A millennial might be surprised to find out how the average horse racing fan followed the sport some 20 years ago.
These days, thanks to smartphones, widescreen televisions and computer monitors, races from all over the world can be watched live on screens ranging from six inches to 60 – and it certainly doesn’t stop there - from just about anywhere.
But go back to 1997, and American racing’s coverage on television consisted of the Triple Crown races, the Breeders’ Cup and a small collection of major stakes, all on major networks, and half-hour or one-hour recap shows that showed either a package of week-old stakes from across the country or races from a specific track on a tape-delay basis on a regional sports network.
That was it.
Then the Television Games Network (TVG) broke from the starting gate.
When TVG was launched in July, 1999, it became the first television network dedicated solely to horse racing, and today, 18 years later, it remains the lone television network showcasing the sport throughout the day and evening.
“TVG has become the single television outlet on a day-to-day basis for our sport,” said Vince Gabbert, Vice President of Racing Operations for Keeneland, “and they’ve done a great job of featuring the best racing has to offer. We want to be the best venue we can and what we’ve done with TVG allows us to do that. They created a model of showcasing a sport and have been on the cutting edge with it. Long before baseball or football came out with channels dedicated to their sport, TVG was doing it for horse racing and doing it well.”
From rather humble roots, TVG has evolved into a company deeply embedded in the fabric of the sport through its current pair of channels – TVG and TVG2 – and a robust companion wagering platform at tvg.com.
“It’s all about showcasing the best our industry has to offer,” Gabbert said, “be it from a competition standpoint, a content standpoint, a human interest standpoint, a horse standpoint. That’s what we get from TVG and there are a number of frontiers we can continue to conquer together.”
40 million households
It started amidst skepticism in 1999 with programing available on cable only through the Dish network, but in the next four years it scripted a success story that saw it add cable carriers such as Directv, Cox, Charter and Comcast to expand its reach to 12 million households.
Now either TVG or TVG2 can be seen in more than 40 million households and they present about 50,000 races a year combined. Its ADW operates in 36 states and its acronym resonates with fans, horsemen and track operators from Del Mar to Suffolk Downs and just about everywhere in between.
“The goal for TVG at the launch was to develop new fans. The programming back then was so much different than what you’ll see now,” said Todd Schrupp, an anchor for TVG since day one in 1999. “We tried to reach people who didn’t know a lot about horse racing. Since then, TVG has been able to find the perfect balance. We are a network for the sophisticated player and the novice as well, someone who wants to get introduced to Thoroughbred racing. I watched the network find that balance over the course of the last 18 years. We got to speak to people at all levels of the game to benefit horse racing and, obviously, to benefit the network as well.”
Like television itself, enhanced technology has created a new wave of competition for TVG. For years, major tracks have offered wagering through Advance Deposit Wagering (ADW) units, but more recently there have been new players on the television and wagering landscape. The New York Racing Association (NYRA) produces and airs its races on a two-hour program through national and regional sports networks for much of the spring through the start of fall. NYRA also offers its own wagering unit, NYRA Bets. A new site, xbtv.com, offers analysis and live coverage of races.
In response, TVG is moving into new areas, such as Directv’s Over-The-Top app, so that much of its content can be seen in vivid High Definition (HD). Yet TVG officials and track operators still understand that the television network is the important link in the chain and the one that provides the most benefits to the sport through the sights and sounds it presents of a day at the races. Historically, television coverage on TVG has helped to increase handle figures, and that continues to be the case even in a digital era.
“There’s no doubt mobile is a big part of the overall tech experience but television is still the dominant player out there,” said Josh Rubinstein, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Del Mar. “They can take the broadcast eyeballs they have and turn them on to wagering. While we are on their telecasts for 3½ to 4 hours, it’s basically an infomercial for Del Mar and getting people to wager on our product.”
The exposure TVG generates mixed with its commitment to present high-quality programming has been the basis of numerous long-term relationships with major tracks across the country that have been beneficial to both sides.
