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'Racing Night Live' A Welcome Sight

Published: October 12, 2020 11:31 am ET

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For fans of live sports and fans of horse racing, there will be a lot to be thankful for on Friday nights starting October 16 with the return of Racing Night Live to TSN.

On Friday (Oct. 9), Woodbine announced that the dual-breed racing show would return to TSN after its successful initial summer run.

"There's lots to be happy about with the first run of Racing Night Live," Christina Litz, VP of Business Development for Woodbine Entertainment recently told Trot Insider. "I think it's worth reminding people that Woodbine and TSN were the first live sports production back in Canada after COVID started, and I can't tell you what a big deal it was to get there.

"From the beginning, even Woodbine planning to come back to live racing -- we're part of that, but then once we knew that was going to happen and seeing the opportunity that was in front of us to profile our sport to new people -- with no other sports on -- we went to work very quickly with TSN and Dome Productions to ensure that we could do the production safely and there were a ton of things that went into ensuring that we were maintaining the high standards that were already being set at Woodbine and then of course extra added pressure for TSN and Dome to make sure that they got this right."

According to Litz, the nine-week initial run of Racing Night Live "reached over a half million Canadians" to provide the horse racing industry with tremendous exposure. The launch of the show coincided with the launch of Woodbine's DarkHorse wagering app, with the app's downloads and engagement peaking during those Thursday night TSN broadcasts.

"Overall, we're so proud to show the different stories of the people in our community, to educate novice sports fans in entertaining ways about what's happening in our industry and why it's so much fun to be a part of, doing a little bit of educating on wagering for people so they could play along," added Litz. "From my perspective, we hit a bunch of the objectives that we wanted to with this and we're really happy with it."

Woodbine's CEO Jim Lawson agreed with that assessment.

"I think it hit all the objectives," said Lawson. "We knew we'd get a big viewing audience from our core people, they love horse racing and they loved watching it. I got all sorts of positive feedback from them; I think that they were excited that the sport we're all passionate about would get an opportunity on primetime TV. And then the second group -- we're all excited in the industry that we have a chance to educate and showcase horse racing to a new audience, which I think we also accomplished.

"So the show, thanks to Christina and TSN and our broadcasting team at Woodbine -- which is the best in the horse racing industry -- it was professionally done, it was exciting, it was fun. I think the added element of music played a big part of...making it an entertainment experience. And I think our team and TSN's really did a great job of making it a first-class production and entertaining in all sorts of ways."

Making the thoroughbred and harness racing industries happy with such a production is only part of that equation. Ultimately, TSN had and has the final say as to what content they provide and horse racing was once again the right solution.

"I know TSN was quite happy with the first run of Racing Night Live," stated Litz. "Again, it was very important for them to get back to live sports immediately, and this partnership allowed them to do that. And again, from their perspective, partly to fill programming holes but also to make sure that they were able to run live productions with our team in a time of COVID. I think the ratings absolutely fell in line with their expectations. They've got ratings to an art at TSN, so it was right on with what they were expecting which set us up well for this next phase.

"I should absolutely to give credit to Peter Buchanan from TSN, our main producer, and Rob Platts from our team, but it's quite a production...and the night itself, going back and forth from Mohawk and Woodbine, there's little room for error and the team has executed flawlessly as they always do."

This Friday's return of Racing Night Live fits well into a professional sporting landscape that's currently without the NHL, NBA and CFL. The MLB post-season will conclude Oct. 28 at the latest, providing a strong opportunity for horse racing in these unprecedented times. The show is currently set to run through to the end of Woodbine's thoroughbred meet, with the final episode of Racing Night Live slated for Friday, Dec. 11.

"I would say at the end of the summer, August in particular, in case you didn't notice it was a very busy sports time. Even though we went from a time of having no sports, at that period of time there were on than would ever be in a typical year," noted Litz, recalling a Thursday night in August where six professional sports leagues were in action. "So we decided we'd take a pause, cheer on the Raptors and see where that was going, and watched more hockey. But now we're at a period of time again where we have a real opportunity to be one of the premier live sports being broadcast on TSN. They were really excited about that opportunity to continue, and certainly we were too. It was a no-brainer."

