Like many of you, I recently completed my annual fantasy football draft earlier this week. Going through that process and the labor of love that is projecting performances for all of the receivers, backs, tight ends, and defensive units in the league got the ole hamster wheels spinning in the cobwebs of my head once again. “Why don’t we have something like this?”
Can you imagine the thrill a horse racing fan might have in knowing that they hold the coveted “top pick” in a fantasy horse racing draft? Rather than the consensus Adrian Peterson sweepstakes that such a lofty draft position holds in the football world, it would be the Rachel Alexandra show, or perhaps the Zenyatta slot, depending on your loyalties.
Even if the idea of forming 10-12 stable leagues doesn’t translate quite effectively to the world of horse racing, one could still envision an auction style process where one has to choose between spending a large chunk of their available capital on a horse of Rachel or Zenyatta’s quality, or attempting to fill out their roster with slightly lesser runners capable of racking up victories (and thus points).
If you’ve been paying attention to the posts here lately, most of the conversations we’ve been engaged in surround trying to attract a younger generation of fans to the sport of horse racing. We’ve tossed out just about everything conceivable from actual marketing strategies pitched to the NTRA to fresh ideas courtesy of our Johnny-on-the-spot guest author Mr. Del Mar.
One thing keeps coming up. Let’s say we are able to engineer a big event, such as a momentous race between uniquely popular horses or a special day at the track that attracts large numbers of youth. We’ve seen these already to some degree with the recent innovations surrounding night racing at Churchill Downs, and with some of the traditional tricks of the trade such as $1 beers, free attendance, and trendy music concerts. All that is well and good as they get folks to take the first step and walk through the door, but do they really contribute to building a sustained fanbase reinforced by substantial numbers of legitimate new “racing fans?”
The elephant in the room continues to be the question of how to get these fans to RETURN to racing once that special day is over. How do you make them want to come back to the track next week? How do you make them care enough to actually contribute consistently either through on track attendance or through regular wagering? After all, it’s the creation of regular racing fans rather than one time attendees that the sport so desperately needs. Getting them in the door is definitely a start, but you’ve still got to make that sell long term.
The challenges for attracting these fans for anything resembling a sustained period of time are many fold. Our sport isn’t the most easily accessible. It’s all but forgotten in terms of national conscience. In fact, even if we do manage to capture the attention of a few folks along the way, all one must do is think back to when they were first becoming a racing fan to understand the absolutely overwhelming and unprecedented complexity that a prospective new fan is faced with. It’s enough to turn many a confident would be aspiring horseplayer away.
The good news is that we aren’t the only sport that’s had to ponder such challenging realities.
As you may recall, part of the whole Take Back Saturday idea that I continually reference was to reflect upon the successes enjoyed by other sports and to see if their weren’t some real lessons that the sport of horse racing could learn from, and possibly galvanize into something tangibly beneficial for our own goals. With that in mind, I’ve always believed the sport to attempt to copy is professional football. Fifty years ago, football was the red headed stepchild of Major League Baseball. Now it’s the unchallenged monster of American sports, with it’s biggest game the single largest television event of the entire year.
I grew up as a football fan. From a young age I was reenacting bone jarring tackles, hurling myself into the family sofa, or imagining being placed in a desperate struggle of infinite importance, like the no-holds-barred 2 minute drives against the Cleveland Browns that John Elway seemed to engineer in the playoffs each year.
In time I took those dreams to the football field and wound up playing on some pretty darn good teams in my teenage years. One of the most enjoyable aspects of getting to strap on the helmet and lace up the cleats was that by immersing oneself into the game, you had a magnificent opportunity to understand the x’s and o’s that the average person would never be able to fully grasp. Concepts like disguised blitzes, motioning away from the playside of the offensive formation to deceive the defense, using multiple receiver sets to expose man to man coverage schemes – these were things that seemingly only those who played the game, or only the most diehard of fans, could fully grasp.
Fast forward to today. It seems that every 12-year-old kid with working opposable thumbs understands how to spot a dime defense, and that it’s inherent weakness is being susceptible to the run. They understand that balanced formations like the twin Tight End set can be difficult for a defense to scheme against as long as they mix their run and pass calls effectively to keep the opposition off balance. They know that, apart from short yardage and goal line situations, the effectiveness of the fullback position is going the way of the dinosaurs.
