Still Not Ready for Prime Time: Eventing on Television

Jim Wofford examines the importance of keeping equestrian sports and the Olympics and how to ensure that.

My daughter came home from foxhunting recently and said, “Daddy, there’s something about horses that makes smart people dumb.”

Horsepeople do dumb things from time to time, especially when it comes to riding unsuitable horses. We also do things out of the saddle that make me scratch my head and wonder. It bothers me even more when horsepeople say all the right things and know what they ought to do but keep on repeating their errors.

The clearest example of this is an error of, well, Olympic proportion: the horse world’s refusal to believe that our future as an Olympic discipline is in jeopardy. “How can that be?” people say. “Horses have been part of the Olympic movement since 776 BC. There were horse and chariot races in the Athens Hippodrome during the ancient Olympics. Horses were back on the schedule for the modern Olympics by 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden, and have been there ever since. Surely, the International Olympic Committee would not drop a sport that has been part of the Olympic movement for centuries.”

Guess again. Wrestling has been included in the Olympic schedule of events for the same amount of time as equestrian, all the way back to 776 BC and the IOC just announced that wrestling is one of seven disciplines that might not be an Olympic sport in 2020. The decision will come this summer. I am not the only observer to feel that if wrestling is not safe as an Olympic sport, no other sport can be assured of a place on the roster.

When asked why wrestling might not be included in 2020, the IOC gave several reasons. First was a low TV rating. That’s right, TV drives the games. The Olympics are a multibillion-dollar enterprise. This makes the IOC sensitive to anything that will lessen the value of the “brand” and quick to cut what it views as sports that do not add value to the franchise.

With that said, equestrian has a secure place in the Olympic schedule for now. IOC officials were pleased with the TV ratings that equestrian produced during the 2012 Games. Do you see a trend here? Look good on TV, and you stay in the Olympics, but if your ratings are weak, the IOC will drop you like a bad habit.

I know some horsepeople have expressed the opinion that horse sports would be better away from the Olympics because the venues are never horse-friendly, the weather is usually not suitable for horses, the dates do not fit our competitive calendar and so on. While I agree with all the negatives, I still believe that we need to take every possible step to keep equestrian in the Olympics, the largest stage in the world. No other event can match the exposure that riding in the Olympics gives, and no effort that we make to stay in the Games is wasted.

Becoming a Big Deal
This conviction explains my puzzlement at the horse world’s ability to do dumb things. At every rider meeting, every international seminar on the future of the sport, every fundraiser I attend these days, all the talk is: “We need more prize money, we need more spectators, we need more sponsors, we need more owners, more, more, more.”

That all sounds good, but why should I believe the horse world when it says these things? All these statements mean we need to get on TV more, and the horse world has done precious little to make our sport more television-friendly. When I say television, I mean prime time, not webcasts over the Internet. In November 2012, the cable sports network ESPN polled viewers about which device, large-screen TV, mobile, Internet, added the most to their enjoyment of sports programs. Eighty-one percent responded that large-screen TVs were their favorite means of viewing sports. Here’s how it breaks down:

1. People get sports information (scores, schedules and so on) from the Internet.
2. Serious fans watch webcasts. Folks in the general market, the one all those groups I mentioned above say we need to reach, do not. When entities such as the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) or U.S. Equestrian Federation air webcasts, they are preaching to the choir.
3. The general viewing public watches sports on large-screen TVs and that means prime-time network coverage.

It’s pretty simple, then: The way to get more of everything into our sport is to get more TV. Prime-time programming builds viewership, which translates into ratings that sponsors can measure. Those favorable metrics reassure sponsors that their advertising and sponsorship dollars are well spent. They then increase prize money in order to increase the importance of their sports programs. Because TV now thinks your sport is a big deal, it becomes a bigger deal, which brings more people, which increases interest, which increases viewership and so on.

What We Have Done
This information is widely available. If I can find it on the Internet, anybody can. Because it’s also widely understood by riders, administrators and other stakeholders, at this point an interesting question to ask is, “OK, what have you done to increase our visibility on TV?” The answer is, “Not much.” This is what I was scratching my head over earlier–that we know what we need and we know how to get there but we don’t actually do anything.

