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Monday, March 03, 2008

Breeders' Cup Responds To Filly Friday Frenzy

- Breeders' Cup officials have responded to the overwhelmingly negative and, from some quarters, emotional reaction to the announcement of the change in format for this year's event which will see all of the filly and mare races shifted to Friday. I know that Breeders' Cup President Greg Avioli is not afraid of controversy, and that he feels that debate and dissent is good for publicity. However, I don't believe that the Breeders' Cup was prepared for the torrent of criticism that has resulted. Avioli told Bloodhorse that the change will transform Friday into what he sees as “true Breeders’ Cup championship racing.”

“Having watched one year with a Friday program, it was clear the day had significant potential....The concern was we did not want it to remain a set-up for Saturday’s program. The goal was for Friday’s program to be true Breeders’ Cup championship racing.”
“Change is hard in our industry," he added. The article reports that Friday's races will be expanded to a three-hour program on "ESPN." I will try to get clarification as to whether that means the main network, and not ESPN2. Breeders' Cup chief marketing officer Peter Land said that the Ladies' Classic will be run at 6:40 PM Eastern time, which he called a “dream scenario. From a sports perspective on a Friday evening, we’re not really competing against much.”

Well, there goes my idea about having a prime-time showing of the races. However, October 24 does fall smack in the middle of the World Series. And although the Series does not schedule games for Friday night, it is possible that a rainout would cause the races to go squarely up against the Fall Classic if they were scheduled later; and that obviously would not be good. Still, while there surely will be no competition at 6:40 PM, that's not a time when prospective or casual fans would be expected to be sitting in front of a TV.

I got an email from Chip Tuttle, the Breeders' Cup's marketing consultant (who moonlights as the COO of Suffolk Downs), with a more detailed explanation of the move; he wrote that he was "amazed at the passion of the reaction in some parts." I present it here with no further comment. That, I will leave to you (but please be respectful):
Why the change?

Breeders' Cup wanted to strengthen the Friday card. There was a lot of discussion and several models, but giving the best females their own spotlight won the day. It will lead to stronger attendance and wagering on Friday, improved television and media coverage and a true championship day for people, some of whom can engage on Friday and not Saturday.

The idea of having the female races on one day and the open races on the other has been successful at other major events (e.g., Oaks-Derby). Similarly, major tennis events and other sports have staggered their male and female championships over two days to help generate media for both categories of champions. I guarantee you the winner of the Ladies' Classic will get more mainstream media coverage this year than any year since Personal Ensign.

(Aside: I think the change from Distaff to Ladies' Classic triggered much of the reaction from the traditionalists. Also, on that front, no one from Breeders' Cup called it "Ladies Day." That was a media reaction. "Filly Friday" was considered but Breeders' Cup has not titled the day.)

The new format also helps remind the public that the event is bigger than one race, the Classic, and helps us broaden understanding of the different divisions and scope of Breeders' Cup.

This wasn't done on a whim by a bunch of guys on the BC Board. The process was deliberate and included a focus group of leading female and male sports marketing and horse racing executives. Keep in mind that the event has very low unaided awareness with the general public -- even self-identified sports fans who wager. The Distaff is a great name and has great heritage for the 3-5% who follow the sport on a regular basis (and who make up the passionate readers of the Thoroughbred blogoshpere). We have to look toward the other 95 percent like any other sport/brand that needs to bring in new audiences.

At the end of the day, the new format deserves a chance to succeed.


Teresa said...

As I've written in too many places to count, yes, tennis does it well...but with finals on Saturday and Sunday, not Friday and Saturday. Nice try.

Patrick J Patten said...

"I think the change from Distaff to Ladies' Classic triggered much of the reaction from the traditionalists."

understatement of the year.

The BC at least has a plan to move our sport forward w/o the 1 armed bandit. This is good for our sport, overreactions or not.

Anonymous said...

Next thing you know Gloria Steinam and/or NOW will be trying to shut down the Breeders Cup. Serves em right with their blatant sexist agenda, haha! The Breeders Cup doesn't do a thing for racing other than inflate the market for KY breds. The racing industry needs to get fans excited about racing so they go out to the track every month during the year, not just on BC Day (s). When is the industry going to wake up and stop carrying water for the Breeders Cup? The question the racing associations need to ask the Breeders Cup is a very narrowly self-interested one: "What's in it for us?" /S/Green Mtn Punter

Anonymous said...

Awarding the BC to Santa Anita 2 years in a row and the new friday/saturday schedule are 2 major screw ups. They might draw in some new fans but they will lose some old fans too.

