Commentary

Taking care of fans is key to growth

Updated: July 21, 2011, 11:13 AM ET
By Amanda Duckworth | Special to ESPN.com

Kentucky is usually known for its original horse power. Sleek thoroughbreds dot the landscape, and come the first Saturday in May, they take center stage.

In recent weeks though, the state has been making national news for its problems dealing with man-made horse power. The traffic problem that occurred outside of Kentucky Speedway during its first NASCAR Sprint Cup race has only been made worse by the defiant nature of Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith.

Because I live in the state, it has been impossible not to hear about how the poorly the debacle has been handled. Some fans sat in traffic for more than six hours trying to get to the race only to be denied entry because there was nowhere to park. Instead of giving cash refunds, Smith has simply passed the blame to everyone else.

America is a country of customer service, and that is never more true than when it comes to sports. At the end of the day, a sport cannot survive without fans.

Although they both feature speed, NASCAR and horse racing are in very different places at the moment when it comes to fan base. I understand that. But at a time when discretionary income is hard to come by, angering the people who allow you to exist seems a bit foolhardy.

While pondering this, I couldn't help but think of the difficulty horse racing has faced while trying to maintain and expand its fan base. As an industry, horse racing has been aware for some time that in order to survive it must do this, but that is far easier said than done.

The tricky thing with horse racing is there are no teams to cheer for. Loyalty to a runner rarely can last more than a few years, simply because said horse will be retired. People have favorite trainers and jockeys, but the star of the game has always been the horse.

It's not like an NFL team that a family will follow for generations, through thick and thin. For instance, my family's team is the Denver Broncos. While John Elway will always be beloved, our loyalty to the Broncos did not change when he retired. I guarantee that some of the fans Zenyatta picked up along the way retired from racing when she did.

Another unique aspect of the game is the gambling. Getting people in the door simply isn't enough. The success of a race meet is not only judged by attendance but by handle.

For instance, Lone Star Park ended its spring thoroughbred meeting with a 10 percent increase in average daily attendance, which was the largest average daily attendance increase in the track's history. But, overall handle was down and that had to be addressed.

Also, for better or for worse, racing has no commissioner. Rules and regulations vary by state and for the average fan, that can be confusing. It can also lead to almost cannibalistic in-fighting at times because tracks have to take care of themselves before they worry about the whole.

All of that said, horse racing has been making steps in the right direction.

This year, for the first time since 2005, all three legs of the Triple Crown were aired on the same network. Even though no horse was going for racing's ultimate prize, viewership of the Belmont was up 44 percent from 2010. It seems unlikely that it was pure coincidence. People like things to be easy, and splitting the races between networks simply wasn't.

Also, in an effort to capitalize on the popularity of 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta, the Breeders' Cup has designed a Web page exclusively for the purposes of marketing the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Most of the Breeders' Cup Classic challenge races will also be aired on national television, and on-track fans will be able to compete in a free fantasy-type game where they own virtual shares in competing horses. The game, which hinges on who wins the Classic, features a $250,000 jackpot.

The Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup are racing's biggest events. Positive actions by both entities benefit the sport as a whole.

Furthermore, serious discussion about the use of race-day medication continues.

Earlier this year, the Association of Racing Commissioners International called for the end of race-day medication within five years. This summer, Breeders' Cup Ltd. announced plans to ban race-day medication in Breeders' Cup World Championships juvenile races in 2012, and it will not allow it in any of the event's races in 2013.

No matter where you stand on the hot-button issue, the fact it is being discussed and analyzed is a good thing.

There has also been a focus in recent years about what happens to a horse when his or her racing days are over. Although no perfect solution has been found and problems still exist, addressing the issue and trying to fix it is key.

Doing what is right for the horse can only help racing's persona. After all, one of racing's biggest issues is perception. It is hard to bring new fans into the sport when they are worried about how the horses are treated and if the game is fair. Who can blame them?

The other issue is simply exposure. Thankfully, the wireless world we now live in can help with that, as long as we make use of the available technology. It is important to make the sport not only accessible but engaging.

No sport can take its fans for granted. People simply have too many other options these days and once they are gone, they are unlikely to come back.

I don't pretend to have all of the answers, but I do know that fans must be taken care of or the sport cannot survive.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com