Imagine going into a casino to play blackjack, but before you can make your first bet you’ve got to buy a $10 deck of cards. Or if you are in Las Vegas and want to wager on a baseball game you first have to shell out $5 to learn who the starting pitchers are and pay another $10 to find out what the batting averages are for all the players.
Those are barriers for customers that casino and sports book operators are smart enough to avoid. Horse racing isn’t that smart.
When I first became a fan of thoroughbred racing, the Daily Racing Form had a monopoly on the statistics everyone relied upon to follow and wager on the sport. It employed the chart callers who recorded all the details from a specific race and maintained the database containing all racing statistics. The company was owned by Walter Annenberg, whose father, Moe, bought the Daily Racing Form in 1922.
For the duration of the Annenberg family’s ownership of Daily Racing Form, horse racing was the number one spectator sport in North America. The company was extremely profitable and its management maintained a cozy relationship with racetrack owners and horse racing industry organizations. I worked in Daily Racing Form’s Los Angeles office for eight years and we all understood that we were never permitted to “rock the boat.”
But when Annenberg sold Daily Racing Form to Rupert Murdoch in 1988, things changed. There were concerns about a third party – one who had no ongoing relationship with the sport on this continent – owning the data on which everyone depended.
Thus, in 1990, The Jockey Club of New York and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America – a trade association for the racetracks – established Equibase to begin charting races and building the database that creates everything from past performances (including those found in Daily Racing Form) to leading sire lists. The decision took possession of the data out of the hands of a private third-party and into “industry” ownership. It was a smart move.
Equibase’s mission wasn’t just to become horse racing’s official database. It was also designed to address the sport’s need for a fan base expansion. In other words, Equibase was to be used as a tool to introduce the sport to a new audience.
From a financial standpoint, Equibase has been a rousing success. But has it succeeded in helping build future fans?
I think not.
Unlike other sports, where statistical information is widely available for free and has been a necessary component in the growth of fantasy sports leagues, Equibase chose to put a tollbooth on much of its data.
Don’t believe me? Go to Google and type in “Wayne Gretzky stats” and see how many websites (including NHL.com) provide free, detailed lifetime statistics on The Great One.
Then type in “California Chrome stats” and look for a similar presentation of information. Good luck with that one.
Providing free statistical information on a sport builds engagement with fans.
Perhaps you’ll buy a player’s officially licensed jersey, go to a game or simply watch one on TV. Maybe you’ll include that player on a fantasy sports team and follow him every day. There are direct and indirect benefits to fan engagement.
Racing has a direct benefit from building a new fan base. It takes a cut (and a significant one at that) out of every dollar wagered.
Think about that for a minute. Horse racing takes, on average, 20 per cent of every dollar bet. But before you make a bet, the racetracks (through their majority ownership of Equibase) and the wealthiest non-profit organization in the horse business (The Jockey Club of New York, which is sitting on tens of millions of dollars made over its 100-plus years), has the audacity to charge for the kind of basic information you can find for free in every other sport.