SBJ/October 29-November 4, 2012/In Depth

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  • Prime-time exposure

    NBC will air the Breeders’ Cup Classic in a one-hour show Saturday night, the first time the horse race has been on prime-time television, but will it be enough to give the event a ratings lift?

    The Kentucky Derby has historically drawn big television numbers, as has the Belmont Stakes when a Triple Crown is at stake. But outside of those two races, which are the first and third legs of the Triple Crown, the popularity of the sport and its television ratings have been languishing for years.

    “This is a bold, new experiment we are trying here,” is how Jon Miller, NBC Sports president of programming, described the plans to show the Breeders’ Cup Classic during prime time. Miller said NBC has done well “making big events bigger,” and will take that approach with the Classic.

    In January, NBC struck a four-year deal to broadcast the Breeders' Cup. The network already had the rights to the three races that make up the Triple Crown.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    That being said, Miller won’t make any ratings or viewership predictions. “You are not going to get me to give you a number,” he said. “The number will be what the number will be. But it won’t be for the lack of effort we are putting against it.”

    The Breeders’ Cup Classic is a 1¼-mile race with a purse of $5 million and is the culmination of two days of championship horse racing that starts Friday at Santa Anita Park, near Los Angeles. There are 15 races in all during the Breeders’ Cup weekend, with most of the purses ranging from $1 million to $2 million over the two days.

    NBC Sports Network will air Friday’s races from 4 to 8 p.m. ET and the Saturday races from 3:30 to 8 p.m. ET, when coverage will switch to the Classic for the hourlong show on NBC.

    In January, NBC struck a four-year deal to broadcast the Breeders’ Cup. ESPN had carried the event for the last six years and was considered for an extension, but organizers went with NBC.

    “We made a decision to go to NBC and not a small part of it was the availability of prime time on the network,” said Breeders’ Cup CEO Craig Fravel.

    Fravel said that having the Classic on prime time on the network this year was part of the deal. “As far as if we are in future years, that was left up to NBC,” he said. “We haven’t had a discussion, but we expect to, in 2013, again be in prime time with a Classic hour.”

    Fravel and NBC officials would not discuss the terms of their rights deal.

    Another reason for the switch to NBC, Fravel said, was because the Breeders’ Cup wanted to be on the same network
    NBC Sports Network will carry the other races in the Breeders' Cup, then switch to NBC for the hourlong coverage of the Classic.
    that broadcasts the races that make up the Triple Crown — the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and Preakness. NBC has broadcast the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness since 2001 and the Belmont Stakes since 2011.

    The NBC/Breeders’ Cup deal runs through 2015, concurrent with the network’s deals to broadcast all of the Triple Crown races. The Breeders’ Cup relationship, Miller said, cements the network as the home of horse racing.

    The Triple Crown races are always run in the spring and the Breeders’ Cup in the fall. The Breeders’ Cup, which features horses from the U.S. and around the globe, usually determines the horses that win Eclipse awards, including Horse of the Year.

    Breeders’ Cup officials want to position the Classic as horse racing’s fourth major, much like the major events in golf and tennis.

    “That is the way the Breeders’ Cup wants to position it and that is the way we are going to position it going forward,” said Gary Quinn, NBC Sports’ senior director of programming and acquisitions.

    Miller said, “To make the Breeders’ Cup the fourth major, that is not up to us to determine. But we are certainly going to give it the attention and the promotion and the showcasing a major event like the Breeders’ Cup deserves.”

    Rob Hyland, NBC’s producer of the Breeders’ Cup, said he wants the coverage to mirror the tone, look and feel of the Kentucky Derby.

    “Making horse racing cool, making it inclusive and making this event so that when you are at home you say, ‘Wow, one day I want to go to the Breeders’ Cup,’” Hyland said. “People say that about the Kentucky Derby. We want people to say that about the Breeders’ Cup.”

    Hyland wants the people who tuned in to see the Kentucky Derby this spring to tune in to the Breeders’ Cup Classic this fall.

    One thing that is expected to help ratings is celebrities. Since the event is at Santa Anita this year, celebrities are expected to attend, as they have in the past when the event was held at the track in 2008 and 2009. Former ESPN host Michelle Beadle, who joined NBC’s celebrity show “Access Hollywood,” will be one of the reporters on the Breeders’ Cup show, Hyland said.

