If The NFL Ran The Kentucky Derby

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If The NFL Ran The Kentucky Derby
(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

I stand in awe of those marketing mavens at the National Football League. They've made the NFL Draft football's must-see TV with lead-up drama so compelling that one suspects the owners conspired to contrive the whole Mark Sanchez affair.

The draft? In the off-season?

Has anyone noticed that the Kentucky Derby is this weekend?

That event was always on the calendar, but not in your local sports pages because the NFL Draft was more interesting. How sad.

The horse racing industry could take a few notes from the NFL's playbook. Better yet, the NFL should run horse-racing. There would be a better product and a larger audience for a dying sport.

The NFL relates to its audience and creates new markets in ways horse racing does not.

Yet, horse racing has the same ingredients for popularity as pro football. Unfortunately, it has one big factor that pro football does not and the difference is slowly killing them.

If horse racing visualized itself in a football structure, it would see the stables as major colleges, the owner syndicates as pro teams, trainers as head coaches, jockeys as quarterbacks, and those magnificent horses as football stars.

The NFL learned early that fans are loyal to their teams, but they relate to personalities. The NFL pimps the star value of players, some of them before they reach the pros, as we saw from the NFL Combine through last weekend's draft.

Is there a football fan who hasn't heard of Mark Sanchez? Have we not debated the merits of the Detroit Lions selecting quarterback Matthew Stafford over linebacker Aaron Curry? Buzz sells, even in the off-season.

Can you name a horse running in the 2009 Kentucky Derby?

If the NFL ran horse racing, you would already know the measurable of each Derby colt, the stable (college) from whence it came, the trainer who's coaching him up, the jockey under center, so to speak.

If the NFL ran horse racing, they would have licensed everywhere the racing silks of each entry. EA Sports would have released "Madden Racing 2010" and a version of Derby Owners Club would be a massively multiplayer online role playing game.

My Old Kentucky Home? Please!

The NFL would have tossed it faster than it did NFL Films and that stirring orchestral background music that accompanied it. That was music to stir the hearts of men, but it's so 20 years ago. Hip Hop is key to attracting the young crowd.

Speaking of the young crowd, recreational horse riders in the U.S. tend to be teen-aged girls. Why so few female jockeys and trainers in horse racing? Do you think the NFL would miss so large a segment if half of high school football players were girls?

Would the NFL would kick off the season with the Super Bowl?

The Kentucky Derby is the biggest event in American horse racing. Yet, it's the lead-off  to the season, not the exciting wrap-up to a long, engaging campaign. What's the horse sense in that?

Roger Goodell would have banned 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown for its trainer's casual use of an anabolic steroid. The NFL Commissioner takes this hard stand to avoid the drug issues that tarnish horse racing.

The U.S. has the loosest medication policies and the highest thoroughbred mortality rate of any country according to The New York Times story Many Derby Owners Silent on Drug Use. Perhaps a Thoroughbred Players Association would give the athlete some voice in the matter and balance the owner interests in The Jockey Club.

Professional sports long learned the audience value of a commissioner to moderate at least some of the exploitative tendencies of the owner class.

Big Brown had a successful campaign as a three year old. Just when he developed a nationwide following, his owners retired him to stud. That's as if Matt Ryan retired to stud after winning the NFL Offensive Rookie Of The Year Award.

Football fans get to enjoy their stud players for years. Horse racing fans do not. That difference helps football and stifles horse racing.

More to the point, the NFL will license Matt Ryan merchandise for years.   

The Achilles heel of the sport is gambling. Horse racing sees pari-mutuel betting and slot machines as its reason to be. But gambling blinds the sport to the possibilities if a larger audience.

The internet is siphoning the gambling market from racing. States are queasy about slots, so they tie it to a good purpose, like education, to sell the idea to voters. The States' take means a smaller cut for the industry. And gambling invites heavy regulation.   

Gambling is a huge no-no in the NFL. The league's revenue comes from: merchandising its stars and teams; widespread television broadcasts; video game licenses and the cottage industry of football fan boards, blogs and fantasy sites that combine to promote the sport in ways horse racing can only envy.

Thus, the NFL promotes it's stars, protects their health and builds a year round audience to draw advertising and licensing sales. Gambling does not divert the NFL's attention from the heart of the sport. The arms-length relationship with gambling drives football to more lucrative revenue streams. 

With horse racing, the horses are coincidental to the wagering.

The best thing the industry can do for itself is to give race horses to Jerry Jones, Daniel Snyder and Robert Kraft and beg them to go to work.

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