01/26/2011 3:56PM

Racing: America's 13th Favorite Sport


A Harris Poll released this week provided the bad news everyone in the American racing industry knows is true but is unwilling to admit. It showed that only 1 percent of Americans listed horse racing as their favorite sport, putting the so-called Sport of Kings in a tie for thirteenth place with boxing.

When compared to the 1985 Harris Poll asking the same question, the figures are revealing. Back then, 5 percent of Americans listed racing as their favorite sport, putting it in a tie with auto racing as the nation's sixth most popular sport.

Auto racing, led by the popularity of NASCAR, sits in fourth place at 7 percent in the latest poll. The 1985 twain at which the two racing games met is a thing of the past, auto racing's fortunes having boomed since then while horse racing's have plummeted.

The reason is obvious. NASCAR events are seen with a certain frequency on network television, while the Thoroughbred sport manages just a large handful of programs on the four major networks annually. Even in the last ten or twenty years during which cable networks have cut into the networks market share, presenting your sporting product on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox has remained the key element in making yourself known to America's sports mad public.

Not surprisingly, professional football was named the most popular sport by 31 percent of the respondents, up from 24 percent in 1985 but down from a peak of 35 percent in 2009. Those high numbers are a reflection of the NFL's strength with CBS, NBC and Fox. Baseball came second in 2010 at 17 percent, down from 23 percent in '85 but up a point from 2009. Third in the latest poll was college football at 12 percent, up from 10 percent in '85. After auto racing in fourth came professional basketball at 6 percent, the same as '85; hockey at 5 percent, up form 2 percent in '85; and then soccer and college basketball at 4 percent, followed by golf, track & field, bowling and tennis, all at 2 percent.

Along with the NFL, Major League baseball and NCAA football are seen regularly throughout their respective seasons on the four major networks. This not only keeps them in the public view, it commands the attention of the print media and their offshoots on the internet. It also insures that when sports like pro football, baseball and college football do appear on cable networks, there is a readymade, network-created fanbase willing and eager to follow them.

We cannot expect to have many people watching our championship event on any form of television when so few races are televised by networks during the course of the year. How many people would tune into the Super Bowl each year if only a dozen or so NFL games appeared on network TV each year? About as many, perhaps, as watched this year's Breeders' Cup, which is hardly any at all.

That network television remains the key to a sports popularity was confirmed by this latest Harris Poll. It is all bad news for horse racing, whose leaders appear to be mystified when it comes to marketing our product to the networks.

And even when we do land a spot on the networks, like we do with the Triple Crown races, we shoot ourselves in the foot, showing just a single race on programs that last between 1 1/2 and 2 hours. This is especially frustrating as there are so many Grade 1 races on the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes undercards that deserve national exposure.

Recent ratings reveal that there is a market for good racing in America. The 2009 Kentucky Derby was viewed by an estimated 16.4 million people. Last year's Beeders' Cup Classic on cable was seen by 4.9 million viewers, many of them attracted by Zenyatta, but the rest of the Saturday card had a much lower rating.

By comparison, the Kentucky Derby figures look good next to the 2010 Epsom Derby, which was seen by just 1.9 million British viewers, even keeping in mind that the population of the United States is five times that of Great Britain. On the other hand, the Grand National Steeplechase, perhaps the greatest sporting spectacle in the world, was seen on TV by 7.6 million viewers last April. That would translate into about 38 million viewers in America.

And that is about the figure we should be drawing for races like the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup. It will never happen, however, until we get our game onto the networks on a weekly basis, which is what they have in Britain on either the BBC or Channel 4. The failure of those responsible for marketing racing on a national basis in America is of near criminal proportions. When bowling is named by twice as many Americans as their favorite sport, horse racing is in big trouble indeed.