Monday, March 31, 2014

Guest Blog: The Biggest Event I'd Never Heard Of

--Drew Rauso

"And African Story wins the Dubai World Cup!"
   A tale as old as time at this point, given the immediacy of our modern world, and thus, that is all the play the winning horse shall receive in this post. Instead, let us focus on Fox Sports 1, which graciously broadcasted the event, along with other aspects of the richest day in racing that I found interesting, odd or downright unexpected.
   First, backtrack about 72 hours, to a conversation that now brings a red, sheepish hue to my otherwise Mediterranean-style skin.
   My friend and massive horse enthusiast: “Yessir, the Dubai World Cup is this weekend.”
Me: “Umm, don’t you mean the world cup in Qatar, and that’s in 2022…”
Friend: “No, the richest day in horse racing, the Dubai World Cup.”
Me: “Oh.”
   Needless to say at this point in the conversation my fingers were itching to grab the ever-reliable smartphone cradled in my pocket and Google my way out of confusion, which began a frantic, 5-minute journey through cyberspace.  And so, I discovered that yes, there IS a Dubai World Cup, held at Meydan Racecourse annually with a total purse of $10 million.
   Now, I am among a presumably small percentage of my generation that knows about races that matter that are not named in the Triple Crown. I watched the Breeders’ Cup in November and have witnessed the Haskell live several times at Monmouth Park, both experiences helping to convince myself that I am not completely blind in the sport.
   So imagine my surprise when the most expensive day in racing was during the upcoming weekend, and I had never even heard of it. Just another testament to the lack of integration between the sport and 20-somethings, I suppose. But alas, yet another tale as old as time, and a rhyme that only sounds worse when used twice.
   On Saturday, Fox Sports 1’s broadcast of the event at times felt like a recorded version of my dad and
uncles discussing Twitter at a family party.  There were respected pundits (I’m going to assume they’re respected; I’d never heard of any of them unfortunately), including Alyssa Ali, who was in charge of the social media campaign and as far as I know a very good field reporter for the industry and Greg Wolf, your standard sports panel host.
   Fox tried engaging younger viewers with a hashtag #DWC2014, with Ali actually interrupted the pregame show (if I can call it that) to tell viewers to tweet which country they believed would win the race with said hashtag.
   I’m no social media strategist, but if that is the best Fox could come up wit in terms of active engagement, there needs to be some reevaluations afoot.  We are talking about a sport that is desperately calling for an increase in young viewership and preference, and the Twitter opportunity they went with is what represented country will win?!  A quick Twitter search--yes, you can do that--revealed an alarming high number of tweets strictly about J-Lo’s (ahem, Jennifer Lopez’s) performance at Meydan, perfectly illustrating two points.  One, at least the decision to bring in J-Lo was somewhat successful, because you know she was not there as the main audience’s first choice.  And two, not a lot of engagement on that Twitter poll!
Jennifer Lopez at Meydan
   Both moves only showcase the desperation horse racing has for a push to go young, and while they may have been with the best intentions, as everyone’s favorite paleontologist Dr. Grant says, “Some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions.”  I’m not putting a bad Twitter poll on par with stealing man-made dinosaur eggs (Jurassic Park 3 if that reference went unnoticed), but there is a takeaway here.
   Fox, spend more time and effort into planning how to attract an audience.  The race was during the midst of March Madness; maybe a bracket-style poll could have been interesting?  Something to draw in your American audience that possibly (a more polite form of “probably” in this case) flipped to FS1 in the hopes of college basketball and saw relatively unknown talking heads discussing horse racing.  You had the audience, all you had to do was keep them.  Keep in mind, American television ratings have not been posted yet, or I have not seen, so I am interested to see the numbers, but for now, I have my rant.  Any ideas for Fox, please, I’d love to hear them.
   The coverage was also interspersed with so many commercials, I felt like I was watching a poor man’s Super Bowl.  I know, call me crazy for using the word “poor” to describe anything in Dubai, but I stand by my vocabulary usage.  What I took from the combination of enhanced advertisements and the segment on who the experts were betting on was that there was just too much time for not enough information.  While having a lot of ads could be because of high viewership (again, no ratings yet), I saw it as a constant excuse to kill time before the big race.  Take it from me, commercials destroy an attention span.  I won’t even watch videos online if there is a 30 second ad first.
   The fact that gambling wasn’t only discussed, but the subject of a whole segment was interesting.  For one thing, it was mentioned that gambling is illegal in the United Arab Emirates, so the thousands of attendees were simply there for the thrill of the spectacle, which many people may age may write off as “crazy” unfortunately.  Being a sport so intensely related to gambling, I understand that maybe the out-in-the-open style of betting isn’t so odd, but it just felt unnerving.  Each pundit gave his or her bet, an interesting spin on another sport’s pregame show with all the experts simply picking winners.
   Finally getting to the actual race, and once again this may seem completely normal to racing enthusiasts, but the black synthetic material and the time of day (or should I say night) was jarring and foreign to me.  I’d never seen a horse race on something other than grass or dirt, and the jet black track was extremely noticeable, but I did not notice any real discussion of the track in the broadcast, as might be necessary for an audience less inclined to understand such things.  Also, night races exist?  I had no idea, and was thrown for even more of a loop when during the race, a horse and jockey went tumbling over the far wall.  I began shouting and gesticulating (my Italian relatives would be proud), but there was no real deep mention of the incident until later.
   I understand that I may seem hard-headed or naive or maybe just plain ignorant (I hope not), so please forgive me if anything stated is blatantly wrong and/or misguided.  I do my best to research and at least pretend to know what I am talking about, while simultaneously not trying to look too deep into things in order to keep a neutral, infantile-level of intellectual commentary on events such as the Dubai World Cup.  For me, this was the beginning of a long hard look into the minds on both sides of the “young generation infusion” debate, one that seems to be a very timely issue in the racing world.  With that, I ask: How do you attract people to a sport that inherently revolves around gambling when (1) it’s not like postgrads are rolling in money, and (2) the faces of the sport on television are all much older?  Stay tuned...

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