    Additionally, the Breeders’ Cup purchased the rights to the classic song “The Best is Yet to Come” and hired Tony Bennett to sing it prior to the Classic race.

    “He is a legend and I like the idea of having an entertainment element associated with racing,” Hyland said. “We challenge Churchill Downs every year to get a great anthem singer of note,” he added.

    The Breeders’ Cup also could benefit by having the Notre Dame-Pittsburgh college football game on the network prior to the Breeders’ Cup Classic coverage.

    This year’s event will be without a well-known horse, such as 2009 winner Zenyatta.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    Still, the event is challenged by not having a well-known horse — like a Zenyatta, or a big Triple Crown-contending horse like I’ll Have Another, the horse that won this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness — expected to run in the Classic.

    “Is there a Zenyatta this year?” Hyland asked rhetorically. “No. But she was a very, very special horse. Is there a super horse? Probably not. But there are a heck of a lot of good stories.”

    Although the plans for the one-hour show were not set by press time for this story, Hyland indicated that NBC may highlight Bob Baffert, who has won multiple Kentucky Derbies and may have the favorite, Game On Dude, in the Classic.

    Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and founder of Pilson Communications, which consults with sports leagues and sports properties about television deals, said that what NBC is trying to do with the Breeders’ Cup is bold, but he’s skeptical it can work.

    “The public falls in love with horses,” Pilson said. “Not trainers or jockeys. The problem is the Triple Crown horses are not in it.”

    The general public is interested in the Triple Crown, but the Breeders’ Cup is something that, historically, only serious horse racing fans are interested in, he said.

    The last two years, the Kentucky Derby on NBC drew more than 14 million viewers, while the Breeders’ Cup Classic, on ESPN, drew 1.6 million last year and 4 million in 2010, the year Zenyatta, a previously undefeated female horse, lost the Classic by a neck.

    “It is what it is,” Pilson said. “I am not throwing darts at anyone. I am wishing NBC good luck.”

    Both Miller and Quinn noted that the Breeders’ Cup originally debuted on NBC in 1984 and garnered bigger audiences when it was there. In 1988, the first year Nielsen measured audience figures, 5.3 million viewers watched the Breeders’ Cup. The numbers dropped from 2 million in 2005 to 994,000 viewers in 2006 when coverage switched to ESPN from NBC.

    Quinn said the reason the event is being shown in prime time live on the East Coast is because it is being run on the West Coast at Santa Anita. Santa Anita has been named the host track of the 2013 Breeders’ Cup as well. The host track for 2014 and beyond has not yet been named.

    Miller, pressed on whether NBC will use this year to determine whether to air the event in prime time on the network next year said, “I think we will take a look at it again, but it is our intention to keep it right where it is.”

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  • Verge knows not to get comfortable in revolving door CEO post at Santa Anita Park

    In March of this year, Los Angeles area businessman Mark Verge was named CEO of Santa Anita Park, at least the 10th chief executive named to run the historic racetrack since billionaire Frank Stronach bought the facility in 1998. In a candid interview this month, Verge talked about how he got the job, the challenges of revitalizing Santa Anita’s fan base, and the opportunity the track has in hosting this year’s Breeders’ Cup, horse racing’s annual championship event. He also addressed questions about his future at a facility that has seen so many CEOs come and go.

    ■ What is your background?
    VERGE: I am an entrepreneur. It helped that I grew up broke. I started a pretty successful company called Westside Rentals. We have seven offices. We find apartments for people. I grew up in Santa Monica. Grew up with six kids in the family and always wanted to make money, so I started different businesses. What happened when I started Westside Rentals, I started buying hotels, buying apartment buildings. Then I got into the bar business. Mainly soulful kind of clubs and bars. More pubs, bars, like more historic spots. Like we own a place called Cole’s. It’s the oldest restaurant in L.A. It has a back bar call The Varnish. It just won best bar in the country.

