Tuesday, January 8, 2013

What Up Wit the NHC? Q&A with NTRA's Keith Chamblin

(Photo forthcoming)
The Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship will be held in Las Vegas later this month. I won't be there for the umpteenth consecutive year due to tough luck, bad breaks, a limited budget, and general ineptitude (not necessarily in that order), but I wanted to get an update on the state of the NHC and the NHC Tour. Keith Chamblin, senior vice president of the NTRA, was kind enough to answer my questions via e-mail.

Red Rock or Bust: Assess the current state of the NHC Tour.
Keith Chamblin: Overall, the Tour is strong. Prize money offered from the NTRA doubled from 2011 to 2012 to $250,000. Bonuses were added to reward multiple winners. Some 1,000 players earned points in 2012. Nearly 4,500 players competed. Based on research and feedback from players and participating host sites, the Tour absolutely has led to increased participation in the NHC. I wish we had even greater participation by fans and racetracks, but overall we feel that the NHC Tour has been a very positive addition to the NHC landscape since it was instituted in 2008.

RRoB: How has the 2012 NHC Tour season (not counting the Jan. 2012 NHC itself) compared with 2011 and also previous years in terms of interest, number of contests, revenue, etc?
KC: We instituted a number of changes to the Tour in 2012. Total prize money was more than doubled to nearly $300,000. The Tour calendar was divided into two seasons. Significant bonuses were instituted for players who win more than one tournament. A tiered points system was instituted to encourage on-track tournament play. We’re still analyzing the numbers, but it’s fair to say that participation is up, the number of contests is up, total prize money is up, and revenue is up vs. 2011. 

RRoB: How is the Jan. 2013 NHC shaping up? What will be new/different compared with last year's event?
KC: The biggest change at this year’s NHC is the addition of a “Best Bet” wager, whereby one mandatory play each day will count double. We think this will introduce a unique variable that will add another layer of excitement to the NHC.

RRoB: What are the challenges/opportunities involved with getting broader media coverage of the event?
KC: The challenges and opportunities involved with obtaining broader media coverage of the NHC are similar to the challenges we face in obtaining broader coverage of thoroughbred racing in general. We have a great sport with beautiful equine athletes and a passionate fan base, but we are a niche sport compared to sports like baseball, football and basketball. That makes it difficult to attract mainstream media coverage. However, we are making strides. The NHC has been featured in Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, USA Today, the Washington Post and many other high-profile outlets over the years. We expect to add to that list this year. In some respects, we have better luck with mainstream media coverage than we do with coverage inside our industry. I’d like to see us celebrate the horseplayer more than we currently do.

RRoB: What changes/improvements (if any) are planned for the NHC Tour?
KC: Stay tuned. We are considering a number of changes that we will be announcing in the near future.

RRoB: Are you considering increasing the number of players who qualify via NHC Tour points, to make that more meaningful? Currently it's the Top 100 but the vast majority of the top 100 already qualified via a contest. 
KCPossibly. Several years ago, there were no players who qualified based on their year-end points totals on the leader board. Now, the top 100 players are guaranteed entry into the NHC regardless of whether they win a spot in a tournament. This year, eight people qualified based on finishing in the top 100.

RRoBThere has been some criticism among players that the NHC Tour favors the most regular (and better-funded) players, not necessarily the best players. How do you respond to this?
KC: Great question. There will be plenty of regulars and plenty of casual fans at the NHC. Almost by definition, a “tour” (be it in golf, tennis, handicapping or any type) is going to favor those who make the commitment to “travel” on it. There is no question that there is a core group of players who play frequently. They also contribute a large amount of revenue to the NHC prize pool. However, with the expansion of online play, the addition of more free tournaments, and the emphasis we’ve placed on trying to maintain and grow on-track tournaments, there is a wide menu of tournament offerings for a variety of players. Plus, only the top six tournament scores count toward Tour points. We like to think that there are ample opportunities for players of any budget and commitment level.

RRoB: There has been some criticism among players regarding a perceived lack of transparency on the part of the NHC Tour with regard to its finances. Specifically, online qualifying contests have comparatively high effective 'take' rates and some say it's not clear where all the money goes. How do you respond to this?
KC: Some online and on-track tournaments have a higher take-out than others. Some have zero takeout. Players can make choices on which tournaments they wish to play in much the same way they decide which races or tracks they like to bet on when they play the horses. For each spot sold to an onsite location/tourney, a total of $3,333 goes toward the NHC and NHC Tour prize pool. The number is closer to $6,500 for online tournaments. There also are variances between what NTRA members and non-members pay. In principle, we like low- or zero-takeout qualifiers better, but plenty of players have told us they’d prefer to absorb more takeout in an online tournament in exchange for the added convenience and reduced travel expense.  Obviously the market ultimately dictates a tournament’s popularity. If players see no value in a tournament, they won’t play it.

RRoB: Will NTRA lobby for New Jersey-based players to be able to play venues such as TwinSpires, rather than be captive to the state ADW?
KC: We only get involved in state legislative advocacy efforts if we are invited in by the tracks and horsemen in that specific jurisdiction.

RRoBPlease mention anything else that I didn't specifically ask about that is pertinent to this conversation.

KC: We truly appreciate the players’ support of the NHC and NHC Tour over the past 13 years, and we are continuously impressed by the people who qualify for the NHC each year. Nothing could more quickly dispel the tired, old stereotype of the “degenerate horseplayer” than to have someone spend a half hour at the NHC. Ultimately it is the players who will determine the future level of success for this event, and so we take very seriously what they have to say. We strive to give them a pleasant and fun experience during the year as they attempt to qualify, and a really stimulating experience when they play for the big money in Las Vegas. It’s impossible to please everyone, but it is incumbent upon us to ensure that we are pleasing most.