JC / Railbird

21st Century Racing Fans

Thursday night, I attended a book reading given by Kevin Smokler, editor of the recently published anthology, “Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times.” The collection was put together partially in response to a report released by the NEA in June 2004, “Reading at Risk,” that basically claimed America was turning into a country of illiterates. “America can no longer take active and engaged literacy for granted,” wrote NEA chairman Dana Gioia in the report’s introduction. If something wasn’t done, he warned, a “vast cultural impoverishment” was sure to result. TV, the Internet, and video games received most of the blame for the encroaching idiocy. But something about the report didn’t sit well with Smokler. Something was wrong:

It made me sad. But something beneath that disappointment stunk up the joint, double-talk that proclaimed us to be living in a new kind of nightmare for American literacy while blaming the same old bogeymen. If online reading was eating away at book reading, how did we explain literary weblogs that commanded thousands of readers a day … If young people were reading less than any other demographic group, how did we dismiss the revolution in young adult literature … or the best-selling careers of twenty-something favorites like David Sedaris, Nick Hornby, Zadie Smith, or Jonathan Safran Foer?

Racing reminds me of reading: both are frequently proclaimed dying. But what Smokler argues is that the “same old bogeymen” and, specifically, the Internet, aren’t killing reading. If anything, the Internet is changing the nature of reading and possibly, creating new readers. As he said in response to a question from the audience on Thursday, “Reading as the [NEA] report writers understand it is dying. Reading is not.”

It’s a bit harder to argue racing isn’t dying — declining attendance numbers can’t be quibbled with, and where racing once claimed 40% of the betting market, it now takes only 3% (Star-Telegram). Dwindling coverage in the mainstream print media doesn’t help, either. What the racing industry needs to realize though is that the Internet can save it. Okay, maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic. But consider poker, as Steven Crist does in a new column:

The [World Series of Poker], which began in 1970 with a field of just 38 players, grew steadily through its first three decades, attracting 513 players by 2001. Then the numbers went through the roof: 631 in 2002, 839 in 2003, and 2,576 in 2004. This year, all but the final rounds of the event had to be moved from the traditional venue of Binion’s Horseshoe to the massive Rio Suites convention center to accommodate the 5,661 entrants who put up $10,000 apiece. (Daily Racing Form — sub. req.)

The growth can be largely attributed to the Internet. There are a couple of lessons racing can take from the poker’s success:

First, there is obviously a massive market of Americans interested in intelligent gambling, willing to read books, learn complicated rules, calculate odds, and bet accordingly. Second, the best way to reach those people and to facilitate that betting is through the Internet, which racing still embraces only awkwardly and tentatively.

“Awkwardly and tentatively.” That’s a nice way for Crist to put racing’s approach to the Internet.

Racing must recognize soon the power of the medium and figure out how to use it to the sport’s advantage. I’m talking about making more information easily available online (look at all the stats, summaries, and player biographies baseball provides on MLB.com), making it easier for new fans and the curious to find a way into playing the horses (this means going beyond just past performance chart tutorials and freeing the quantities of historic data hidden behind paywalls), and embracing blogs and RSS. As long-time observers keep saying, racing missed out on TV, and two generations later, the sport is paying the price in lost fans, particularly among the young. It can’t afford to do the same with the Internet.

I’ll be returning to this topic …