Racing jurisdictions around the globe are suffering increased losses in revenue and crowd participation, as noted to delegates attending the 2023 Asian Racing Conference in Australia earlier this year.
Two years ago, Mary Oppenheimer Daughters (MOD) rescued racing in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape from near certain demise. This April, Hollywoodbets and businessman Greg Bortz threw a lifeline to Gold Circle, the racing operator in KwaZulu-Natal. In the UK, prominent racehorse owner, Jim Hay, has described their industry as being “in a terrible mess” and said he’ll be moving his thoroughbred investments to the USA.
In looking at history, it is evident that the fortunes of many sporting disciplines improved spectacularly when they started following ‘Roads Not Taken’ – a strategy for life eloquently advised by Robert Frost, the 1900s wordsmith.
At Global Team Horse Racing (GTH) we have covered the bases by asking: “For survival and growth, what can racing learn from other sports?”
Let’s start with a prime example that comes in the form of wrestling, the niche sporting activity older generations in South Africa adored when our tough-guy mealie farmer, Jan Wilkens, fought his way to the World Title in the late 1970s. But Jan, along with wrestling in its original format, faded from prominence to be replaced by a new hero and a new format.
What has wrestling got to do with horse racing? Well, aside from the more frequent wrestling bouts between police and animal activists at racecourses, our beloved sport is hovering upon endangerment, like wrestling was at the time of disco music and bell-bottom trousers. We, too, have a way out.
Do you remember Hulk Hogan, the muscled, larger-than-life character with the grey moustache who became the face of wrestling in the 1980s? Of course, you do. Hogan, the loud-mouthed entertainer, was instrumental in the media campaigns that turned things around for the World Wrestling Federation.
One of the biggest changes to accompany the drive for survival was the introduction of the “Monday Night War” between WWF (now WWE) and WCW (World Championship Wrestling). This competition led to improved production values, more elaborate storylines, and better-trained wrestlers. Another significant change was the rise of the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection,” which brought together professional wrestling and rock and roll music.
Wrestling purists were unhappy. They didn’t like the shift away from traditional wrestling and towards more theatrical and entertainment-driven storylines. However, the changes were accepted and embraced by the wrestling community and helped to bring in new fans to keep the sport thriving. WWE continues to evolve and adapt to new audiences and changing cultural trends. It’s a blockbuster business.
If you think we’re comparing apples to pears, let’s look at more examples of how once-opposed innovations reversed the fortunes of other sporting disciplines.
Formula 1 was forced to adapt throughout its history, and in the face of persistent opposition. When they introduced turbocharged engines in the 1970s, teams and drivers were sceptical of the new technology and feared that it would make the sport too reliant on engineering rather than driver skill. However, the introduction of turbocharged engines led to some of the most exciting and competitive seasons in Formula 1 history.
Regulations governing the design and construction of Formula 1 cars were changed in the 2000s to promote closer racing. They made several improvements to safety, including the halo cockpit protection system and the mandatory use of head protection for drivers. Cost caps were instituted, and television coverage was increased with new broadcast partners, new television channels, and the latest technologies to improve the viewing experience. Formula 1’s revenues have continued to grow, hitting a record 2,5 billion for the in 2022.
Most will recall the opposition from rugby clubs when professionalism was introduced to rugby union in the 1990s. This change allowed players to be paid for their efforts, which was seen as a way to improve the financial sustainability of the sport and attract more talent. Many traditionalists believed that the amateur ethos of the sport should not have been meddled with.
New rules and regulations to rugby union and rugby league were met with opposition from fans and players. Video referees came along in rugby union in 2016 – some reckoned that it took away from the human element of the game. Similarly, the introduction of new rules to rugby league in 2021, such as the reduction of interchanges and the 40-20 kick, were met with criticism from some players and fans who felt that they would detract from the flow of the game. Overall, changes to rugby have often been met with opposition from across the board, but they were essential to improve the sport and keep it relevant in a rapidly changing world.
There are more:
Boxing, Cricket, Tennis, Golf, Athletics!
Boxing has had to revolutionise to make it safer for fighters and more appealing to fans. Weight classes, standardised rules and better medical facilities have helped to reduce the risk of injuries and make the sport more credible.
Soccer enhanced its appeal to a global audience. They introduced video assistant referees (VAR), changing the way the game is officiated, and the use of goal-line technology has made the game fairer. FIFA has made efforts to increase transparency in the game and reduce corruption. It is a more trustworthy sport today, and immensely popular around the world.
When the International Cricket Council (ICC) considered a new format of limited-overs cricket, known as Twenty20 (T20) in 2003, it faced some resistance from traditionalists who felt that the game was being altered without good reason. They argued that the new format was promoted purely for commercial reasons. Another change that faced opposition was the introduction of the DRS (Decision Review System), designed to help umpires make more accurate decisions. It was met with resistance from some players and fans who felt that it was too complicated and that it could slow down the pace of the game.
Also introduced was the World Test Championship (WTC) in 2019, which aimed to create a league-style tournament for Test cricket. While the WTC was generally well received, some players and fans expressed concerns that it could lead to an over-emphasis on white-ball cricket, and that it could take away from the traditional format of Test cricket. But despite the negative reactions to some of the changes made, they have generally been seen as a positive development for the sport, helping to improve its popularity and make it more competitive, while also bringing in new revenue streams and attracting new fans.
Tennis authorities had to make several changes to make their game more accessible and engaging to a wider audience. Tiebreakers, electronic line calling, and allowing coaching during matches have made the sport more fan friendly. All of those against purist disagreements.
In Golf, we’ve seen leading player Rory McIlroy and others speak out in the past year against the upstart LIV Golf League. But Rory, in his most recent media interview, admitted that the threat to the PGA from its Saudi-backed rival forced the PGA Tour to aggressively address its “antiquated system” in a way that benefits players on all of the top tours.
He commented: “I’m not going to sit here and lie; I think the emergence of LIV or the emergence of a competitor to the PGA Tour has benefited everyone that plays elite professional golf. I think when you’ve been the biggest golf league in the biggest market in the world for the last 60 years, there’s not a lot of incentive to innovate. This has caused a ton of innovation at the PGA Tour and what was quite, I would say, an antiquated system is being revamped to try to mirror where we’re at in the world in the 21st century with the media landscape.”
Enter Olympic Gold medallist Michael Johnson, in a Twitter discussion on how to improve “track and field” in Athletics. He said: “There is a basic profit formula for pro sports: QUALITY PRODUCT leads to FANS leads to MEDIA RIGHTS & SPONSORS leads to REVENUE. Fans are critical in the formula. We need only to look at current sport and entertainment trends to know what attracts today’s sport fans. The only way to attract media and sponsors is through amassing a large and growing fanbase to prove the sport has changed!” (shortened).
Global Team Horse Racing (GTH) is racing’s version of Johnson’s blueprint for Athletics. It makes the horse racing experience come alive because it is super-fast with short intervals, team-based with a variety of interchangeable options to keep things exciting for spectator and sponsor, whip-free and media-friendly for attracting a potential mass of new viewers.
Sports, along with technology and the media landscape, is forever evolving. For more examples see the International Swimming League (ISL), the Pro Triathlon Series (PTO), Sevens Rugby, Sail GP, and E1 (speed boating). Those that fail to adapt, risk becoming obsolete. The ones that have revolutionised their rules, format, and approach to appeal to a wider audience, have not only survived but also thrived. Ultimately, innovation is the bottom line in a competitive landscape. GTH is cutting-edge, disruptive, and designed for the new participants and stakeholders required to keep horse racing sustainable. It’s a no-brainer!