    ■ How did you meet Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach? How did you get this job?
    VERGE: I got called in to meet with Frank Stronach on a Monday night in Pasadena. I live in the Palisades and I didn’t want to drive over there because my daughter had a practice, but I wanted to meet Frank Stronach. But his main guy called me and said, “He really wants to meet you because he heard you are a guy who has ideas on how to save Santa Anita.” I said, “I am sorry, I am coaching my daughter’s team.” And Stronach’s assistant called back and said, “Oh my God, I told Mr. Stronach you wouldn’t leave your daughter’s practice — I would never do that for anybody.” So the next morning, I met him. I told him why his racetrack was failing. And the main reason was there is not a face to it. He’s the one who owns it. He said, “I want you to be the face of Santa Anita.” I gave him 10 ideas on why his racetrack was failing. There wasn’t any character to it. There wasn’t a face to the races and too many times as a guy who goes to the racetrack — I love the racetrack — it just seems like when I was giving ideas to people they weren’t getting done.

    ■ What did Frank say?
    VERGE: The passion for the game is there and he has a passion for the game. But he has 160 companies and he has 110,000 employees. He started more companies than I ever will. He’s a billionaire. It’s great to sit with a billionaire, but my point to him was: The reason Santa Anita is failing is there isn’t a face to it.
    He said, “I want you to work for me.” I said, “No.” He offered me a job. I said I never had a job or worked for anybody. He flew me out to Florida. He said, “I want you to be my partner. I want you to look at an ownership of Santa Anita.” I kicked it around in my mind and I thought, “That would be kinda cool.” And a couple of buddies said, “You gotta do it.” So, I’m doing it.

    ■ So, are you a partner in the track?
    VERGE: He calls me that. I think I am more of the guy, the CEO of the place.
    Verge was looking on the bright side even when talk was circulating that Gene Simmons of KISS fame could soon replace him.
    Photo by: Benoit Photo


    ■ Did you put any of your own money in Santa Anita?
    VERGE: Nope. I offered.

    ■ Do you have an equity stake in Santa Anita? Is that the deal?
    VERGE: Yes. That’s my deal. I have an equity stake. Not enough. But I do have an equity stake. All my (compensation) is tied to an equity stake. That’s why I am here.

    ■ That’s what your compensation is?
    VERGE: Yes. I have 258 employees of my own. I am not here for a paycheck.

    ■ What does Breeders’ Cup mean for Santa Anita?
    VERGE: It really is an opportunity to showcase what we have. To show people who are coming out across the country that we are going to deliver a great experience for them. We have the Bond movie premiere. We have Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck coming out for Taste of the World. There are so many things that we are doing that are going to showcase horse racing in Los Angeles. It is just going to be, “Wow.”

    ■ How many CEOs have there been at Santa Anita the last 10 years or so?
    VERGE: About 14. Something like that. My office is a turnstile. That might not be the worst thing. For me, it’s a challenge to get this thing to sell. But for me, it doesn’t really affect me.

    ■ Did you mention that to Frank, that he seems to have fired a lot of CEOs or they have left?
    VERGE: No. I like Frank a lot. I was very fired up to have the opportunity. I was like, “How would this guy hire me?” I mean, I have a chance to run a racetrack. So, I was going to do it for free.

    (Editor’s note: About a week after our initial interview, horse racing blog The Paulick Report reported that Stronach’s daughter, Belinda Stronach, held a high-level executive meeting at which Verge was not present, but Gene Simmons, the frontman of the band KISS was present. SportsBusiness Journal asked Verge about the report.)

    ■ What is your reaction to the report?
    VERGE: They say Gene Simmons is replacing me — which I think would be a great move. I don’t know if it is true, but it is a great move. I haven’t been fired yet. But if Gene Simmons replaces me, it’s a good move. … If it happens, I would hug Frank Stronach. I loved the opportunity.

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  • Tracks focus on improving the fan experience

    With so many sports trying to improve the fan experience, horse racing doesn’t plan to get left at the gate.

    Tracks and horse racing organizations are making sure fans enjoy their day at the races with such efforts as improved Wi-Fi access, new areas to socialize, and horseplayer development programs.

    On Sunday, Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby and one of the oldest tracks in the country, was set to open the “The Plaza,” a newly remodeled area next to the paddock featuring picnic tables where fans can gather and socialize before and after the races.

