Over the weekend, in a desperate search to keep my mind occupied following the death of my grandmother, I found myself going down a social media rabbit hole. When I got on Twitter and saw my timeline, I was taken aback by the sheer volume of audio/visual content produced by the people I follow.
There were podcasts, live streams, and quick video hits galore, all hitting a bunch of different tones for different subsets of the racing fanbase. In one way, I was pretty happy, because it meant I was following the right people. In another, I couldn’t help but remember some of the reactions I got when part of my job was doing this exact sort of thing.
From mid-2012 through late-2018, I was a driving force behind the social and digital media strategy at several racing networks and publications, including The Pink Sheet in Saratoga, HRTV, TVG, and The Daily Racing Form. At each stop, social media reach and engagement grew considerably (sometimes far more than that), due in large part to strategies that brought content horseplayers wanted to access to them in more convenient ways. I say this to establish that I know what I’m talking about thanks to years of experience appealing to people like myself.
When I did that stuff, though, there were times where the reactions were far from positive. When I did live chats in Saratoga and filmed daily editions of The Pink Sheet Insider, some print-oriented folks at The Saratogian made no secret that they thought I wasn’t using my time wisely. When I started filming video hits for social media as part of my job at TVG, at least one person took to calling my makeshift studio the “wacky-capsule,” as a take-off of the old “handi-capsule” that became the TVG2 studio.
Just a few years later, everyone’s doing the same exact thing, from “wacky-capsules” of their very own. Life comes at you fast, huh?
I’m not looking for a pat on the back or some admission that I saw things coming (though if you’d like to give me one, or in some cases admit you were wrong many years ago, I won’t object). I’m bringing this up because, during the COVID-19 crisis, parts of racing’s establishment have finally accepted that there are other ways to reach their most important audience. Not everything has to be put on a television, or micromanaged by someone sitting behind a big desk. Give your handicappers a phone or a video camera, make sure they have a place to sit with a cool background, and let them go nuts by showing their knowledge, handicapping skills, and passion for the sport.
I could tell a lot of stories about stuff I did and how we improvised on the fly. Jeff Siegel and Aaron Vercruysse gave me a shot on HRTV’s streams from Belmont and Santa Anita in the final months before that network was acquired by TVG, and I loved it. Most of all, I enjoyed seeing the analytics that showed we weren’t a competitor to pre-existing offerings, but a complementary piece of content for horseplayers who wanted a little extra. That the prevailing reaction among most of my colleagues who watched was, “I thought you were going to be goofy, but you can actually do this,” was merely a bonus.
When TVG hired me on, I kept that concept going under the “TVG Extra” name for as long as I was allowed to, but also took things a step further with some concepts many of you enjoyed. First, I somehow got the approval for the aforementioned “wacky-capsule,” which featured a one-camera setup, a switcher, a lighting rig, and a computer to edit on. I’d call Paul in the graphics department, he’d shoot over the fields his crew had produced, and after a few minutes of filming, I’d have everything I needed to create stuff like the video below (which was our most-watched YouTube video the week before the 2016 Breeders’ Cup).
I also started a weekly online show called the “Pre-Game Periscope” every Saturday morning. I grabbed my iPhone 6, set it up on a makeshift stand that consisted of phone books arranged thickest to thinnest, laid out my past performances, hit “go live,” and streamed for a half-hour to 45 minutes. The production values were non-existent, but you know what? Nobody cared. That little show got hundreds of live viewers each week, and pushed past 1,000 a few times on big days. No graphics? No music? No b-roll? No television distribution? No problem.
“TVG Extra” died the day of the 2016 Santa Anita Handicap. The Pre-Game Periscope, and the hits I did for TVG’s social media audience, died about a year later (the full stories on all of these will be available in my memoirs, which will come out when I’m in desperate need of Pick Four money). Now, just a few years later, those formats are back, and EVERYONE is doing them. Barstool Sports runs a handicapping stream wherein they’re airing race calls as they happen. I remember when my then-boss (one of the best people I’ve ever worked for) had to talk a major organization into not shutting down a “TVG Extra” stream because they hated we were using their video feed.
Times change, and as an industry, horse racing needs to change with them. It’s no secret that this isn’t something the sport has traditionally done well. I’m encouraged that so many organizations are finally letting their talented people loose with this stuff, but that’s only half the battle. What happens if and when COVID-19 subsides and people start going back to offices, race tracks, and TV studios?
Production of this content shouldn’t stop simply because some things are closer to being back to normal. I’ve seen a lot of content out there that’s creative, imaginative, and never would have gotten approved before the word “coronavirus” entered our collective vocabulary. We’ve changed our minds on a lot over the past few months. Let’s look at the landscape and allow ourselves to realize we need to evolve, okay?
As a content producer, a digital media expert, and someone who desperately wants to see horse racing and its current and aspiring on-air talents grow, I’m using this space to send a simple message to anyone who’s producing content or wants to produce content: Don’t stop. Take whatever’s inspiring you and run with it. If someone’s complaining, chances are they’ll be copying you in a few years. Use it as fuel, and as affirmation what you’re doing is almost certainly working more than the busybody-in-question wants to admit.
If you need some guidance, or advice, or someone to vent to, fill out the “contact” form. What you send goes to my email, and I see everything that comes in. You can also tweet me at @AndrewChampagne, where you can find all of the content I produce on a regular basis.