The shift from Thursday "made a lot more sense from the programming schedule" for both sides according to Litz as TSN already has a staple on Thursdays with NFL's Thursday Night Football. Racing Night Live will also air completely in primetime from the hours of 7:00 - 9:00 p.m., an hour later than the summer time slot.

"It puts the show more squarely into a primetime programming slot, which should mean that we have bigger audiences for the show," said Litz. "It's also providing us with the opportunity to have more racing...The show will be jam-packed with action."

The two-hour weekly show will now feature at least three Thoroughbred races (depending on the number of races on the card) from Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, and four Standardbred races (up from three) from Woodbine Mohawk Park in Milton, Ont.

There are no changes to the Standardbred schedule on Fridays, but Friday first post times for the live Thoroughbred race cards at Woodbine Racetrack will move to 4:35 p.m. effective October 16.

There is some irony in the Friday night slot being filled by Racing Night Live as Fridays this time of year for TSN would typically be occupied by the CFL. Litz and Lawson both had ties to the CFL, and Lawson noted that the longstanding positive relationships that both executives had with TSN from their time with the CFL certainly helped these discussions on the racing side.

"We have built credible relationships with TSN over the years and I think that's been a factor," said Lawson. "Our ability to approach them and work with them has been important and it helped us get these shows on."

"That being said, Jim and I would both like to be watching CFL right now," Litz added with a smile. "And I hope that next year we can."

Given the shift into a later position on the simulcast schedule, there's always a concern as to how the betting customer would react to such a shift. Lawson noted that his team has always monitored those numbers but the habits of the post-COVID customer appear to be somewhat more difficult to predict.

"It's a great question and one that's not easy to determine. It's difficult at the best of times, in particular looking at the competition and what they may be doing, but the customer during COVID...it's been interesting to try and determine when we're doing well and when we're not doing well. There's always the concern about moving later on Fridays or having Friday night racing. First, we never want our thoroughbred product to interfere with our Standardbred product, but secondly the big concern here would be running into California racetracks. We're always unsure, and we're less unsure, whether we're better off racing with competition or without competition and it's a fascinating phenomenon.

"I feel like we've been helped this year owning more of the Standardbred market with some of the competition dropping out. On the Thoroughbred side, our wagering department is always concerned about running head-to-head and the real concern comes with the cooperation of other racetracks so that we're not running right on top of each other. So there is a concern, but I think if we can space out races out properly and not run smack-dab into the California competition...we do a lot of handle in Ontario on California racetracks, and so we just have to manage that the best we can."

Part of that management, according to Lawson, is understanding how this opportunity with TSN doesn't come along everyday and there might need to be some short-term pain for some long-term gain.

"All in all, part of our mandate as a company and part of our leadership is to get this sport to a whole new generation of fans and focus on horse racing," said Lawson. "We saw this as a opportunity that we should seize in the spirit of being leaders, and do the right thing to broadcast this [product] and expose as many new people as possible to the sport. So we took the wagering concerns that I just mentioned and moved them into our back pocket, and said 'let's make sure we're seizing the moment here and getting more people to love the sport horse racing' so that's what we're doing. And as for the wagering, I hope it proves that moving the time slot on the thoroughbred side ends up being a good thing for us."

The format of the show won't see many changes, with hosts Laura Diakin, Brodie Lawson, Jason Portuondo and Chad Rozema returning to their familiar roles. Litz did indicate that the show would emphasize engagement for this fall run.

"We're going to pay a lot more attention to the second screen this go around. You don't watch sports without having your device in front of you and engaging with the community of fans. I think you can expect to see a lot more of that this year and we're looking at potentially doing a digital pre-game show to get people set up for the night of racing and wagering. I think that's one big addition, to make sure that the brand of Racing Night Live is living on all platforms this season."


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