JC / Railbird

ESPN

Data Points

Marketing horse racing through its rich data is on the agenda for the 2013 UA-RTIP Symposium on Racing and Gaming:

New Ways to Look at Numbers
Sports fans are traditionally a group of people who have an insatiable hunger for facts, figures and statistics. Racing is a sport that is data rich but that attribute hasn’t been marketed. Panelists look at new data that could be presented to the racing audience, new ways to present the information we currently provide as well as how all of it can be used to attract new customers and increase the frequency of current players.

It’s also the subject of Thorotrends’ call to “release the data,” which I hope the Symposium data panelists will read before they arrive in Arizona, along with everything Superterrific has gathered on the issue of freeing racing data from paywalls and PDFs in her latest on Exacta-mundo.

Making data more available can only help attract more horseplayers. I’ve believed so for as long as I’ve been a racing fan, and have only been confirmed in that belief watching other sports move ahead with data, whether in creating APIs, building it into mobile apps, supporting hackathons, or holding events such as Major League Baseball’s Bases Coded, in which teams competed “to create the next great interactive media product for baseball fans.”

Note, I’m not advocating that past performances and other handicapping products should be free, or that Equibase should release all the data it collects via an API without restrictions, although I do think it should release the majority of its data and without a significant lag. (Just as full charts can be downloaded within a hour of a race, so should race data.)

If you’re wondering what free(er) data might look like in racing, consider the models that already exist, ranging from MLB’s minimalist Gameday API to ESPN’s robust developer center. Imagine if Equibase created something similar to ESPN, which opens its data feeds to users for non-commercial applications with some usage restrictions (such as limiting the number of API calls within a set period) — as Thorotrends writes, the majority of racing fans would continue to use data as they always have, but there would be a small group who would hack and experiment. It would make racing feel less stagnant and less mysterious, leading to more fans and more wagering.

Market the data, certainly, just free the data first.

10/14/13 Update: Yes! From Dana Byerly, here’s a real-world example of how a horse racing API could be used.

Sorry, Bettors

If you bet Life at Ten, officially eased in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic at Churchill after jockey John Velazquez told ESPN that his mount wasn’t warming up right, Kentucky steward John Veitch would like you to know:

… it was unfortunate but “there’s nothing we can do for [you].”

And forget learning in future televised races that you’ve been ripped off:

… under discussion is whether television interviews with jockeys when they are on their mount before a race should be allowed.

Tweeted Nick Kling: “Breeders’ Cup bettors hosed. ‘Stewards plan to take no action‘ in Life At Ten debacle. Is it time for horseplayers to quit the game?”

Not yet (at least for this one), but it would be good to get reassurances something similar won’t happen next year. An independent review, conducted by the Breeders’ Cup, as Ray Paulick suggests, seems reasonable, as does the BC and KHRC formulating a plan for dealing with such situations that doesn’t include shutting up jockeys who might utter unwelcome words publicly. What Velazquez said wasn’t the problem. The communications breakdown among the rider, vets, and stewards in the minutes leading to the race was.

ESPN Is to Sports …

College football fans tuned into ESPN this Saturday will get a chance to see Zenyatta. As part of a Breeders’ Cup Challenge telecast running from 6:30 to 8:00 PM ET on ESPN Classic and ESPN360, ESPN will break in between games at 7:15 PM to air the Lady’s Secret Stakes from Oak Tree at Hollywood Park.

I can’t knock exposure, especially for a champion with a story fit for Oprah and a game that has such loyal fans, but I keep thinking about a comment by Ed on the Plonk post of last week: “it’s hard to believe that it was just 12 years ago that ESPN was still televising the Little Brown Jug LIVE.”

Well into the 1990s, you could say ESPN was a true sports network, with an eclectic line-up that included football, baseball, soccer, golf, bass fishing, and the X Games. If people played it, ESPN aired it. Changes came with ABC/Disney ownership, competition from other networks, and an ambitious expansion plan that rode the rise of cable and the web, turning ESPN into the TV-radio-digital-print behemoth it is now. There’s a downside to this dominance, though, a homogenizing of sport, an emphasis on the popular and lucrative.

