Can Twitch Help Revolutionize Horse Racing?

Pop Culture
Horses compete in a turf race at Tampa bay Downs Feb. 6. (Eclipse Sportswire)

There is a lot to root for in horse racing. There are the horses, naturally, and they rightfully command the most attention as the main attraction. But each racehorse has an entire village behind it, and many of the people who help get a racehorse to the winner’s circle have become stars in their own right. Passionate and driven jockeys, cerebral and clever trainers, brash and colorful owners; horse racing has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to big personalities. However, despite this bounty of characters to celebrate, horse racing continues to neglect one category of potential stars of the sport, one that could possibly be the secret ingredient to attracting that much-coveted millennial and Generation Z audience that sports leagues so desire - and that’s the gamblers.

At the end of 2020, thanks in large part to the uncertainty and chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic, most of the key indicators we use to measure the health of the sport were down. There were fewer dollars wagered on races, and there were fewer viewers of those races on television. The Triple Crown, shuffled around with several races delayed by several months, saw its audience cut nearly in half in 2020. This was felt by sports leagues across the board, as everyone from the NFL to the NBA to even the Olympics scrambled to figure out how to continue sports in a world fighting a deadly pandemic.

What didn’t drop during the pandemic, however, was viewers of esports on platforms like Twitch and YouTube. Already enjoying a rapidly growing fanbase, Twitch saw a massive 60% gain in its audience in 2020. That’s because Twitch was the perfect platform for pandemic entertainment. During the early part of last year when it wasn’t clear whether sports would return at all, many turned to Twitch to watch not only video games, but video game simulations of the sports they knew and loved. And in time, they grew to stay and watch more content on the channel, since it so closely resembled the experience of watching sports that had been lost when everything shut down.

“Last year, when the quarantine period kicked in and all the major sports leagues shut down,” said Lang Whitaker, general manager and coach of Grizz Gaming, the Memphis Grizzlies NBA 2K League team, “our [esports] league was able to transition to playing remotely, and almost all of our games ended up being broadcast on ESPN2. It was funny to get texts from my high school friends who saw Grizz Gaming scores on the ESPN Bottom Line.”

The NBA 2K League is an esports league co-sponsored by the NBA. Teams of gamers are recruited and drafted and traded between teams just like NBA players. The games had been broadcast on Twitch and YouTube, but during the 2020 season, because of the pandemic, ESPN2 agreed to broadcast the games on television, with at least a million unique viewers for every game.

NBA 2K League on Twitch

“I think the NBA has traditionally embraced alternate forms of content distribution, including platforms such as Twitch. Even after the NBA 2K League started, for instance, the NBA started broadcasting G-League games on Twitch. To me, it’s a good example of meeting your audience wherever they are,” Whitaker said. “I do think it is wise for sports leagues to look at the success of video games in general, and esports as a result, and recognize that fans are interacting with your league and your product in different ways than ever before.”

Horse racing has tried in many cases to take such an approach to its audience, and deliver content on multiple platforms and screens. Shortly after the onset of pandemic, America’s Best Racing pivoted to streaming video content and launched numerous live shows that bring racing and wagering content to viewers unable to attend the races in person. ABR partnered with racetracks (Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park, Woodbine) to produce, host, and stream live shows on both major race days and in recurring series like “Woodbine Live” on Thursday nights. ABR also partnered with Breeders’ Cup to create the “Breeders’ Cup Live” series (produced and hosted by ABR) to bring viewers closer to the action for Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races over the summer via a second-screen, gambling-centric experience. And ABR’s Kentucky Derby Live Show had nearly 50,000 viewers, which included Arie and Lauren Luyendyk from “The Bachelor” on ABC.

The pandemic forced handicappers away from the track. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

But the difference between these efforts and something like the NBA 2K League is that they leave out horse racing’s closest analog to the modern-day video gamer: the handicapper. One of the most unique aspects to horse racing is the fact that the sport co-exists side by side with regulated pari-mutuel gambling on all of its events. Unlike traditional sports, where gambling is something tangential to the actual game, in horse racing gambling is an integral part of the sport itself. And gambling is a big part of how horse racing fans experience the sport. This is an advantage that horse racing has over other sports, particularly when thinking about how to showcase the sport on platforms like YouTube and Twitch.

