09/30/2004 11:00PM

Marketing efforts miss bottom line

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NEW YORK - The National Thoroughbred Racing Association held its annual meeting and marketing summit in Las Vegas last Monday and Tuesday and spent hours recounting what it sees as very good news about the game. Television ratings and exposure are up. Sponsorship dollars are flowing. Polls show that ever more Americans are interested in racing and receptive to spending a day at the track.

It all sounded pretty good until you realized what was missing: Any correlation whatsoever between all these feel-good numbers and any actual business results at the turnstiles or mutuel windows of American racing.

You can be sure that if there were even a smidgen of good news on that front, the NTRA would be trumpeting it, but the fact is that even the industry's biggest cheerleaders can point only to exposure and potential to say that the millions spent to date on national marketing have been spent productively.

Of course it's nice to be a little more popular than you used to be, and everyone likes having more television broadcasts. At what point, though, will the industry demand some tangible results showing that good feelings eventually translate into increased business?

Suppose that the tourism board of a city, let's say Cincinnati for argument's sake, undertook an expensive national campaign to boost awareness of the River City. After a few years, Cincinnati might be mentioned on television more often and polls might reveal that more Americans would be interested in visiting it some day. But if actual tourism numbers were at best flat, would it make sense to keep funding the campaign? Especially if they were static thanks only to increased heavy usage by business travelers, the equivalent of the simulcast players and rebate-shop patrons who are the only growth segment in racing right now?

You could argue that it will take more than a couple of years for the NTRA's efforts to bear fruit, but you could also argue that the industry has had a sensationally lucky stretch that should have already yielded dramatic increases at the box office.

Those who believe that promoting inspirational crossover sagas is the key to growing the sport can't really expect to exceed the Seabiscuit-Funny Cide-Smarty Jones trifecta of the last three years. The publishing industry has brought out dozens of books in the wake of "Seabiscuit," and not one of them has been a bestseller. Those fabulous television ratings for the Belmont Stakes are going to drop right off the face of the map the next time there's no Triple Crown on the line.

D.G. Van Clief, who was making his first appearance as the new NTRA commissioner at the summit, appears to think it is time to reevaluate the association's direction.

"We're not sure we have the critical mass of dollars to be effective with advertising," he said. "We may redeploy our resources, move away from paid advertising to free media - publicity and public relations."

The other redeployment that seems overdue is to create some mechanism by which exposure and interest are converted into participation. If, as the polls claim, racing is enjoying the most dramatic uptick in general interest in the world of sports, why isn't that producing any growth in attendance and handle? Racing needs to find out why there has been no connection and then honestly answer the question: When is it time, or is it already time, to try an entirely different approach?

The most discouraging thing to emerge from the summit was the report of the NTRA Players' Panel, one of the organization's best creations. The panel issued a comprehensive and detailed list of suggested guidelines for wagering procedures last winter that was strongly endorsed by then-commissioner Tim Smith and sent to every NTRA track in the country for review and implementation. Only a handful of tracks have even responded, however, and just a few have made the overdue and common-sense changes that matter a lot more to customers than advertising campaigns and sponsorship sales.

Maybe, just maybe, improving customer service and wagering options would have a greater effect on the racing business than national marketing and branding. As long as we keep hearing that all is well and popularity is more important than performance, though, we may never find out.