TVG Looks To Boost Broadcast Horseracing, Reverse the Sport’s Decline
Railbirds, rejoice: as of April 4, everyday horseracing has belatedly joined the ranks of sports broadcast in high definition. TVG, which went live 15 years ago and bills itself as “America’s Horseracing Network,” flipped the HD switch that day, bringing many of the thousands of races it transmits daily from tracks across the U.S., Europe, and Asia to a domestic audience estimated at 36 million households to a new level.
“You can see the blades of grass now, the hair blowing on a horse’s mane,” says VP of Production Kevin Grigsby from TVG’s Los Angeles headquarters and studio.
In addition to being the year-round onsite production provider for Del Mar Racetrack, 20 miles north of San Diego, TVG dispatches its crews to tracks around the country during racing season. These can consist of anything from a full production crew, often using remote-production trucks from national vendors, such as Cross Creek Television Productions, to just a single camera and announcer.
The vast majority of its daily live racing content comes from the video feeds with embedded track-announcer audio sent out by the individual tracks themselves. These are largely SD feeds, but, says Bhavesh Patel, SVP, television and marketing, TVG, the network’s shift to HD is intended to accelerate the tracks’ ongoing transition to HD video.
“The top tracks have already converted to HD broadcasts, and many of the over 100 racetracks in the U.S. have converted to HD for their internal video needs,” he says. “But, until we launched HD, there was no way to see that outside of their buildings. Our transition gives them the incentive to continue transitioning to HD. We’re looking to elevate the viewing experience.”
HD video has also helped TVG’s content stay competitive within the regional and national sports-channel tiers it has been joining, such as Time Warner Cable’s Sports Pass package (on which it went live in April), Fox Sports’ Hot Ticket, and DISH and DIRECTV satellite sports lineups.
In addition to the switch to HD, TVG has been trying other innovations to spice up viewing and listening. One of those is installing a “lipstick” camera and microphone atop the helmet of one of the gate-load crewmembers, who help jostle the horses and riders into the starting gate before a race. “This gives us a unique perspective of how the horses look during the first few seconds out of the gate,” says Grigsby, comparing that view with the more generic overhead blimp shot favored by the major sports networks.
TVG has also integrated live reporters with Steadicams into on-track warmups by horses and riders before the race, with stick microphones at the ready for impromptu interviews. “It’s live and wireless and immediate” and can be inserted into the live feed using the track’s own video switcher, “as opposed to footage from a GoPro camera that’s shown later,” he says.
TVG is also putting microphones on jockeys before and after races and during workouts, looking for what Grigsby calls “organic insight” into the sport. Often, a GoPro camera is added during workouts for the jockey’s-eye shots. These are often edited into personality-profile and road-to-the-race features that the network runs between races. (This equipment won’t be on the riders for actual races, however. “Even a 6-oz. wireless beltpack can put a jockey over weight,” says Patel.)
TGV has another technical capability. As a subsidiary of Betfair Group plc, the network is one of the largest legal online-gaming companies in the U.S., accepting more than $875 million in wagers last year. In addition to audio and video of races imported from the tracks, it also ingests betting-odds data and converts it in real time into on-screen graphics for the tracks and for broadcasts; in fact, this capability predated the race broadcasts. TVG recently extended both services to horse races from the Happy Valley and Sha Tin racecourses as part of a multiyear agreement with the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
TVG’s innovations come at a time when horseracing has fallen far from the “Sport of Kings” status it held well into the 1970s. In just the past decade, attendance has dropped 30%, and handles — the money bet on horse races — were down 37%, declines caused by reasons ranging from increased scrutiny of catastrophic injury of horses and riders to low payouts at tracks. But a 2012 report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. — commissioned by Thoroughbred oversight organization The Jockey Club to “examine the current course of the sport” and make recommendations for change — included the finding that the sport needs more TV coverage. That’s where TVG believes it can have an effect.
“We’re committed to long-term growth in horseracing,” Patel asserts. “We’re investing because we believe that, with the HD content and higher quality of production, we can drive the audience. We feel that there is a growth opportunity. Coverage of horseracing in the local press has been disappearing, but look at the Derby: NBC Sports [devoted] 15 hours on the air to it.”
He also cites Fox Sports’ multiyear agreement with The Jockey Club, which starts this year and will offer a package of up to 10 nationally televised races per year, including two top stakes races featuring leading horses in North America.
Interest in televised horseracing hasn’t faded completely, but it’s the big-stakes events, such as the Triple Crown races and the Breeders Cup, that attract viewers. In announcing the Jockey Club venture last year, Michael Mulvihill, SVP of programming and research at Fox Sports Media Group, cited 2012 data from Nielsen Research indicating that more than 36.5 million people tuned into either the Triple Crown or the Breeders Cup but, of that number, 92% didn’t watch any other horseracing all year. “So there is a lot of room to grow those viewers of jewel events into regular, week-in and week-out viewers,” Mulvihill said.
That’s the broadcast territory TVG has set its sights on. “We see an opportunity,” says Patel, “and we think viewers are going to take notice.”