What would horse racing in the United States become if some 22 percent of the population placed a bet each year? In a world with increasingly diverse entertainment and gaming options and the sport's fan base shrinking by 4 percent annually (according to the 2011 McKinsey Report), the Jockey Club and American racetracks are struggling to advertise the sport in a way that will stop the bleeding.
Perhaps there are ideas to be found abroad. For at least one European company, advertising has helped to grow the wagering customer base to 22 percent of its home country's population.
ATG, also known as the Swedish Horse Racing Totalisator Board, was established by the state in 1974 to ensure racing's continued success in Sweden. It is owned by the Swedish Trotting Association and the Swedish Jockey Club, two groups that regulate harness and Thoroughbred racing on contract for the Swedish government.
ATG is one of the top betting entities in its home country, where it has made a variety of jackpot-style wagers popular with newcomers and regular horseplayers. The most popular wagers are the V75 and V86, which require bettors to choose the winners of seven (or eight, respectively) races across several tracks throughout Sweden at a minimum bet of 10 cents. Consolation pay-outs are awarded to those with five (or six, for the V86 wager) winners from a pool that regularly tops $4 million. Automated fast bet options are available for those who haven't yet learned to handicap.
In 2006, ATG decided to overhaul its marketing of the V75 and V86 wagers, with impressive results. Together with advertising agency Åkestam.Holst, the betting company sought to draw in non-race fans with a series of high-budget ads that appeared regularly on the country's main commercial television station.
“When we started to work with ATG in 2006, the communication and advertising was scattered, rational and sales focused, and had little self-confidence,” said Jesper Holst, owner/co-founder of Åkestam.Holst advertising agency. “We needed to concentrate and build some pride into the brand.”
The resulting campaign stamps the company with a dramatic flair that stands out in the world of horse racing advertisements.
Some ads focus on the horse itself, mostly independent of a racetrack or even tack (see 32 Million Years in the Making and Join the Game). Many of the horses don't appear to be typical Thoroughbreds or Standardbreds, with fashionable Palominos or heavier-looking Freisan types holding down central roles.
The most popular of the horse-centric advertisements is undoubtedly 'Statues,' in which horse sculptures burst to life and gallop through the streets.
“This commercial is celebrating the strength and spirit of Swedish horse racing, and the enormous amount of power that horses possess,” said Holst.
The 45-second spot, which was shot in Madrid and London, took 14 days. The crew captured 420 hours of film after three weeks of training by the equine actors. Lifelike equine robots were created for some scenes judged too risky for horses, such as the six-story jump as horses burst from two statues to street level. Holst estimated that it took three months to complete the ad, which cost between $400,000 and $500,000.
“When the idea first was presented to us, the concept was very clear,” said Kent Ohlander, marketing director for ATG at the time of filming. “The transition from the dead to the living is very symbolic.”
Most commercials promote harness racing, which comprises over 90 percent of the horse gaming business in Sweden.
Holst reported that both the horse-centric and spectator-centric ads worked, but the horse-focused commercials produced the bigger uptick in business.
“We didn't focus too much on the specifics and details of how the actual game works, but rather trying to communicate on a more general level what might be interesting for more people,” he said. “Everyone can recognize the majesty of horses and also the thrill of watching something exciting.”
The campaign has seen a surge of new business in the past seven years, particularly for ATG's simpler betting options like the jackpot wagers, indicating that newcomers have been testing out the product. A staggering two million Swedes out of a population of 9 million now place a bet with ATG at least once per year.
As for the future, Holst believes ATG's advertising momentum is helping the company remain competitive. Thanks to the growth of internet betting, ATG's stronghold on the Swedish betting market has been tested, but it is standing its ground. After several record sales years which followed the new ads, the company saw a shift in business similar to American racetracks: betting in person (at ATG's brick-and-mortar shops) dropped 6 percent, offset by a 5 percent rise in online bets.
￼In the meantime, the ads helping manage the shift in business by doing exactly what ATG engineered them to do: they're getting the wagering product noticed.
“We have had several companies around the world wanting to buy in and use the ads locally,” said Holst. “All campaigns brought a lot of positive attention and feedback from both the racing/trotting community and racing/trotting fans. It made them proud.”
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