Equestrian sports on the web: Why does Google love dressage?

The Rio Olympics reflected a continued. if unexplainable, dominance of equestrian sports in Google statistics.

Google loves dressage. It doesn’t make sense, but numbers don’t lie. When equestrians and their fans use the Internet, their searches more often relate to dressage rather than eventing or show jumping. 

Based on un-scientific observation at events, dressage riders tend to be older and quieter, while eventers and show jumpers seem much more animated and fixated on their phones. Perhaps dressage fans are more cerebral and are interested in facts or scores. Whatever the reason, it’s clearly dressage that wins the worldwide medal on the Internet. 

Google statistics also reveal interesting trends showing what countries are leading the searches in each sport, whether the Olympics affect search engines cyclicly, how equestrianism stacks up against horse racing, and which Kentucky Derby winner lit up Google.

The first thing to mention about the Rio 2016 Olympics in the United States is that most people were just not that interested. Americans who responded that they had a great deal of interest in the Games, in general, was down by 11 percent from four years ago in London. What’s more, the number of Americans who said that they had little or no interest at all in the Games was at an all-time high: more than half of Americans surveyed.

(Graphic courtesy of Statista)

It’s bad enough that Americans weren’t excited about the Games. A poll by NBC Sports at the beginning of the Olympics showed that the equestrian sports were the least popular of all disciplines. The general public just wasn’t interested in watching, and the complexity of the rules and scoring were offered as part of the reason why. It’s hard to get the media to report on who won if they have been told that Americans aren’t even interested in the sport itself.

In hindsight, the Games had plenty of newsworthy moments: William Fox-Pitt’s comeback from a coma. Jonathan Paget’s withdrawal of his horse after a stable accident cut his face. But the showstopper of the Games this year was the feel-good moment when senior rider Nick Skelton captured Olympic Gold in show jumping.

The problem was that none of those really showed up as dramatic moments on Google search or news. Instead, it was dressage that dominated global equestrian search during the Olympics, a trend that continues through the year and even across years dating all the way back to the dawn of Google’s recordkeeping in 2004.

Dressage queries have outnumbered show jumping and eventing queries since Google started keeping searchable query records in 2004. (Google Trends data)

As the Olympics ended, and before Big Star was even home to England, an American launched a petition on Change.org imploring the International Olympic Commitee to drop all equestrian sports from future Games. More than 5000 people from all over the world have signed, leaving what seems like 5000 comments condemning the use of animals in the Olympics, although many signers went much further and voiced opposition to all equestrian sports in general.

The petition coincided with a scathing dismissal of Olympic equestrianism by Deadspin staff writer Patrick Redford. In The Olympics Are For Humans, Not Horses, he suggests that horses should just have their own Olympics, and uses four-letter words to express his disdain. His dismissal of dressage comes down to this description of dressage: “This is an animal walking, and it does not belong in the Olympics.” 

Redford was incredulous at the backlash of negative responses to his article. In Dead Letters: The Horse People Are Furious, Deadspin posted a few of the many comments from horse-friendly readers, who suggested that perhaps Redford was afraid of horses; one reader offered to give him a free dressage lesson.

Fellow Deadspin staffer Hannah Keyster offered a rebuttal to Redford (or was it an olive branch to horse lovers?) in Actually Horse Sports Are Good, published at the end of the Games, but Deadspin.com didn’t make any friends in the horse world in August. 

What are people asking Google? This chart shows Google searches compared between racing, equestrian sports and dressage (only) on a worldwide basis since 2004. Notice that the little peaks on dressage statistics occur every four years, coinciding with the Olympics. (Google Trends statistics enhanced by Fran Jurga)

So if the public isn’t interested in the Olympics, let alone the equestrian disciplines, what explains the surge of use of the Internet to learn more about dressage, particularly during the Games last month? Worldwide, people used the Google search engine to make inquiries about the sport. The nature of the inquiries is not explained. Visitors could have been asking something as generic as “what is dressage” or something specific, such as requesting Edward Gal’s age, Valegro’s pedigree or Isabell Werth’s marital status.

At least equestrian sports can’t be blamed for the dismal overall statistics for television viewership of the Games in the USA. Viewership was down more than ten percent from the London Games, in spite of the fact that Rio is in a more compatible time zone for US television watchers. NBC’s average daily audience was a mere 27.5 million for all sports across all devices (broadcast and web-based streams) in the USA.