“TVG highlights Del Mar on their broadcasts and they have been producing our simulcast programs since 2012 which are branded with TVG talent. Since 2010 they have sponsored our biggest race, the TVG Pacific Classic,” Rubinstein said. “We are delighted with the partnership and we work with them in all facets of the business: ADW, marketing, production. We look at TVG almost as an extension of us. They do a great job of highlighting everything we have to offer.
“It’s a partnership that’s worked very well for us and they have done a great job of elevating the quality of their production. While the Pacific Classic was televised on NBCSN, the product TVG put out during their 90-minute uninterrupted show was good as anything you’ll find on network TV.”
While television coverage was hardly new to horse racing in the waning days of the 20th century, the emergence of TVG took that relationship between a sport and medium to a new level. Broadcast networks aired just a race or two back then, but TVG altered that model by showing all of its key tracks’ races live on a daily basis, albeit to a smaller audience.
“When TVG debuted, some of the tracks were reticent because they thought it would cannibalize the on-track experience. It has been the exact opposite,” Schrupp said. “When I go to Keeneland and I say on the air, over and over, that I love Keeneland, that it is one of my favorite tracks and you have to come here, it is astonishing to me how every spring and fall I will get people who come to our set and say to me that I heard you say you have to be here, so I came and you are so right about the experience.”
Purchased by European online gaming giant Betfair (now Paddy Power Betfair) in 2009 for $50 million, TVG has expanded that partnership with tracks in recent years by doing more live remotes at tracks, expanding its coverage of sales and workouts, and increasing its charitable ventures with organizations such as the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
“We push ourselves every day by getting out to more tracks,” said Kip Levin, Chief Executive Officer of TVG and Betfair US. “Historically, since we are based in California, we had more invested in being live at California tracks. Now we’re at all of the top meets. We’re at Keeneland. We’re at Saratoga every day. That’s a big part of our investment strategy. We need to be live. We need to be out there and offer analysis and interviews. That’s what our customers want.”
By placing more of its on-air talent on the grounds of major tracks, TVG has made strong use of anchors and analysts such as Schrupp, Simon Bray, Matt Carothers, Mike Joyce and Britney Eurton to make the network’s programming more entertaining and informative.
“TVG needs to get out to its track partners and there has been a great emphasis on getting out of the studio more and being on site, and the benefit is that we are creating fans and driving people to those facilities,” Schrupp said. “As much as it’s great for people to have the convenience of racing in their homes [so they] can wager at home, if we are to reach our mission statement, we have to get people out to the racetrack, and I think that’s an area in which TVG has excelled.
“You talk about how the network has evolved, it has absolutely driven people to the racetracks.”
A huge boost to TVG came two years ago when it acquired a rival network, HorseRacing TV (HRTV), from the Stronach Group for an initial payment of $25 million. The purchase led to the launch of TVG2, which gave the network a second channel and more time to air races from different tracks. Prior to the sale, certain tracks were presented on both TVG and the now defunct HRTV, cutting down on the number of live races fans could watch.
“It’s a historical sport, but you have to be able to evolve with the times, and one of the biggest things TVG has done is allow us to broadcast more races nationally, and that has to do with post time coordination,” said Eurton, a daughter of California-based trainer Peter Eurton who joined TVG four years ago.
“Obviously it’s not a perfect science, nothing is, especially in an industry when you can only control so much. But now, with coordination of post times, the two channels can broadcast about 50,000 races a year into 40 million homes a day, giving our players and viewers a great experience; the most races, the most analysis. Over the years that has been huge.
“You want to show as much racing as you can, but people always want the analysis and you have balance all of that and I think we’ve found a happy medium between the two. We’re respectful of the image and the audience that HRTV had. We’ve taken a lot of things HRTV did well, highlighting the people in the sport, the jockeys, the horsemen, and we combined it with the things that TVG did well, like handicapping and analysis. Blending gives people more of what they want and all of that helps the industry to grow.”
In spite of TVG’s growth, horse racing has traditionally had a disjointed relationship with television. For decades before TVG’s launch, a consensus of opinion among industry leaders was that widespread television coverage would hurt the sport. Thus, horse racing failed to embrace it and use it to drive its popularity as professional sports did in the 1970s and 1980s.