Think of it this way: ESPN is to sports as Playboy was to sex.

Like Hugh Hefner’s groundbreaking men’s magazine, ESPN transformed an industry, becoming hugely influential to a generation of young men and radically reshaping their perceived interests. Along the way, it became less a celebration of all that is athletic than a platform for aggregating massive advertiser-friendly audiences. That means fewer small-market sports, whether hockey or horseracing, and more major league sports and specious “news” coverage. When all of sports was a niche, more sporting niches thrived. Gone mainstream, broadly appealing sports “narratives” gain prominence.

What that means for racing is that events such as the Breeders’ Cup need ESPN to reach the largest possible audience of sports fans, but ESPN has no need for horseracing — which is why on Saturday, Zenyatta will be the entertainment between football games, not the main attraction.

It’s not a BC Challenge race, so it won’t be appearing on any ESPN channel, but Blind Luck versus Havre de Grace in the Cotillion Stakes at Philadelphia Park Parx on Saturday looks like a must-watch race. It’ll be the third meeting between the two 3-year-old fillies. Stakes winner Awesome Maria, making her second start of the year, is also entered. The Cotillion is part of the second annual Lady Riders Challenge, a very cool, under-reported event.

The Real Story

Commenter John S., who knows more than a bit about superb turf writing, made a point on an earlier post that deserves repeating:

EJXD2 and the rest of you are missing the real story here: CLAIRE NOVAK IS ON FIRE!!!!!!

So true. Reporters aren’t usually the story, but this one deserves to be. Over the past year, writing for ESPN and elsewhere, Novak has emerged as one of the best turf writers working, with a particular flair for features and profiles. She’s a storyteller, attentive to detail and dialogue, as in these pieces:

Old School: “Once, the legend sat down to critique the rookie’s technique. He watched the field come down the lane, the rookie whipping right-handed, his runner flying past them in the stretch. Switch sticks, go to your left hand, thought the legend. And as soon as he thought it, the rookie did it. That’s when he knew this kid was good.”

Birds of a Feather: “It hits him again and again this morning, as reporters cruise by the shedrow and racing paparazzi set up their shots and fellow horsemen stop by with handshakes and admiring remarks, but it still hasn’t quite sunk in.”

Two Months Later: “It is picture-perfect, might as well be a postcard scene. But something in the idyllic freedom of it all taunts Rene Douglas.”

And she’s a solid beat reporter. Saratoga doesn’t lack for daily coverage and commentary from a top turf writing colony, but Novak’s Albany Times-Union articles, whether about Da’ Tara finishing last in a race in which his trainer expected better, the introduction of more humane whips, or substance abuse among jockeys, have regularly stood out this season (as have the vignettes and opinions she’s been posting near-daily to an ESPN blog). On fire? She certainly is, to the good fortune of readers, racing fans, and turf journalism.

Going Local

ESPN goes after local sports markets:

[A]fter a promising test run in Chicago, ESPN is adding local offshoots to three more cities. On Monday, ESPN, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, plans to announce local Web sites in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas — in what executives say is only the “first inning” of their effort to provide hyperlocal sports coverage in cities across the country.

What might the network’s expansion mean for racing in those cities? The ESPN Chicago site, which launched less than three months ago, is already drawing more traffic than the Chicago Tribune’s online sports section and attracting steady advertisers, including local racetracks. For marketing, that’s a positive. But coverage could be another matter: While the Chicago site does have a piece up about Arlington jockey E. T. Baird, who recently won his 2000th race, it appears to lack any links to ongoing reporting of local racing.

Related: Sports Business Journal runs a four-part piece this week on the changing sports media scene. In the lead article, Bill King reports on reduced newspaper coverage and how that’s pushing sports to innovate; in a sidebar, King takes a closer look at motorsports and golf coverage. “There are more words being written about golf, even with these cutbacks, than before,” PGA Tour VP Ty Votaw tells King. “It’s just a question of: Are as many people reading it?” The same could be asked of racing these days.

6:45 PM Addendum: ESPN expansion is good news for fans, not so great for newspapers, and that’s nothing to lament; Dan Shanoff explains why ESPN moving into local sports news is such a big deal.