I am not taking friday off to watch a 2yo filly turf race and I am less interested in a Saturday card with a turf sprint and a dirt marathon race.

dana said...

"The process was deliberate and included a focus group of leading female and male sports marketing and horse racing executives".

That explains it! Try asking fans, both existing and potential (people who watch the Derby but not much else).

Colins Ghost said...

"The process was deliberate and included a focus group of leading female and male sports marketing and horse racing executives".

Marketing people and executives??? I think they should have had a few human beings involved. Ridiculous? Where do the turf writers and fans fit into this equation? Pandering to a non-existent audience instead of the sport's loyal fans is just stupid.

Anonymous said...

The Breeders' Cup is the most successful horse racing initiative in the last 30 years (how many other successful initiatives have there been?). Even with that success, Tuttle says it has low 'unaided' recognition outside of racing's small world. To grow they have to make changes. Lets give these changes a chance to succeed or fail.

In every horse race there is one winner and many losers. Why do so many of the losers show up on internet forums to complain?

Anonymous said...

I think Tuttle's closing comment was correct:

"At the end of the day, the new format deserves a chance to succeed."

I didn't like wild card in baseball. Wasn't too fond of expanding the NFL season from 10 to 12 to 14 to 16 games. Thought the three point line was gimmicky in the NBA. Liked the old non-BCS bowl game package. Believed doubling the NCAA basketball tournament from 32 was too much.

Guess what? They're all innovations to the status quo. Some of the change I think have been great; others, not so great.

Will it succeed? Who know. At least they're trying.

Valerie Grash said...

Typical response in Bush America: any dissent is categorically dismissed as the whining of “losers.” Questioning decisions rendered, no matter how half-baked and ill-conceived, is tantamount to treason so let’s all just go with the flow…everything will be just fine because obviously a bunch of marketing people know far better than the educated fan what shit they want shoveled.

I ask you, for whom, exactly, has the Breeders’ Cup been a successful endeavor in the last 30 years? Answer: the breeding industry. For the average fan: not so much so.

A “successful” endeavor does not include a move from a major television network (NBC) to a second-tier “sports-only” cable channel (ESPN), and a corresponding and continuous decline in television viewers, from a 2.5 Nielsen rating in 1998 on NBC to a pathetic .8 on ESPN in 2007 (down 20% from 2006)—and that was the main card on Saturday!

It does not include diluting the product by having more races simply because they can, regardless of whether or not there are any quality prep races leading up to them—such as the Juvenile Turf. Great idea if you are actually going to facilitate world-wide participation, particular European horses who do race on grass, but with relatively-little financial incentive (compared to, say, the Dubai World Cup), and no aid offered in entering or shipping horses from abroad, why would the true “best of the best” come to the Breeders’ Cup (unless they have breeding rights dancing in their heads).

It does not include hyping the Breeders' Cup races at the expense of nearly every other stakes races during the rest of the year, as horses are strategically placed in as few races as possible to get them to that one big "end-of-the-year" race. This past weekend's Santa Anita Handicap is the first time in a long time that I remember a grade 1 race (other than the Kentucky Derby) have a full field of competitors. Exactly how many grade 1 races last year had fields of 4, 5, or 6 horses? Okay, maybe the answer is there are too many grade 1 races...fair point, granted. But racing fans can not dispute the perception (ie fact) that the BC races have usurped real racing in recent our most promising young horses trot off to the breeding shed before they have really proved anything.

For the record, I like the idea of a “Ladies Day” of racing…if it were held on Sunday. Fine, keep Saturday racing for the big boys, but don’t regulate fillies and mares to racing on Friday when virtually no one will be watching. Regular television viewership plummets significantly on Fridays, so imagine how bad it will be for horse racing. And, for god’s sake, call it the “Filly and Mare Classic” if you must change it from “Distaff,” but “Ladies’ Classic” is pathetic!

Anonymous said...

It will end up on "Espn News".

Disaster, sorry. These hard boots have no clue.

Anonymous said...

The Dirt Marathon is a joke.

Anonymous said...

Dana and Kevin, you said it first, so I want to give you credit...Tuttle's money line was the following:

"The process was deliberate and included a focus group of leading female and male sports marketing and horse racing executives".

Why are they so obsessed with new fans? They have put the cart before the horse. I have a feeling that any new fans that were created through last years Breeders' Cup found being a fan too difficult when they:

1) couldn't open a single account to wager on all races
2) experienced shitty racing at Gulfstream and cancellations galore at Santa Anita
3) go to dirty, dingy and old racing plants (except Arlington & Keeeneland) where customer service sucks, food sucks, you have to PAY admission...unless you are a slots player, then everything is awesome.