The HD issue
Simulcasting changed those opinions, but even today horse racing continues to lag behind other sports, especially in terms of its presentation. While fans can watch a poker tournament in bright, crisp HD, numerous tracks have yet to upgrade their broadcast capabilities and equipment and continue to send out the same Standard Definition (SD) signal as they did decades ago.
As a result, TVG faces a two-fold problem. When it presents races from SD definition tracks, the images fail to match the brilliant qualities of a HD signal and look ancient on larger televisions. Beyond that, even though TVG sends a HD signal to carriers such as Directv, because the signals from the SD tracks cannot be converted into true HD, almost all of them have refused to give TVG a home among their HD channels. At the moment, only AT&T U-verse and the Directv Now app show TVG in HD.
In contrast, the NYRA Live shows are produced and presented in HD, giving them a picturesque look more in line with typical sports broadcasts.
“Not having ubiquitous HD racing all across racing is a big impediment to the growth of the sport. It’s impossible to overcome,” Levin said. “On a big race day, you get young, new fans introduced to the sport and then the next day half the racing they are watching comes from an old, Standard Definition signal.”
Knowing the importance of a state-of-the-art appearance and how it can impact the sport’s growth, Levin has actively encouraged tracks to upgrade their video equipment, but much of what he says falls upon deaf ears.
“Our focus right now is how can we work with the industry to get more HD coverage,” Levin said. “And, on the flip side, how do we, as we think about our distribution partners, be it Directv and so on, press those carriers to show us in High Definition?
“We’re looking at an evolution in how television is distributed. So, we’re looking at Over-The-Top. Our customers can watch TVG in HD on our website and there are new platforms out there, such as Amazon or Hulu, that we cut deals with. But the bottom line is that everybody in the horse racing industry wants HD. It’s just a matter of finding a cost-efficient way of doing it. It’s the capital investment for a small track to upgrade all of the equipment and everything else that makes it hard. We are trying to figure out how we can help solve that problem.”
Two years ago, TVG’s playing field changed dramatically when it acquired HTRV and converted it into TVG2. With the exception of Churchill Downs, most of the Thoroughbred tracks carried on TVG2 are smaller venues with SD signals. Yet, even with two channels to disperse the tracks the network carries, there are still SD tracks on the flagship TVG, which lessens its appeal to carriers.
“We’re trying to grow distribution for both channels,” Levin said. “TVG 1 is carried in a lot more homes than TVG2, but it doesn’t help the industry to put all the Standard Definition tracks on TVG2 because it makes it harder for me to go into the big carriers and convince them to carry that channel. We bought HRTV two years ago and the thought was that there was enough good content in the United States to support two channels. The year before we bought HRTV, the combined networks showed 29,000 races. Now we show close 50,000 live, unique races because we have two networks.
“There’s a lot of good content on them, but it’s hard for me to walk into a carrier and say ‘Look at how great this content is. You should be showing these two great channels, and you could put them side by side like ESPN and ESPN2’ when the content doesn’t look as good as NYRA’s show. There are some big structural issues that are within the industry’s ability to change and HD is one of them. We feel we should be in a leadership position to solve that problem, but there are a lot of challenges.”
And it’s not just Levin who understands the importance of having a clear, colorful HD signals as an industry standard.
“We’d like to see TVG in HD,” Rubinstein said. “I know it’s been a challenge for them. They send out a HD signal, but the carriers do not use it because of their limited HD bandwidth. I know it’s frustrating to them, and it’s something we’d definitely like to see.”
Aside from HD, TVG has been dealing with another set of challenges while trying to implement another form of innovation. Parent company Paddy Power Betfair is a leader in exchange wagering overseas, and TVG was instrumental in bring the European style of wagering with locked-in odds and in-race wagering to American shores in 2016.
Like HD, exchange wagering offers great potential but has yet to be embraced with open arms by the entire industry in the U.S. California has legislation that would allow exchange wagering, but it has yet to be enacted. That leaves New Jersey as the lone state taking it, yet it is restricted to Garden State residents who make the wager from within the state’s borders.