One of the key things about why young people prefer to watch Twitch rather than watch traditional television is that Twitch is a social platform. Viewers don’t merely watch, they participate. They talk to the hosts and the other viewers in chats running concurrent with the broadcast, and the hosts talk back to them in real time. In fact, the Just Chatting channel on Twitch, where hosts appear on screen and talk directly to their viewers, is far and away the platform’s most popular channel. Whether on Twitch or on YouTube or Facebook Live, people enjoy watching a live broadcast and being able to interact with the host, something that isn’t possible on traditional television and something that creates a higher degree of investment and loyalty from fans.

Horses break from starting gate at Tampa. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Handicappers have an advantage over other types of gamers here. While traditional gamers are merely live streaming their own play of a particular video game, and the viewers are simply watching, with handicappers the viewers can participate more actively, and even follow the handicappers’ bets in real time. Even poker, which has experienced a second-act on streaming platforms like Twitch and PokerGo, doesn’t offer viewers this level of participation. While you can watch poker streamers play and learn about how they think about poker, you can’t copy their plays in real time. With horse racing, you can.

“Horse racing is a social sport. It used to be anyway,” says Scott McKeever, pro handicapper and recent winner of the Pegasus World Cup Betting Challenge. He used to help Del Mar organize events for racetrack newbies, to show them how to bet. “We’d have 50 or 60 people in our box. What makes it tough is, nobody knew anything about horses. I’m the host and I’m supposed to show them a good time. But I’m also supposed to handicap the [Racing] Form. Before the race goes up, I tell 50 people what to bet. We watch the race. We go do it again. They never come back because they never learn anything or take ownership. Unless they get to do it themselves, they don’t have any fun.”

McKeever created his own handicapping software, EquinEdge, which simplifies the handicapping and betting process for newcomers and veterans alike. He believed EquinEdge was going to revolutionize horse racing’s ability to appeal to new gamblers. But in order to promote it, the former on-air TVG personality started an online live show twice a week to go over the day’s races with a co-host and show people how to use his software. And his early shows were a lot like traditional horse racing TV broadcasts. “But what it became was that new players just kept asking a bunch of questions. We realized a lot of people wanted to learn handicapping, who desperately wanted to know what I know. And we learned to use the show to teach people to handicap.”

McKeever (EquinEdge photo)

In time McKeever shed the professional TV studio he had created in his living room, the co-hosts, the prepared bits and segments, and instead learned to use his twice-weekly live shows like a Twitch streamer. Just Scott and a computer, talking directly to his fans, teaching them how to use his product and handicap horse races. And as he bet the races, his fans were betting along with him. The whole experience simulated more than just the experience of watching a video gamer livestream - it kind of simulated a day at the track with friends.

For a veteran television personality, the adjustment was jarring at first, but McKeever learned to embrace it. “The show almost becomes more about the chat than anything else,” he said. “On TVG, you have your fans but there’s little interaction other than on Twitter. They don't get to know you personally. They don't have dialogue back and forth. This is a completely different experience. It’s way more engaging. They learn what kind of scotch I like. And you can tell that different people are proud to get called out when they win. They want to be noticed.”

Another good model for this kind of effect is the recent cult-like devotion that has developed around Peloton exercise bikes. The $2,000 bikes have experienced a tremendous amount of growth, and it’s largely due to the way the bikes have programmed socialization into at-home exercise. “So whether you’re getting a high-five from a fellow rider or you’re getting a shout-out on your first run ... there’s an intimacy there that doesn’t exist most places,” Peloton Head Instructor Robin Arzon told CNBC. “Certainly not in a space where you’re interacting digitally, and instructors are kind of breaking that fourth wall and in people’s homes. That’s really powerful stuff.”

“Before Scott comes on there are a hundred people in the chat talking to each other,” says EquinEdge Chief Operating Officer Michael Maiorana. “This is what we think is disruptive to the industry is the social aspect of it. They celebrate the successes of EquinEdge together.”

In the last nine months, EquinEdge’s live broadcasts have gone from an average of 50 viewers to more than 500. And viewers of the show gather in a VIP Facebook group to build group tickets for Pick 6 sequences at various tracks and exchange plays. Just like McKeever predicted, they are taking the lessons they learn on his show and then trying to win on their own. They come to see if McKeever can give them a winner, but they leave hooked on playing the game. “Everyone was worried that if I just gave everyone the picks the odds would all go down. That’s not going to happen because once people learn to do this, they want to do it themselves.”

