When America's Best Racing launched last spring, it was met with a mixture of cautious optimism, jaded skepticism, and bewilderment.
After all, it seemed racing had tried everything to create new fans and wedge itself back into the mainstream sports and entertainment consciousness, and more often than not, those efforts had found little traction.
But America's Best Racing, whatever that might entail, seemed unique from the outset.
A series of videos coinciding with college basketball's March Madness, including a spoof ad for Hoof Locker, struck some as refreshing, others as bizarre. Either way, it appeared a new approach was in the offing, even if it wasn't clear to the public or the industry where this marketing campaign backed by the Jockey Club might lead.
Since then, America's Best Racing has pieced together a brand that is slowly gaining momentum and support.
“Our brand is really young – it's only been around for 9 months,” said Jason Wilson, vice president of business development for the Jockey Club. “I think people are starting to understand it. If they don't know what America's Best Racing is, they at least know there's some energy out there to promote racing in a different way.”
In theory, ABR is a “multi-media new fan development and awareness-building platform… designed to increase the profile and visibility of North America's best Thoroughbred racing events, with a primary focus on the sport's lifestyle and competition.”
In practice, that means promoting the sport through television, the Internet and social media, gaming, and on-the-ground outreach. The design takes some of its cues from the 2011 McKinsey & Co. report on “Driving Sustainable Growth for Thoroughbred Racing and Breeding.” Other ideas have been driven by the team of marketing talent assembled to reinvigorate a sport that has seen better days.
A TV deal with NBC Sports featuring ABR production elements will continue in 2013, beginning with the network's coverage of the Road to the Kentucky Derby in March and April. The interactive sports fantasy game, Major League Horse Racing, will also return in March. Plus, ABR is launching a year-long promotional bus tour targeting the next generation of racing fans.
“We decided we were going to focus on the ‘Millennials,' ages 18 to 35,” Wilson said. “We're not saying this is the right demographic versus other demographics. We're saying this is an underserved demographic.”
To that end, the 45-foot long “ABRV” tour bus will carry a half-dozen “brand ambassadors” – all racing lovers and tech-savvy twenty-somethings – around the country to engage in marketing efforts with their peers, both at the track and at pop culture events. The tour begins in March at the South by Southwest music and film festival in Austin, Tx., continues on the Triple Crown trail, hits the major East Coast races in late summer and fall, and migrates west to the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita.
“What we're doing is having more of a big event strategy,” Wilson said of the attempt to bridge the 3-year-old classics with New York's mid-season races and the fall championships. “How can we make them more special? How can we use them as platforms to develop more of a mainstream following, and what can we do to wrap them all together?”
Besides peer-to-peer marketing, the ambassadors, each making $30,000 for the year, will also provide content on YouTube, blogs, social media, and the ABR website, followhorseracing.com. Their goal is to lure in future fans and bettors with the lifestyle and competition of racing.
“It's about a day at the races,” Wilson said. “If you could bottle Keeneland and bottle Saratoga and distribute it, that's what we're trying to do.”
The tour and the marketing effort in general aren't cheap. While Wilson wouldn't divulge specifics on the TV deal with NBC, he acknowledged it's an expensive proposition, one that requires distributing the television content in other ways to widen its reach and get the most bang for the buck. The Jockey Club is also spending money to make some by targeting corporate sponsors outside the racing industry.
“With this money, we can create and demonstrate a lot of value, and then go to mainstream sponsors and say, we can give you this many eyeballs and this many touches.”
Wilson's team is also largely from outside the industry but has significant experience marketing other sports.
“It wasn't necessarily by design. I wanted to get the best people I could find,” Wilson said. “Some roles, having a racing background is extremely important. But with TV, for example, it isn't that important. Understanding TV is.”
Wilson said awareness of ABR's “innovative” marketing campaign continues to take hold, both inside and outside the industry. He believes the focus on racing's biggest events and most popular venues points to a recipe for growing the sport, even in the face of negative trends and publicity. That recipe that might involve contraction so that supply meets demand and quality is more valued than quantity.
“Sports in general have a lot of issues,” said Wilson. “Football with concussions, the NBA and NHL with lockouts. But at the end of the day, we still have a really good product, and it's still a really good way to spend an afternoon. And it can be something that pays for itself. It can be a lot more cost effective than other forms of entertainment.”
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