Even more so, an ever increasing number of people from diverse walks of life are intimately aware of entire rosters of players; especially those who handle the ball. It wasn’t that long ago that you could count how many folks outside of the “jock” crowd could name all the Wide Receivers on even the home town team. Nowadays? Folks know exactly who is behind nearly every receiver or back in the league. Each fantasy draft I’ve been involved in over the recent years has necessitated ranking the “skill players” at least 40 deep at each position, if not more.
Two factors have contributed to this, and they aren’t ones that it would be impossible to replicate: the rise of fantasy football, and the proliferation of the Madden video game franchise.
That’s right – games.
Games are the answer to making the learning process fun. It seems trivial, I know, but it’s the entire reason that so much of our learning process as kids are centered around games. We learn through play. They can capture the zest of actual on-field competition while still retaining the innocence of being a purely fantasy adventure. They familiarize players with the performers, and with the intricacies of the sport itself. Even better, “fantasy” style games are a gift that keeps on giving as they give folks a compelling reason to care about what happens on the field (or in our case, on the track). They give you an excuse to watch, and to check the scores. They provide relevance for checking upcoming schedules and pondering what lies ahead. For four months out of the year during the football season, every yard, every tackle, and every point scored are followed with absolute devotion.
And what of video games? Well, we’ve tried them in the past with respect to horse racing, but we’ve never had anything even remotely close to the blockbuster success of the Madden franchise. I’m not suggesting it’s possible for a niche sport like ours to ever sell anything anywhere near what a football game sells in terms of volume, but there are still concepts we could learn from here.
Madden was an insider, who not only wished to market himself (perhaps more so than even he realized was possible), but also wished to pass on an understanding for the game he loved to a new generation of fans. What a noble concept!
The franchise itself has now taught an entire generation of people who would otherwise have never had a taste for the complexity of strategies being enacted on the field to put themselves right into the fray, calling plays, dialing in blitzes, executing reads, and directing hot routes.
Imagine if we could achieve even a fraction of that progress in our own sport? Imagine if we could harness an entertaining medium for educating people on the complexities of horse racing?
The closest thing we’ve had to a racing game capable of captivating folks was the Gallop Racer series from Tecmo. The game had it all – exciting racing action, complex concepts that included distance considerations, surface changes, and class level distinctions. Even breeding and betting were covered. All that it really lacked was the professional polish of the Madden franchise. Where Madden looked like a legitimate NFL product, Gallop Racer featured fictional horses (some loosely based on actual equine greats) and a cartoonish, Japanese-anime inspired interface.
If someone could ever get the concept right – and I’m convinced it can be done – there’s a chance it could help bridge the gap and facilitate the educational process for would be racing fans. Horse racing games actually sell quite well in Japan, where the sport is marketed heavily to the population. Stranger fads have taken hold here in the U.S. Who knows? It’s not a cure-all by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try. I mean seriously…if MTV can bring back the Teen Wolf franchise, than pretty much anything should be on the table, right?
On the “fantasy” front, we’ve actually made some progress, as various fantasy related horse racing games keep popping up all over the place. Probably the best of these, at least in my humble opinion, is the yearly “Road to the Roses” challenge that builds from the earliest prep races all the way through the Kentucky Derby. Thousands of players participate, and the presentation of the game is top-notch, with just about everything you could hope for (past performances, video replays, analysis) available in one convenient place at the click of a mouse.
The only trouble is that it’s over once the Derby champion has been crowned, and by then 99% of those involved have long since considered themselves eliminated from any real prize consideration. Still, it’s a foundation that can be tweaked and improved upon with relative ease, and thus holds great promise. But why not replicate something like this for the entire year? Think of the possibilities is all I’m saying.
Just a short time ago “fantasy football” was a game played by a select few, toiling over newspaper copies and manually keeping track of score in leagues that consisted of only diehard and obsessive football fans. Now it’s an annual right of the Labor Day season that everyone from the diehards, to children, to otherwise uncaring wives and girlfriends participate in and follow with passion. In many ways that situation reflected our present predicament rather brilliantly, with only a proud few horseplayers remaining where once the bulk of the nation cheered along. With a little effort and a little luck (not to mention some refined products of our own similar to those that the sports we compete with have going for them), we just might be able to turn things around and right this ship.
Worst case scenario? We have a helluva lot of fun trying.