This graph compares individual champions in dressage and compares how often they have been searched for on Google. Even though Blue Hors Matine’s YouTube video is pushing 20 million views, people obviously don’t ask Google how to get to it. Notice that Rafalca may not have won a medal in London in 2012, but she was more in Google Search than Valegro, the gold medal winner.(Google Trends data)

NBC is bragging that its digital coverage sets event records with 3.3 billion total streaming minutes, 2.71 billion live streaming minutes and 100 million unique users. Access to the stream was limited to viewers who could provide a sign-in for an NBC Universal affiliate cable provider. Protests against the access seemed muted. Perhaps people shared laptops or passwords, but the potential viewership could have been much larger, given the “cut the cable” movement in the United States.

The global dressage domination of Google search was not centered in the United States or even Great Britain, home of repeating gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin. Denmark and Belgium have had the most Google queries about dressage. For search within the United States, the New England area rules: Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine lead the pack. In the past year, inquiries for news and scores from Rio ruled the general search terms in the USA and worldwide.

Google search shows that interest in both equestrian sports and racing in the United States (only) fluctuate over the course of a year or multiple years. Surprisingly, polo fans are quite active on Google and are included for comparison.

By comparison, Ireland is the nation most interested in eventing, followed by Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden. For such a tiny country, New Zealanders must have be very intent on keeping up with eventing news or submitting inquiries about the sport. In the USA, Boyd Martin has a lot to celebrate, as the only US rider to rate a mention, although his London 2012 Olympics peak hasn’t been sustained.

For show jumping, the interest is again highest in Ireland, followed by Sweden, New Zealand, Great Britain and Hungary. In the United States, people searched for information about rider Reed Kessler; she was the only rider to show up in results.

What had a bigger Internet impact: horse sports in the Olympics or a celebrity horse with a chance at the Triple Crown? It looks like American Pharoah would finish in a dead heat with the 2012 London Olympics. Fans take to Google for answers to their questions or event/race results. (Google data with extra labels added by Fran Jurga)

A bittersweet statistic from Google did show that the most searched-for subject related to dressage is still dear old Totilas, and late-night host Stephen Colbert would probably love to know that his sendup of Ann Romney’s horse Rafalca and her campaign for the London 2012 Olympics are still statistics to beat. In Great Britain, the retraining of National Hunt champion Kauto Star for dressage by eventer Laura Collett was of great interest to Google users.

Equestrian sports (blue line) has a worthy competitor for web activity in the sport of rodeo (red line), which often eclipses the combined disciplines of equestrian sports. Notice how relatively stable polo is, on a year-round basis. (Google data enhanced by Fran Jurga)

Marketers might want to note that Google ranked inquiries by states, as well: Vermont and New Hampshire were the most active for eventing, followed by Kentucky, Montana and Maryland. The metro regions of Lexington, Kentucky and Charlottesville, Virginia were the most active cities. Apparently no one from North Dakota inquired about eventing at all. Ever.

If the future looks dismal, consider that a few significant media offered sympathetic articles endorsing equestrian sports. During the first week of the Games, USA Today’s Luke Kerr-Dineen wrote Nine reasons equestrian is actually the best Olympic sport without his tongue lodged too far into his cheek.

Eventing’s standing in the Google ranks depends on a large influx of interest around the Badminton and Burghley horse trials in England each year. The fluctuation between years may be related to the participation of Zara Tindall, grand-daughter of England’s Queen Elizabeth. Badminton was also cancelled in 2012 because of weather. (Data supplied by Google Trends)

On the brighter side, a comparison analysis showed that equestrian sports worldwide are not far behind horse racing, based on Google search inquiries. An analysis of US racing’s statistical peaks and valley revealed that it was California Chrome, not Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, who lit up Google on behalf of racing, but horse sports enthusiasts are generally more active than racing fans on Google, except at Kentucky Derby time.

The world in general may not be interested in equestrian sports, but those who are interested are very interested. Just ask Google: that’s what everyone else does!

Thanks to Google Trends, Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports, Deadspin.com and USA Today for background material and statistics quoted in this article. All mentions related to Google were extracted from Google Trends.

To learn more:

The Changing Face of Equestrian Sport News  (Google Trends Report 2014)

The Barbaro Effect: How One Horse Changed the Face of Laminitis Awareness–and Google Search Statistics–Forever




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