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Update On USTA-National TV Deal

Published: April 21, 2014 8:38 am ET

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"[We] want to be sure what we are doing before committing substantial funds. In and of itself, simply putting a race on television isn’t enough."

The following is a statement from Phil Langley, USTA President, regarding the decision by the USTA Executive Committee to table a television sponsorship proposal put forth by the Meadowlands.

Over the past day or so, there has been some criticism of the United States Trotting Association and its Executive Committee’s vote to table until next year a funding request recently put forth by Jeff Gural. Specifically, the Meadowlands asked that money from the USTA be directed to Meadowlands management to facilitate the television broadcast of two races, the Meadowlands Pace in July and the Little Brown Jug in September. I wish to set the record straight here while providing context and explanation regarding the committee’s decision.

Recently, the USTA received from the Meadowlands a funding request in the amount $100,000 that would go towards the television production of five races at different tracks. All races would be broadcast on the CBS Sports Network, a cable channel available via some providers as part of a subscriber’s “sports” package and available through others for an additional cost. The expense of television time per show was estimated to be $25,000 per TV hour, with production costs approximating an additional $90,000 per race. The total budget was to approximate $450,000 -- to be paid by USTA, potential sponsors, and the tracks and their respective horsemen.

Unfortunately, when the USTA Finance Committee heard the Meadowlands presentation on March 31 during the USTA’s annual board of directors meeting, it was learned that only the Meadowlands Pace and the Little Brown Jug were still part of the schedule. It is assumed that the defections were driven at least in part by the fact that outside sponsorship had proven difficult to obtain, leaving the USTA, the tracks and horsemen’s groups to assume the minimum cost of $115,000 needed to broadcast each race. That didn’t include the extra advertising that would be needed to make people aware there was a show.

The Finance Committee deadlocked on a recommendation to allocate the funding and I assigned an ad hoc committee to further explore the matter. Shortly thereafter, but before the ad hoc committee had delivered its report to the Executive Committee, the Meadowlands submitted an amended proposal, requesting $75,000 that would be used to offset costs to televise only the Meadowlands Pace and Little Brown Jug. The proposal clearly indicated that no other sponsors were presently available, except for a significant commitment from a prominent Midwestern restaurant chain that wanted to be involved in the presentation of the Little Brown Jug. According to some USTA directors from Ohio, money also could be forthcoming from that state’s Standardbred pari-mutuel venues, with additional avenues of funding potentially in play as well. Whether any of these monies become available -- and if they must be earmarked for purses or can be used for television -- is unknown by USTA at this time. The USTA is discussing these issues with the Little Brown Jug principals and may wish to provide funding for this classic event, pending the receipt of additional information.

The ad hoc television committee submitted a report that included the following remarks.

After considering all the available information and holding a follow-up call with Sam McKee and Jason Settlemoir, this committee concludes as follows. It is not appropriate for the USTA to be the primary funding mechanism for a television initiative that showcases races from only one or two racetracks. It would be appropriate for the USTA to support a project that highlights many of our top races in multiple regions after money has been raised by racetracks, horsemen’s groups, and corporate sponsors. In such a scenario, the USTA’s contribution can help bring to fruition and could be seen as an appropriate way to help many in the industry.

The USTA is dedicating significant expenditures to a social media campaign that benefits the entire industry. Any further expenditure for other forms of media needs to work in harmony with this initial outlay, enabling us to fully realize the value of our total investment and secure the potential benefit. For example, a live stream (which CBS Sports Network would not provide) of any broadcast should be available to us for enhancement through our social media platforms as well as being available on mobile devices. Fresh clips could be used to increase views on all platforms from one broadcast to the next.

The Meadowlands is demonstrating excellent leadership with this proposal. We think that other tracks in other regions would also be interested in showcasing their best events, and that horsemen and sponsors in those regions would be supportive. In fact, virtually all of the major tracks have been producing work of this kind for several years. The USTA might have an important role to play in building and coordinating these regional efforts into the type of national product that we think is lacking at the present.

The USTA has directed considerable funding to a social media campaign that benefits the entire industry. Also being underwritten to the tune of $150,000 are research projects to help find and control Cobalt, EPO, Blood Doping and Shock Wave Therapy. The usual earmarks to the Harness Racing Museum, American Horse Council, and the Harness Horse Youth Foundation bring the USTA’s financial commitment in these areas to over $500,000.

As you are aware, the Executive Committee received the report, discussed it at length and voted (by a 13-1 margin) to table the request.

The question of national TV, or any TV for that matter, is speculative. Yonkers Raceway and the Standardbred Owners Association of New York combine to spend about $2 million for local programming each year and the Pennsylvania horsemen do the same. How much does it help? Is regional better than national? These are tough questions to answer.

For years, the pros and cons of racing on television have been debated with no real conclusions. For example, on April 12, Harness Racing Update columnist Dean Towers identified the issue thusly:

“If you talk to a hundred people in the sport of racing, they’ll tell you it’s great to be on TV, but they are also very perplexed that no one seems to be watching. It’s the elephant in the room and not a soul seems to know what to do about it. Racing wants to sell itself as spine-tingling excitement, and that sells well to us as insiders and fans. It also makes us feel big league and warm and fuzzy to hold live events. The problem is that the general public does not feel the same way. They certainly aren’t seeing what we’re all seeing.”

That sentiment and the fact that the Donn Handicap, a major Thoroughbred race from Gulfstream Park, attracted only 66,000 viewers on the Fox equivalent of CBS Sports Network make us want to be sure what we are doing before committing substantial funds. In and of itself, simply putting a race on television isn’t enough.

The broadcast world has changed dramatically and will continue to do so with the technology that provides alternative methods of delivery. While an on-air broadcast can and should be the centerpiece, all aspects involving network and sponsor co-promotion, as well as social media involvement, are necessary to make an impact. The Executive Committee felt that the proposal that it heard fell short in this regard, but left open the door for future support.

(racing photo courtesy

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