The Breeders' Cup belongs to the industry, the breeders, the players and the fans we already have. It is not meant to create new fans? How could it?

The Breeders' Cup will be a total disaster until it goes from a promotional vehicle to an appreciative vehicle. The people who have turned it into a promotional vehicle need to be politely asked to resign.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and on Greg Avioli's comment that change is hard in this industry, allow me to quote David Lynch: "Bullshit...Total fucking bullshit."

Change is hard in this industry when you are trying to create a change that favors fans and bettors in the face of the wishes of the "racing executives" that were so thoroughly consulted by the Breeders' Cup. The "racing executives" are the assholes that make change so hard in the first place!

So don't lay the "Change is hard" bullshit on the bloggers, press, and fans who have almost unanimously rejected a dumb idea.

If you would have come up with a national handicapping contest tied to the Breeders' Cup, people would have applauded. If you would have put some of that money into subsidizing shipping costs (like Dubai), people would have applauded (get a sponsor like UPS or DHL or FedEx to underwrite it). If you would have created a "racing weekend" with supporting Cup races on Friday and Sunday, people would have applauded.

Moronic changes should be hard, because you have passionate fans who don't want to see you ruin their sport's 2nd biggest day.

But changing this game has been made difficult precisely due to the leadership that you consulted before you announced your latest clusterfuck, Greg.

Superfecta said...

Again, I have to agree with Teresa -- if this were to work and to truly be a second 'worthy' day of racing, it needs to be on Saturday and Sunday, not Friday and Saturday.

As to his point about 'some of whom can engage on Friday, not Saturday' I would only have to say I didn't realize that the unemployed were the most desired demographic. I'm a hardcore fan, but I'm not taking Friday off work to go to the track, even if it's nearby, since I also have a life.

I'm all for shaking things up and trying to keep the BC competitive with Dubai and other big international racing days, but it's as though it's trying to become more provincial.

The name change is still problematic - I would assume a 'Ladies' Classic' is a golf tournament and never give it a chance. Even a casual fan knows what 'distaff' means (outside the spinning context). There's a reason so many marketing people have a bad reputation in many industries.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to know what Avioli and Co. were really thinking. The BC has obviously become bottom-line oriented (and if my job, or consulting fee, depended on the bottom line, I might act the same way). My guess is that they think moving the Turf Sprint and Juvenile Turf (i.e., full fields, chaotic results) to replace the often-chalky Juvenile Fillies and Distaff is a net win for Saturday's handle. And moving some championship caliber races to Friday will draw more traditionalists to focus on that card.

On the flip side, listening to what bettors say, as opposed to watching what they do, has a history of not boosting the bottom line. Bettors always complain about takeout, but experiments in dropping takeout have not met with success. Traditionalists claim they won't bet races on synthetic surfaces, but handle at tracks that have installed synthetic surfaces seems to have gone up, not down.

As for me, the Distaff holds some not-so-warm-and-fuzzy memories. I had win bets on Go For Wand and Winning Colors. Whatever the day, whatever the surface, I'll look at the field and the odds and decide whether to play.


ljk said...

Yikes! I think you folks are nuts.

"I'm a hardcore fan, but I'm not taking Friday off work to go to the track, even if it's nearby”. What?

“Typical response in Bush America”… Huh?

It’s a couple of horse races folks. I think it’s great that the ladies are getting the Friday spotlight (like Oaks day) and I plan to fly across the country to watch.

Can’t fly across the country? Leave work a couple hours early, find your favorite pub or betting outlet and try to enjoy yourselves.


Jen R said...

My husband, who's not a fan, thinks "Distaff" was a cool name and "Ladies Classic" is moronic.

"Ladies Classic" sounds like a generic golf tournament, or a generic tennis tournament, or any other generic event.

Sure, the Oaks has always been run on the Friday before the Derby, but that's just it -- it's *always* been run then. That's tradition. Moving the Distaff to Friday is a demotion.

This whole thing is a disaster. They're trying to elevate a bunch of second-tier (at best) races to championship status, at the expense of an actual championship race. Why did there need to be more BC races, anyway? It's not like the talent pool is so deep these days that it can stand to be diluted further. There aren't enough Grade I filly sprinters to have their own race, but the best ones can compete with males, so they should be running in the Sprint. There probably aren't more than one or two truly Grade I grass juveniles in America. (Of course, I'd just as soon ditch the two-year-old races entirely.) The BC should focus on holding races in those divisions which have enough Grade I horses to make a real championship race, and leave the lesser divisions on the undercard where they belong.