Exchange wagering ‘a real opportunity’
“I’m a resident of California and they were the first to have the law on the books, but they haven’t been able to come to an agreement on it with the industry,” Schrupp said. “The legislature gave horse racing a gift by passing exchange wagering, but the industry hasn’t taken advantage of it. I think exchange wagering is great, and I’d like to be a New Jersey resident.
“Here’s a betting model the country has never seen before, and it’s relegated to one market. I think it can be huge in so many markets across the country. To me, the exchange represents innovation and a real opportunity for the industry, they just need to embrace it.”
Those obstacles have limited the growth of exchange wagering in the United States, but Levin believes there are significant reasons for optimism.
“We’re thrilled with the numbers we’re seeing with the exchange. Now it’s our job to be transparent, take that data to the industry and say, ‘Listen, this absolutely can become complementary to the ADWs,” Levin said. “I think the exchange isn’t just about exchange betting. It’s about bringing innovation to the sport. If you look at innovative wagering in other markets, concepts like fixed odds, betting in-running, the ability to cash out during a race, the ability to bet against your horse if you believe it is moving too fast on the lead, those are basic concepts overseas and we need to bring [them] here.”
Though exchange wagering has yet to post exceedingly high handle figures because of a single marketplace, what Levin sees within those numbers stokes his belief that Americans will one day view exchange wagering with the same passion as the British.
The stat everyone should be looking at
“Change comes slow in this industry, but we are not giving up,” Levin said. “If It takes five years for everyone to realize this is a great thing, we’ll take five years. I am convinced this will help the sport. If you look at the data in New Jersey and see how the exchange is affecting 4NJBets (TVG’s partner ADW in New Jersey that uses a conventional tote system), about 70 percent of the revenue from the exchange is coming from new customers who do not wager on 4NJBets.
“The industry was not getting this revenue before. The 30 percent who are betting on both, their business at 4NJBets is up 16 percent. Our overall business in New Jersey is down from last year by a few percentage points but we’re seeing how people are using the exchange effectively in tandem with the tote. They’re betting the Pick 4 and if they are alive they can hedge their bet by betting against that horse on the exchange.
“They are absolutely using both of them. We weren’t sure that it would happen. We thought the players might be cannibalistic, but the new revenue is there. That 16 percent growth is the stat that everyone in the industry should be looking at and saying, wow. The rise in betting around the world revolves around innovation, and innovation around betting is not adding a new or additional exotic wager. It is what you get through the exchange.”
Advertising and credit card problems
Another problem for both TVG and ADWs that Levin would love to resolve surrounds restrictions on online advertising and the inability of account holders to use certain credit cards in order to fund wagering accounts.
“Some basic things hurt the online business. Google does not allow us advertising. Overseas companies spend a huge amount of their advertising dollars online but we can’t do it with them,” Levin said. “A lot of the major banks and [credit card companies] Visa and American Express do not allow transactions with ADWs. We’re legal, we’re regulated and we go through a massive amount of regulatory hurdles to operate, yet credit cards won’t work for half the people who try to use them to deposit money in an ADW.
“With first-time customers, in particular, that’s a huge challenge. When we joined the [National Thoroughbred Racing Association] six months ago, that was the first problem I presented to them. If we can solve that, it will help everybody. There’s was widespread support for it and the industry is working on it. “
Clearly, over the course of 18 years, TVG’s relationship has changed dramatically. Yet through it all, what remains the same is that the network that was a first-of-its-kind for horse racing can still be seen on a daily basis through the ever reliable combination of a remote control and a television. Even a digital revolution can’t change that.
“Television will always be with us,” Schrupp said. “It’s not like the music industry where you had albums, then CDs and now you download music. I do believe with television, especially with what we do, going into the 40 million homes, it not only helps to educate players and drive handle, but it allows us to promote all of the other things we can offer.
“TVG is so many things. It’s not just a network. There’s the online platform, the wagering, advertising, the message for the industry. But at its core, there’s still the television production and everything else revolves around that.”