This makes sense given that the reason so many young people love to watch gamers on Twitch is to get better at the game themselves. Unlike fans of traditional sports, where many fans don’t get many opportunities to play the games they love to watch, gamers do, and feel a much closer bond with the pros they watch online.

When it comes to horse racing, younger fans are far more likely to feel that affinity to gamblers than to jockeys or trainers. “Young people won’t feel comfortable in horse racing if it doesn’t feel like the rest of their life,” McKeever said. “Gamified, social, making use of technology. They’ll just think it feels old and different and not like something they could be a part of. You have to make it fun. When I watch poker on TV, I have fun because I can see what cards the guys are holding. I was learning, not just watching. I was also invested in the personalities. They became stars. And because I learned poker watching that person, I rooted for them. Now people are rooting for me at the Pegasus [betting challenge] because they watch my show.” 

“I’ve had dozens of instances where I’ve been out wearing a Grizz Gaming hat or shirt and have been stopped to talk about the 2K League,” Lang Whitaker said. “My players get stopped downtown all the time and asked for autographs or photos, and it happens in airports frequently.” Again, the NBA 2K League fans feel a strong connection to the NBA 2K pros because they all play the same game, albeit on different levels. “I think If anyone goes out and tries to play 2K and then watches the 2K League, you will see what makes the league special,” Whitaker said. “Mastering the game is so hard, and the people in our league really are the 100 best players in the world.”

Twitch has been able to elevate games that otherwise remained obscure or were languishing in popularity. Along with the aforementioned poker, much has been made of the pandemic-induced popularity growth of chess, which has seen its viewership on Twitch quadruple in the last year.  

U.S. Chess Champion Hikaru Nakamura has seen his audience grow from 2,000 to more than half a million followers in the last year, and Nakamura has signed a six-figure sponsorship deal with an esports team - the first chess player to ever do so. Even the niche social deduction party game Among Us has exploded with the help of Twitch during the pandemic. The game rocketed from unranked to one of the top 10 games on the platform, and when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez debuted her own Twitch channel, she chose to play Among Us, and drew one of the largest audiences in Twitch history as a half-million people watched her play the party game live.

Second-screen experience becoming part of all sports.

These stories prove that platforms like Twitch and YouTube are key to introducing new and niche games and sports to a broader audience - and one that is always hungry for something new and different.

Despite McKeever’s success, horse racing seems to have a long way to go to catch up to these other games already finding new life on Twitch. Recently another livestreaming horse racing handicapper, Andrew Blackmore, who goes by the name LordPye85 on Twitch, ran into trouble when officials from Racetrack Television Network contacted him to tell him not to use their live feeds in his broadcasts, arguing that the use amounted to piracy of their licensed satellite fees, which they sell to racetracks and simulcast platforms for a fee. Blackmore, in his response to RTN, alluded to the fact that horse racing would be wise to encourage more handicappers to livestream in the manner that he had - with the races in the background while he handicapped and commented on them, which may be considered fair-use under U.S. copyright law. RTN responded to Blackmore by saying it was prepared to defend its rights. 

For smaller-market tracks, the infusion of money into the betting pools and eyeballs on the races can make a major difference. McKeever has had first-hand experience with  that through a partnership he’s formed with Sam Houston Race Park in Texas. 

“Now people who maybe never watched Sam Houston are watching it and betting it and maybe will realize they love that track. If you think about it, our viewers are all betting on the tracks I’m covering.”

“A couple of shows ago on one of our Sam Houston shows, a guy in the chat said, ‘Hey, there is a GSR (genetic strength rating, an EquinEdge algorithm) 10 points higher at Sam Houston, why aren’t you betting it?’ So we looked at it, and everyone in the chat bet the horse and it won easily,” McKeever continued. “We probably bet thousands on that one horse. There were thousands. I won like ten thousand on it alone.”

But even for the big players in horse racing, nobody can afford to ignore the next generation of fans. Given all we know about that generation, it seems obvious that what’s going to grab their attention isn’t likely to be food or fashion or even jockeys or trainers or horses. It’s likely going to be the gambling that draws these new viewers nearer to the sport of kings. Horse racing has a lot of big, colorful personalities, and nowhere moreso than among the gamblers. It’s time to give the gamblers their moment in the spotlight, and let them be the next generation of horse racing stars for the next generation of horse racing fans.

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