Can Horse Racing Reverse the Decline in Attendance, Participation, and Betting?

Horse racing is a sport that has evolved into a multibillion-dollar public-entertainment business. It has become a spectacle with large fields of runners, high-tech monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money at stake, but its basic concept remains the same: the winner is the horse that crosses the finish line first.

But behind the glamour and spectacle is a world of drugs, injuries, and death. The sport involves forcing horses to sprint—often aided by whips and illegal electric-shocking devices—at speeds so fast that they can suffer from gruesome breakdowns and hemorrhage from their lungs. And even though improved medical treatment and technological advances have made horse racing safer, it is still a dangerous enterprise.

Despite the violence of the sport, some people remain dedicated to it. But the industry is aging rapidly, with new would-be fans turning away because of scandals over safety and doping. In the United States, for example, only about one in ten adults goes to a racetrack. Those who do go typically have a horse-related job and are mostly older than 60. In addition, most Americans do not have a favorite horse or team and have fewer betting accounts, indicating that they prefer other gambling activities.

The sport is also suffering from a perception problem. Many journalists frame horse races like political elections, relying heavily on polls and giving the most positive coverage to frontrunners or underdogs who are gaining ground. Media scholars have studied this strategy for decades, and evidence suggests it distorts the results of horse races as well as elections.

In addition to the increased emphasis on speed, horse racing has adapted to technology and innovation. MRI scanners and X-ray machines can pick up signs of minor or major health problems that could lead to catastrophic failure, and 3D printing has allowed for the production of casts and splints for injured animals. Thermal imaging cameras help to prevent overheating after the race, and a wide range of other technologies has expanded the sport’s global reach and increased its efficiency.

But the question is whether any of these changes can reverse the decline in attendance, participation, and betting. The answer may lie in the nature of the industry itself. Depending on its culture and organizational structure, an overt contest for the CEO position may not be appropriate. It can demoralize strong leaders who are not selected and alienate those deep within the organization who have aligned themselves with an unsuccessful candidate. Moreover, it can have a ripple effect on the company’s ability to fill other senior-level roles. Consequently, the board should consider whether the organization is suited to an overt leadership contest before it proceeds with such a race. Ideally, the board will create a process that is compatible with the company’s culture and organizational structure while also maximizing its ability to select the best leader for the job. This may mean developing a pool of candidates through functional assignments and stretch opportunities and implementing strategies that can minimize the impact of an overt competition for the top position.