I wrote a column discussing this issue seven years ago and put forward five suggestions for increasing our visibility and popularity. Those suggestions did not originate with me, although I agreed with them. I had interviewed network executives about our situation, and the suggestions were the result. Correct me if I am wrong, but since then our Olympic disciplines have taken only two steps to make them more acceptable to prime-time TV.

By the time my column appeared, Olympic dressage had already expanded to include freestyle competition. (The traditional dressage test’s compulsory movements, like the compulsory figures in figure skating, are increasingly viewed as anachronistic. Even worse, television viewers find them boring and boring is what happens just before Joe Six-Pack reaches for the remote.)

The other change has just started to take effect: The FEI has begun requiring CIC events to schedule phases in a new order–first dressage, then show jumping, then cross country–with the final test, cross country, run in reverse order of standing. This is an improvement for TV, as the competition’s outcome is in doubt until the last horse and rider cross the finish line. This idea has been around for a long time and has been used at the national level in England since the mid-1980s, but the horse world has an amazing capacity to ignore good ideas. It has taken the FEI only a quarter of a century to wake up. Not bad for that organization.

We need to take every step possible to keep equestrian sports in the Olympics, and if you look good on TV, you stay in the Olympics. One step to help ensure this is to lose our competitive attire. Joe Six-Pack takes one look at some kid in a white stock tie and top hat and changes the channel. Instead, athletes should be allowed to choose their competitive attire, within reason. Let’s allow one-piece riding outfits, preferably made of spandex and close-fitting. We also need to encourage sponsorship logos on riders’ clothing. Think what a sponsor would pay to have a logo prominently displayed where the crowd could see it as the rider galloped away.

Whenever I raise this issue, some self-appointed curator of ancient customs gets up in my grill about “the traditions of our sport.” Harumph. I am not a mindless defender of traditions. If I were, maybe our competitive attire would be restricted to men in military uniforms.

  • While we are talking about competitive attire, we need to allow riders to sell sponsorship logos on their clothing. Think what a sponsor would pay to have a logo, uh, prominently displayed where the crowd could see it as the rider galloped away. (Junior and Bubba’s BarBQue and Grill, Chattanooga, Tennessee, has been interested in becoming a logo sponsor, and I have a couple of riders in mind who could carry that full logo, with room for some golden arches around the sides.)
  • Other TV-friendly tweaks would be to change the sport’s name and the scoring system. Here’s the plan: We call it “Equestrian Triathlon.” Like a lot of good ideas, this suggestion has been around for a while but has been widely ignored. Never underestimate the ability of experts to miss the point. With a name that describes exactly what we do and a simplified scoring system, we might actually get somewhere on TV.

How would we score the competition? Simple: We agree that the ratio of importance of the three tests is roughly equal. The three tests would be run with dressage first, followed by show jumping in reverse order of placing, then concluding with cross country, again in reverse order of placing. The competitor starts each test (dressage, show jumping and cross country) with a positive score of 100 points. We already do this in our dressage scoring when we give the percentage of the test, which would then become the competitor’s positive score going into the show jumping. Faults would be scored as they are now, and deducted from 100, producing a total positive score. Deductions from the cross-country test would again be scored the same, producing a final positive score. Ties would be broken as they are now. A rider with a 75.30 percent dressage test and no further show-jumping or cross-country penalties would finish with a final score of 275.30. I have had field studies done that compare the current scoring system with my proposed system. This system produces the same winners and losers, the only difference is that TV announcers can more easily explain the scores.

Mark my words: The minute we start talking about simplifying the scoring system, our administrative apparatus will go all narcoleptic on us. But to improve our TV ratings, we have to improve our product. The best TV sport franchises are never satisfied with their brands. Watch PGA golf, NASCAR or the NFL and notice that they are continually refining their rules to improve their TV ratings.

Again, that is the thing that puzzles me about horsepeople. They know what they need to do but they can’t seem to get it done. If we truly mean what we say about wanting our sport to get bigger and better, then we need to change our rules but that will not happen until our sport’s officials and administrators get their heads out of the 20th century. They can make us into a worldwide phenomenon with some rule changes that make us more TV-friendly, but don’t hold your breath, hold your elected officials’ feet to the fire. It is up to us because, as it stands right now, we are still not ready for prime time.

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