Superfecta said...

The problem, ljk, is that Friday is not a spotlight - it's buried. Were there any other 'real' races run on that day, it might be different, but the fact remains that it looks like any other Friday at the track - a few allowances races and maybe one graded stakes. Not something worth making a day of. Jen's point about the Oaks is well taken - there's a tradition there, and if you're going to the Derby, you are likely going to the Oaks as well. If you're a casual fan watching at home, you likely don't care.

Anonymous said...

i could care less personaly, but if your trying to get ratings run the females at one track the boys at another both on saturday alternating if your trying to get a new fan base you need to have action and one 2 minute race every 45 minutes or how ever long it is on track attendance may suffer but that would also open it up to some one besides santa anita it could also open up the thought of running all the turf races in europe as you could also alternate times but by doing that time zones get difficult but i would definetly say they racing would not suffer and i am sure there could be a time format that could work

Anonymous said...

ment to say one 2 minute race every 45 minutes is not action

Valerie Grash said...

Ljk, if you read all the comments that proceeded what I wrote, you would understand that my comment regarding “typical response in Bush America” was directed to the anonymous commenter who so eloquently said, “Why do so many of the losers show up on internet forums to complain?” I’m not sure how, in that context, what I said was vague or nonsensical. It was not a comment directed at the BC setup as you obviously inferred so there was no need to be snotty or flippant about serious comments and concerns expressed here. If we didn't care about the present and future health and popularity of the sport of horse racing (not just the Breeders' Cup specifically), then we wouldn't bothered getting worked up when we perceive opportunities lost.

As for the most recent anonymous poster’s suggestion about running the races staggered at different tracks…not a bad idea. Although a logical nightmare for some trainers and owners probably, but still…why not spread the experience around a little. Graded races are run at different tracks around the country every weekend, so why not cluster certain races at a variety of tracks? Make it a real celebration for horse racing and its fans who can use the opportunity to get to their local track, or watch the festivities on television.

Anonymous said...

It annoys the hell out of me that for the second year in a row The Whitney Handicap, one of America's truly great heritage stakes races, is run at Saratoga on the last Saturday in July on a card with three other Grade I's and called "The Breeders Cup Challenge". NYRA needs to stop carrying water for the Breeders Cup and let NY's historic Grade I's stand on their own. And the other tracks need to become strong enough to do the same. The tracks need to bring back the Handicap Series as their answer to the Breeders Cup. The message needs to be: Run in our Grade I's during the season and rack up points for an Eclipse. Then if you need one last race to clinch, then the Breeders Cup could do it for you. No more of this winner-take-all format which allows horses to race lightly and hope to stay fit for BC Day in late October when evverybody must go all in. The Breeders Cup must be seen as another series of Grade I's, not the championship races. Americans have developed a Super Bowl mentality about everything as a result of the greed that drives major sports in this country. Horse racing needs to think like the other great racing sport in the USA: NASCAR. NASCAR does not have the Super Bowl mentality but rather rewards the long, consistent campaign over 10 months of the year. Horse racing should do the same. /S/Green Mtn Punter

Anonymous said...

Bottom line is this: a day like this will be anywhere from 40-60% less than a BC card on Saturday, because of pithy little things in our society such as work (and the World Series). You're not setting up two great days of racing. You're taking some of the best and most meaningful parts of a successful day, and creating two poorly diluted days of racing.

Since division titles are on the line, the BC won't be the greatest day of racing. Turf sprints and the marathon are absolutely no substitute for the filly races being shoved into the back of a closet.

Even all that said, I actually am quite fine with the Ladies Classic name change. It lends a certain modern touch to it.

It's not too late to change their mind about this crap. The new races go on Friday, and the traditional lineup goes Saturday, and if you add the F&M Sprint (which has an Eclipse on the line now) to Saturday I would be happy with that. But this moronic idea should stay dead on arrival. I don't think the fans will change their minds about the general stupidity of it all within the next six months.

Anonymous said...

Addendum: the "40-60% less" refers to the likely attendance of such an event, thus underscoring the general uselessness of opening this "idea" into an expansion of the fanbase.

Unknown said...

To those who think they should go Saturday-Sunday:

The NFL DOMINATES SUNDAYS to where the BC would be just an afterthought at best to most people. Friday-Saturday is the right way to go, but I would go Friday from 7:00-10:00 PM ET myself.