the fans. You guys are the backbone of this industry. Without you guys, there is no sport.”
We believe our sport would be vastly improved if we placed more of our energies and resources on fan base development. Give-a ways are a good way to attract customers. However, we must do more to introduce these new fans to our sport. They are the future of our sport we should capture them and cultivate them! Here a few ways to do that:
Fan Education is an essential. A survey of racing fans by ThoroFan found that a friend or relative taught most people about racing. Although there are plenty of resources available, most racetracks have limited basic on-track fan education.
In 2008, thanks to the support of NYRA, ThoroFan was able to run a free education program on-track for new fans, everyday during the Saratoga meeting. The purpose was to remove intimidation and to educate fans about our sport, how it works and how to enjoy it. Over 1,200 new fans came to our venue. Many of them were first-timers and were encouraged to ask us any question. I recall one person, who raised a hand and asked, “ What are the numbers on the starting gate for?” I thought, “ how many other fans are out there with that same need to know?” Therefore, we recommend an on-track venue that gives the fans the opportunity to learn and experience racing without risk or intimidation.
New York’s community college system of non-credit courses is an untapped resource to teach the public about racing and its entertainment value. Our campuses’ high tech abilities could make such learning available on every platform from the classroom to on-line. In 2008, Thorofan offered such a course at Fulton-Montgomery Community College (SUNY). With the expansive college system in New York we could reach every part of the state simultaneously. Developing a curricula for fans that could be used throughout our community college system would be a positive move.
We know rebuilding the fan base is a sizable and long-term project. However, it is one we must take on if we wish New York racing to have a future.
[SECOND] IDEAS TO BETTER THE SPORT
A recent headline in the Daily Racing Form’s Weekend edition asked, “Is Racing a Sport on the Ropes?” Using normal indices like wagering handle and attendance, the author suggests the sport might be approaching irrelevancy. We disagree. True, a new business model is needed, but irrelevant we are not.
Alex Waldrop, President and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Inc., in that same article was spot on when he said, “ We can’t spend our time arguing over who among the tracks and horsemen get what share of the pie. We have to figure out how to serve our customers. They’re the ones that matter.” From my perspective that should be “principle one” for creating a new model for racing in New York. Beyond that here are four (4) specific points on which to focus our efforts to improve racing:
1. The Voice Of The Fan is Critical. Accepting the premise that the fan is a stakeholder and the “backbone” of our industry, we need to rethink our priorities. Other sports certainly have. For example, think of another sport where the owners and operators have the front row, courtside seats, while the average fan is not given access. That’s what we do in racing; the owners’ boxes are on the finish line while the fans sit up the stretch.
Similarly, there needs to be more seats for fans on governing bodies, boards of directors of racing organization or government commissions. The “voice of the fan” needs to be heard in the boardroom, not just at the betting window.
2. Focus on Attendance At Live Racing. Winston Churchill has been credited as saying, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” This is especially true for racing. To watch a live race and to hear the pounding of hooves as they race to the finish line, is exhilarating and the best advertisement the sport has for a new fan. We need to find ways to share that with more people and our new fans.
Many tracks have begun this, with night racing and concerts that attract a younger audience. Reconsideration of night racing for thoroughbreds, on nights when there is no NY harness racing, is a possible avenue.
NYRA’s attempts to provide transportation to the track this year showed nearly a 30% increase in attendance in its initial going. Some tracks across the country offer free admission and parking. How about a lower take-out for on-track wagering? That would certainly entice those who might chose to stay home and bet on-line or with out-of-state ADW to “come out to the races.”.
There still are plenty more opportunities to make a day at the races as enjoyable as any other form of entertainment. If you doubt the assumption that we can bring fans back to live racing, look at the crowds that pour into Newmarket (England), Deauville (France), or Sha Tin (Hong Kong). It’s possible to have large crowds at American racing again, if we want them.
For those critic who might say these efforts may be detrimental to our state’s OTBs, I say they are wrong. Viewing live racing grows our fan base. When fans cannot conveniently go the track simulcast centers, Racinos and OTBs with the necessary modifications offer a great alternative.
3. Knock Down Barriers between the fan and the athlete. Sometimes in this business of racing we forget the sport and the athlete. If without the fan racing would be in trouble, then without the horse, it wouldn’t exist. The barriers between the fan and the horse must be broken down. Fans need to see and experience the horse, more. Better access to watching a racehorse work out in the morning is a sure path to “fandom.” But this is impeded in New York with layers of rules. Most fans are denied access to the backstretch, yet with a minor investment in a partnership most anyone regardless experience around the racehorse or prerequisite orientation can obtain a license from New York State. We must find better ways to connect the horse with the fan and still have a safe and secure environment. Other tracks across the country do it. We can in New York, too.
4. Promote Racing in New York. To introduce the public, especially a younger generation to our sport, requires a concerted and integrated effort. This effort requires all stakeholders including all branches of government to work together. We need a theme for racing in New York that brands the sport, not just one track or one Racino, but the entire sport. This theme could be used in public service announcements, cooperative marketing campaigns, local media coverage and through social networking. New Yorkers, with our help, can learn about our sport and its entertainment value, not just its wagering value. They can learn about the potential careers available in racing, as well. Sound familiar? Yes! We need an ”I Love New York Racing Campaign”
[Finally] NATIONAL INTERSTATE RACING COMPACT
The industry needs national leadership. When we think of baseball, basketball or hockey, we think of a national commissioner. With racing we have individual owners and track operators, regulated by each state. Can you imagine if last night’s Super Bowl was played by “Texas rules” and not “NFL rules?” We need a central body that is empowered to move racing forward. The Interstate Racing Compact does that. We only ask that you include recognition of the fan’s voice, fan education and fan base development in your legislation. Racing is a people’s sport! We need to make sure all our efforts are aligned to bring the people back to our sport.
I hope in the last few minutes you have come away with the understanding of how important the fan is to racing and how necessary it is to include their perspective in any solution crafted.
I hope all segments of the industry will join with the fans and work to save our sport. For too long we have been operating as silos or worst, boats rowing in different directions. Now is the time for us to come together as one group of fans, owners, horsemen and operators. Now is the time to drop “ME” from our verbiage and replace it with “US.”
Together, we can bring more fans to our sport. With a repopulated , vibrant fan base the entire industry benefits. With new fans come new players and future owners. New York can once again be the national leader in racing. It is up to “US” to TAKE the first step, today.
We are ever mindful of our respected ThoroFan Advisory Board member and Hall of Fame trainer, Nick Zito, who said when he agreed to join us:
"FIRST AND FOREMOST WE ARE ALL FANS.”