When Racing Night Live presented by OLG returns this Friday (June 18) on TSN, the broadcast will once again, noted Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson, have all the angles covered — literally and figuratively speaking.
Back on track starting Friday at 7 p.m. ET, Racing Night Live (RNL), a partnership between Woodbine Entertainment and TSN, will showcase world-class Thoroughbred and Standardbred action from Woodbine Racetrack and Woodbine Mohawk Park, respectively.
For Lawson, it’s not just the dual-breed live horse racing offering – seven or eight races over two hours – that makes RNL must-see TV.
“I really loved what we did last year,” said Lawson. “We had become mired in the traditional broadcast of racing, handicapping, and wagering. It was hugely successful, a show that was largely geared to a new fan base and a new audience. The work of our production crew and TSN’s production crew really came through in the show. It exceeded my expectations. I looked forward to it every week because it was fun and it was new. It certainly took racing to a new level of fun.”
The idea for RNL was born after Lawson and Christina Litz, former vice president of digital media, business and revenue development with Woodbine, approached TSN with the idea of broadcasting live horse racing on Thursday evenings, a night that is traditionally dedicated to CFL action.
When the pandemic hit last March and live sporting events were eventually halted, including the CFL, Lawson and Litz got their plan out of the gates quickly, reaching out to TSN to find out if there was interest in airing horse racing on their channel.
“Christina and I have a long association with TSN through our time with the CFL,” said Lawson, who was the league’s chairman of the Board of Governors from September 2013 to December 2019. “When it became apparent that TSN wasn’t going to have CFL games to show on Thursday nights, I reached out to Stewart Johnston (Bell Media’s senior vice president of sales and sports] and told him we’d be ready to go – that was at the time the Premier announced the reopening of the economy, in what was then called Phase 1, on May 27. I asked Stew if he would be interested in airing horse racing. After talking with Stew and Christina speaking with Paul Graham (TSN executive producer), we got the nod to go ahead with it.”
However, like any live TV production, Racing Night Live required support from sponsors to make it happen. Not surprisingly, industry partners OLG, HBPA, and COSA all stepped up quickly as sponsors to help bring the show to life and have committed to return for 2021. The show was also supported by Woodbine partners Pepsi, Kraft-Heinz, DRF and Budweiser.
With TSN’s interest, combined with support from key industry partners, the show still faced some unprecedented challenges brought on by the global pandemic.
“TSN saw it as a good testing ground on how to broadcast live sports during pandemic. There were all kinds of procedures and protocols they developed with us. Wearing masks, physical distancing – there were many things to go over and adapt to ahead of that first show. There were a lot of different challenges.”
The day prior to the first show, Lawson sat down with TSN’s Brian Williams to discuss how the pandemic had impacted the horse racing industry and how Woodbine would operate live racing to ensure the safety of all participants. The segment was featured the following evening on RNL.
Despite several hurdles to overcome, including navigating a broadcast in the midst of COVID-19, RNL’s first show of 2020 aired on June 11, making it Canada’s first live sports broadcast production during the pandemic.
“April and May had passed, so there were a couple of months of just nothing in terms of live sports. People were starving for something live. The idea for RNL was mostly spawned because there were no live sports available for fans. We put it together really quickly.”
In racing parlance, the debut proved to be a winning trip, a chance to highlight top-level Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing, open up the sport to a new breed of fan, and showcase racing and its community through a human-interest lens — all packaged in an engaging viewer experience.
From having Juno Award-winning Canadian music group Arkells contribute their talents to the first show, to different camera angles capturing all of the on-track action, to the hosts seamlessly keeping pace between the two breeds, to Brodie Lawson presenting a weekly segment called "Top 5 presented by Pepsi," and a clever and fun way to educate fans about the sport through a segment called "Angles," RNL resonated with fans at the outset and continued to evolve throughout the season.
“The show took on a new life, bringing a fun experience to viewers. We had never taken that approach before where there was a new target audience. It had a new look and feel to it. I give a lot of that credit to Christina Litz. There was music, up-and-coming bands – it just had a different feel to it. I think that made it a lot of fun, to have the music, and a new, fresh approach. The Top 5 was interesting, not only for newcomers, but for also for people that have been around racing a long time. I looked forward to what music and what band was going to play, what slant the show would have on racing that week. I think it was great.
“Having the two breeds was also fantastic. No one had ever been in the position we are, to have what we do, two breeds racing at the same time. I can’t think of any racetrack in the world that can go back and forth on the same show. That was also a great aspect for me. It was interesting to see the two breeds spotlighted in one broadcast.”
Perhaps most importantly, the show cumulatively reached more than 2.4 million viewers, showcasing racing to a new audience in 2020.
“We were able to sell our sport. We spent a lot of time with the jockeys and drivers, in particular, getting people to know them, to hear their stories. Those human-interest stories we did were fascinating and they really resonated with people. That makes our sport more interesting to the consumer. I think we did a good job with that.”
Lawson is eager to tune in for the upcoming season of RNL, which will feature a total of 15 shows starting Friday. After the first five broadcasts, RNL will have a three-week break for the upcoming Summer Olympics, and then air 10 more shows.
“I absolutely am looking forward to it. I can’t wait for that first show and all of our broadcasts this year. I think that everything RNL offers is great for horse racing across the country.”