    Keeneland uses events such as college day to attract younger fans to the track.
    Photo by: Nike Communications
    “The Plaza is another way we are going after the whole social, entertainment aspect,” said Ryan Jordan, general manager of Churchill Downs Racetrack.

    This fall Churchill plans to hold happy hours at the Plaza where fans can enjoy drink specials, listen to bands and watch horse racing.

    For the highest-end regular customers, Churchill this year unveiled plans for “The Mansion,” an area of the track that is being re-modeled in time for the 2013 Kentucky Derby. Tickets to the area, which includes a private wine cellar and a butler, reportedly will be sold for between $9,000 and $12,500 for groups of people for Kentucky Oaks and Derby weekend.

    But Churchill is looking to improve the experience for all guests. Toward that goal, the track is studying how much it would cost to blanket the facility with Wi-Fi access. In the last few years, the track has set up a Wi-Fi system that allows customers to place wagers on races from their smartphones. But currently, the service is only available in certain areas of the track.

    “We want to make the Wi-Fi network more robust,” Jordan said. “You can’t do it in the infield right now. We want to improve our network, so, hopefully on Kentucky Derby day with 165,000 people here, we want to have a Wi-Fi network in place that will allow every customer to wager from a smartphone.”

    Nearby Keeneland, in Lexington, Ky., also is investing in technology to make the experience better for guests.

    Keeneland was one of the first tracks to feature smartphone wagering and this year has improved the wagering and odds
    information for each race horse before the race, said Vince Gabbert, chief executive officer of Keeneland Association.

    “We are the first track to go to decimal odds, so rather than 5-to-1, you can see 10 dollars and 40 cents,” he said, a reference to a $2 win bet paying $10.40.

    Keeneland also is working to attract younger fans who are not experienced horseplayers. During its college day, for example, Keeneland gives away 10, $1,000 scholarships to college students. “On average we have 5,000 college students come in,” Gabbert said. “It’s just a fun day.”

    Keeneland is one of several tracks that are trying to find ways to lure local fans of other sports to horse racing. Keeneland started a tailgating day on Saturdays for football fans of local colleges.

    Arlington Park has, for the past two years, worked with Chicago sports teams to put together promotions such as Blackhawks day or Bears day at the track. The track also has hosted Northwestern University and the Chicago White Sox. Typically with such programs, former or current players and coaches come out, meet with fans and give autographs.

    Saratoga set up a tent at its summer meet to help newcomers learn how to place bets, including exactas and trifectas.
    Santa Anita Park in the Los Angeles area has catered to team loyalties as well by hosting the USC marching band.

    Santa Anita CEO Mark Verge said he is looking for ways to attract casual sports and entertainment fans and then turn them into avid horse racing fans. He thinks racetracks need to do more to show fans just how much fun horse racing is, or in emphasizing the gambling aspect of the sport.

    “When people come to a game they can cheer a team,” Verge said. “When you go to a racetrack, you can bet. You are part of it. People have to understand it. It’s gambling. It’s so much fun, and we have not delivered that message. And that’s what we have to do better.”

    Rodnell Workman was named the first chief marketing officer for the
    New York Racing Association in May, after working as vice president of marketing strategy for Madison Square Garden. He’s also worked stints at the NFL and for the New York Giants.

    Workman said he wants to change the image of the racetrack from a place for hard-core gamblers, mostly older men, to an entertainment option for younger people and families.

    “We want horse racing to be in the discussion when you are debating going to the movies or a park or whatever,” Workman said. “From my perspective, a lot of it has to come by the way you are presenting your business.”

    NYRA operates the Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga racetracks. Workman said he could not reveal specific plans he has to enhance the fan experience until they are approved by the state and the new NYRA board, but he did say that the association is working harder at teaching the casual fan how to become an avid fan and a horseplayer.

    During this past season at Saratoga’s popular summer meet, for example, NYRA set up a tent to teach fans how to bet exactas and trifectas. Fans new to racing pushed $45,000 through the betting machines over three summer weekends in the newcomers tent, he said.

    Such efforts will help counter the “dying sport” label horse racing has battled for years.

    Said Workman, “I think the sport is ripe for a rebirth.”

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