The future of eventing is like the weather?everybody is talking about it, but nobody is ?doing anything about it. Among the ?influential thinkers in the sport, there is general agreement that we want our sport to be popular and widely available to a mass market?with perceived benefits to us in terms of greater sponsorship, larger audiences, ?affluence (more prize money), growth in the number of participants, and societal acceptance.
To achieve this brighter future, eventing must continue to grow. And this growth will not happen without TV.
Why? It is a fact of life that a sport not widely viewed on mainstream television is doomed to marginalization.
A memo from the International Olym?pic Committee after the 1996 Games is a good case in point. It was about the future role of TV in the Olympic movement, and it said, in essence, “Make your sport TV-friendly or ?expect it to be dropped from the Olympic calendar.”
In fact ?
What do you think happened to the compulsory figures in figure skating? They went away in 1990 because they aren’t much fun to watch.
What do you think happened to make the FEI dressage silverbacks suddenly fall in love with the freestyle ten years ago, after decades of harrumphing about the “classic art” of dressage? The realization that a musical freestyle makes good TV.
Thus, to say that we know and understand our sport, and that others just have to “wake up and catch up,” is to condemn eventing to remain a “boutique” sport.
If we want to be on TV, we have to be viewer-friendly. As it stands now, we are not. We have to transform our sport to make it self-evident to the TV viewer. (The real reason that those wonderful words in our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” resonate in every language around the world is because these truths are?well?self-evident!)
Although the transformation will take some restructuring, I believe this can be done without changing the fundamental nature of eventing. My work as a TV commentator for various networks since the 1972 Olympics has given me some understanding of the impact TV has on our sport and of what we have to do to increase our audience.
So where do we go from here? For starters, I think there are several TV-friendly steps the sport can take right now that will make the TV powers-that-be more inclined to cover us. (Remember, if you are not on TV, you will not grow and prosper.)
1. Lose the pink coats and toppers. The minute a picture pops up on the TV of some kid in a white stock tie and top hat, Joe Six-Pack hits the remote. Allow the athletes to choose their competitive attire, within reason. Let’s allow one-piece riding outfits, preferably in spandex and ? shall we say ? close-fitting. (Ever wonder why gymnastics gets such a large crossover audience? Anorexic waifs in body condoms will draw them every time.) Think what a ?major equestrian sponsor would pay to put a logo right over Karen O’Connor’s tattoo!
I know my fellow columnist George Morris will read these words and be on the phone to me, telling me about the grand tradition of foxhunting attire, and how we must maintain the standards of the past, and so on. My reply will be: “Get over it, George. I am not saying this because I want it to happen. I was happier when nobody came to watch?when eventing was an amateur sport, in every sense of the word, and we had more fun than the law should allow. But we can’t have it both ways: If we say we want horse sports to grow, we have to be willing to make the changes that will help them grow. If we are not growing and changing, we are dying. And the best way to grow is to get more TV.”
2. Move the dressage crowd closer to the action. TV is all about visuals, and nothing says “boring” more than an audience in the next ZIP Code. Don’t start on me about how “the horses need absolute silence to perform.” Good dressage makes your horse trust in you completely, and nothing says trust and partnership better than doing your stuff up close and personal.
While we are at it, let’s allow the crowd to react to good work? in the ring. If you don’t think this will work, you haven’t been to a reining competition.
3. Run the cross-country in reverse order of standing. This has been done successfully before, and it should be implemented anywhere the competition is on TV. Other sports (including figure skating and golf) do it now?and it works.
With this change, there can be something of a timing problem when top-level riders have more than one horse in the top placings. With the new short format, though, it’s not the problem it would have been in the longer classic format. Just make sure, when spreading out these top riders, that none of them are in the first few cross-country rides.
Why? This is a technical TV point. It takes a few rides for the camera crew to frame the shots correctly, and for the producer to get into the rhythm of the course. I know this seems like a small point, but trust me: It is really important from a TV point of view. TV is about the picture, and chances are that the first few riders?if they are already at the bottom of the standings after dressage?won’t figure in the final placings. So the pictures of the live show will be the best possible pictures.
These first three suggestions can be implemented immediately, but the next two will take a little work.
4. Change the scoring system, especially in the dressage test. I don’t want to change the outcome, but we need a system that can be explained quickly and easily. People watch sports on TV to see who wins, and we have to make sure the viewer knows why a certain rider is winning. TV is an incredibly compressed medium, and it does not lend itself to long answers. If a TV talking head can’t explain a concept in a few sentences, it is too complicated for TV. So we need to get the same winners with a different scoring system.
There have been several attempts to change the scoring system over the years. Basically, they all failed because they were put ? in place before they were field-tested. This is not an easy problem to solve, but we really need to solve it if we want the viewer to understand our sport.
5. Change the name. I know, I know: This is where you came in, during the “combined training” versus “eventing” debate?but the only name out there that describes what we do is “equestrian triathlon.”
When you get into a taxicab in New York City and the cab driver asks you what you do and you say, “eventing,” he invariably says, “What’s that?” When you say, “equestrian triathlon,” he says, “Cool, I like horses.” That is a good start to getting another satisfied viewer hooked on eventing.
There is a lot of bureaucratic resistance to considering this topic yet again. But the reason the name question keeps coming up is that we don’t have it right yet.
You may agree with me that these suggestions represent what we should do. But what we can do is another matter. The reality we’re up against is that the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) is impervious to member comment, and, to date, the US Equestrian Federation’s eventing committee hasn’t taken any steps to make us television-friendly.
This article originally ran in the September 2006 issue of Practical Horseman.