BY ERICA SAUNDERS
In a recent commentary on the challenges of profitable horse shows, show staff Jack Nash talked about how our sport is one that sponsors don’t understand. Why don’t they understand? Because there’s “no audience.” As a sport, we need to look at why.
On paper, show jumping is exciting stuff. 1000lb+ animals racing around over obstacles that most people can walk under while barely having to duck. Even the lower level jumpers should be exciting to watch! After all, top cross country jumping draws crowds at the same heights as some of the mid-level jumpers. So why doesn’t anyone care?
I don’t mean your mom/dad, riding friends, other competitors and owners with a vested interest. I mean the average person. Even at my local pre-COVID agricultural exhibitions, barrel racing night had a packed house. Yet, jumpers were relegated to daytime or weeknights because the stands would be half empty at best. Hunters only happen in the mornings and afternoons due to the empty seats. Dressage shows? The idea of an audience isn’t even a consideration.
So what do the western speed events have over ours? The biggest factor in North America is a culture that prizes accessibility and individuality. Sports fans want to root for a team or an individual. Sport fans appreciate a scrappy underdog that can take on the big guns—a Cinderella story and team colors make them feel part of things. They need to feel part of the narrative. They need to see the possibility of themselves as being on that team or winning that game. Western speed events and rodeos give their audiences that. They let the audience attach to the person, thrilling to the best moments and punched in the gut by the worst one.
English horse sport does exactly the opposite. From our clothing to the culture of not “sticking out,” we strip the individuality and appearance of athleticism from the sport. When riding is well done, it looks effortless. The best riders in the world don’t look like they’re going into battle, but into a board meeting. Even the average competitors barely recognize each other without their horses. Here’s one area that Dani Waldman has definitely done right. Polarizing though she might be at times, she makes herself an individual to root for—or against—in a sea of sameness. We’ve made a sport so bland and devoid of personality that we have no external audience.
Jack is 100% right that sponsorship is about marketing and selling, but I think he’s wrong about the sponsor needing to understand our sport. The sponsors don’t really give two cents about the sport—they care about the audience. They want a new sales audience or an expansion of their current one. As I see it, we can either keep cannibalizing the sponsors by selling to the shrinking competitor pool, or we revamp the optics of the sport to pull a bigger audience into the magic for the sponsors to follow.
How? In the jumpers, at least, we need to start with ejecting the attire requirements and the restrictions on sponsor information on saddle pads, etc. Riders with shirts emblazoned with sponsor info? Have at it. Similar option with saddle pads? Have at it. Loud, identifiable ‘team colors’? Have at it. Show jackets? Gone. Rules about black/brown riding boots? Gone. Formal attire for the big classes? Gone. Team flag shirts for Nations Cup classes? Yes!
Give the average non-competitive audience something (anything!) to visually grab onto to be pulled into the story and magic of the competition. We need to stop sneering down our noses at looking like NASCAR, because those teams and drivers generated $41 million in revenue for their sponsors because they have a massive audience. What are we offering sponsors in comparison?
Owner and trainer at T3 Equestrian in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Erica Saunders is a 40ish-year-old lifelong rider and researching fool who loves odd details and horses. After fooling her parents into riding lessons many moons ago she has continued her quest for balancing life and farm with a motley crew of furry critters, an easy-going partner, and some very dumb guinea fowl. The whole bunch can be followed at https://www.facebook.com/T3Equestrian.