Breeders’ Cup Meeting Recap

All and all I think it went well, but as it stands now, I doubt there will be any changes… at least in the near future. That’s not say that it’s all bad.

In attendance were Peter Rotondo Jr., who invited us, fab filmmaker John Hennegan, who gave me Rotondo’s contact information in the first place, CMO Peter Land, Jessica of Railbird, Michael of Gathering the Wind, Kevin of Colin’s Ghost and Valerie of Foolish Pleasure. Superfecta was scheduled to attend but had a work conflict.

It was a nice vibe and our hosts graciously made us feel welcome. Rotondo kicked us off with a little intro of how we all came to meet and Land gave us a bit of overview of how & why he came to the Breeders’ Cup. As someone with an extensive sports marketing background, the Breeders’ Cup offered him a lot of interesting challenges, namely (as Michael already referenced) that among existing sports fans, fewer than 5% had an unaided awareness of last year’s BC in the week leading up to the event. Pretty dismal, to say the least, and obviously a great marketing challenge.

He was very clear that the main goal of the Breeders’ Cup is growth and that every decision made is with an eye towards making the BC as accessible as humanly possible to potential new fans… and specifically sports fans. The analogy Land used for their goal was the U.S Open. It’s one of those of events that, in addition to core tennis fans, draws a lot of people who don’t pay too much attention to tennis otherwise but look forward to attending the Open every year. Clearly not a one to one as the Open is in a persistent location, it’s easier to understand who’s going to be competing ahead of time + I would be willing to guess the unaided awareness of tennis stars is much higher than horses, but it’s certainly an understandable target.

One of the striking features of the meeting is that they were very happy to explain/illuminate the the internal thought processes and inevitable decisions on all the items we brought up. Charles Eames, in my opinion one of the greatest industrial designers ever, was asked in an interview if design admitted constraint. “Design depends largely on constraints” he answered, and went on to add “the sum of all constraints”. Rotondo and Land were very forthcoming about their constraints and subsequent “design decisions”.

It’s no surprise that their goal of making the BC accessible and easy to understand was the driver for the name change. They found that Distaff was too confusing for potential new fans (fair enough) and while Filly & Mare Classic would have been “the easy choice” they had numbers to prove that the Jaywalking set couldn’t tell what a Filly & Mare is or why they’d want to watch them. With this in mind they choose to dumb it down knowing full well that they were going to take heat from existing fans. It’s not easy to try to come up with a name that meets all their criteria other than Ladies Classic. Give that some thought and look for another SAFC contest about it in the coming weeks!

Hennegan chimed in with an interesting anecdote about their process for the First Saturday in May that drove home the point. When they first started to test it, in the establishing shot of each prep race they included all the info about the race found in the past performance. The introduction for the Whirlaway, for example, displayed New York, Aqueduct, Whirlaway Stakes, 1 1/16th miles, 3yo, $100,000 over a shot of Aqueduct. It tested miserably. After every screening it was a million hands raised with questions. Viewers were confused by all the information being displayed about each race. They slowly whittled it down over a few sessions and finally settled on simply setting up the race with “New York”.

We still tried, unsuccessfully, to make the argument that with the rest of the context that people can probably make the leap. At this time it’s not a risk they’re willing to take.

Land asked us to sell him on the issue with using the word Ladies, as clearly he (and most likely no one else at the BC) is not convinced that there is an issue. We made all the points one would expect… they’re not ladies, it’s not consistent with the rest of the of races which use Filly & Mare, it felt like a slap in the face, particularly in combination with moving the races to Friday etc, etc. They weren’t sold.

The one point they did finally acknowledge as understandable was using the example of the LPGA and WBNA. The LPGA was founded in 1950. The WNBA was founded in 1996. Notice the difference? Generally speaking, sports have been moving away from the using the word Ladies. With a concrete example as proof, they conceded that they could see the point.

As for the format, they made no bones about the fact that they’re sold internally on the current format. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that they love it. I can’t argue that having a Filly & Mare Championship Day is a bad thing, but no matter how great it is for a horse like Zenyatta to “have her own day”, it still feels like a demotion to me, even though that was not their intention. It comes back to constraints.

Like it or not, Sunday is out unless the BC is either run during the spring/summer or the NFL magically ceases to exist. Two consecutive Saturdays or Friday prime time isn’t on the table either, at least not with ESPN. While lacking a certain amount of flexibility due to commitments to other sports, they do get a lot out of their relationship with ESPN, such as promotion to their desired demographic + ESPN gave them more time than had originally agreed to. So, like it or not, don’t look for that to change anytime in the near future.

The saddle cloths proved to be extremely interesting. As mentioned in Land’s Talking Horses interview, they’re split internally on the issue. They’ve even done a fair amount of prototyping various permutations but haven’t found something they all can agree on. We suggested that sharing that kind of information with the public would be a great start to show that they’re not unwilling to try and address concerns.

They’re certainly interested in continuing the dialog with us, and perhaps they’ll even look to create a more formal feedback mechanism for fans as time goes on. To incorporate the existing fanbase in their decisions they rely on data they’ve gathered from surveys and some focus groups. Like most other brands/companies, they’re big on what their numbers tell them. They’re starting to get data from surveys about this year’s event and it looks like the numbers are going to tell them that it was successful. I’m hoping we can see the final report when it’s complete to see exactly how the questions were worded.

We brought print outs (and sent soft copies) of the submissions we received from SAFC. They were very grateful and started to read them immediately. The total amount of submissions? A whopping 27. It’s not that they’re not willing to listen, because they are. But if we’re gonna get a fair shake against their data, we’re gonna have to roar instead of peep. Many thanks to those who did make submissions, rest assured they’re being read and that they want to hear what we have to say.

Next time you catch yourself making an excellent point on a comment thread, blog post or discussion board about the Breeders’ Cup (or anything else racing related for that matter!), please PLEASE consider submitting it to SAFC. Even if we did all get a chance to take part in their surveys, the questions would still be theirs. You can always tell them what you think with an SAFC submission in your own words.

The bottom line is that if you want to make a point that the BC will hear, it needs to addressed through a specific prism… growth, easy adoption for new sports fans and have some numbers to back it up. And by numbers, it’s probably gonna have to be a lot more than 27. It’s not that they don’t care about existing fans, after all, they invited us to meet with them. It’s that they’ve already got us and unless we’re either willing to walk away totally or speak out in volume, I doubt much is going to change.

When they speak of this year’s BC being a success, it’s according to their internal perception of success, not what you or I might consider a success. It remains to be seen if future events will be considered a success by fans. Lord knows you can’t please everyone and it’s not like there weren’t SAFC submissions of praise or fans who thought this year totally rocked.

The only thing I can tell you for sure is that a dialog has been started, and that I hope you’ll help to continue it.