It's been one of the questions brought up time and time again at so many “meetings of the minds” in Thoroughbred racing – how do we bring new fans into the sport and reverse the trend of losing more people to old age than we are bringing in fresh, young blood?
When you talk with the players in the racing industry – from horse owners to handicappers, trainers to turf writers – many of them got interested in the sport because of older family or friends who introduced them to the races. With fewer people going to the races, and more young people replacing family with social and digital media as their primary influencers, horseracing is in a woefully precarious position.
In 2011 the Jockey Club commissioned the global consulting and management group, McKinsey & Company, to develop a comprehensive study of the state of Thoroughbred racing and breeding, where the industry will be in 10 years if nothing changes, and what changes should be made in order for racing to regain relevance as a sport and a business.
Among the key topics addressed in the report was the critical need for Thoroughbred racing to evolve in the way it communicates its message to younger audiences and how it reaches a new generation of potential fans.
“The McKinsey Report clearly indicated that Thoroughbred racing was not connecting with the next generation of racing fans and was dangerously dependent on an aging demographic,” said Kip Cornett, whose Cornett marketing firm in Lexington, Ky., has clients both within and outside of the Thoroughbred industry.
The Jockey Club enlisted Cornett's help in creating a series of initiatives aimed at promoting Thoroughbred racing to new audiences. The result was a fan-centric website and overall movement called America's Best Racing (ABR).
“The idea behind America's Best Racing,” Cornett said, “was a combination of reaching a younger audience, plus McKinsey's direction to elevate the best product the sport had to offer – big race days, quality meets, and the industry's leading facilities were to be focused and showcased to an under-30 age group.”
“Over the past two years we've showcased a wide array of compelling angles in which to engage with horse racing, including gambling, fashion, racing, celebrity, and an overall exciting and compelling social and communal live experience,” said Stephen Panus, vice president of communications for the NTRA and point-person for ABR's efforts. “Most of the millennial generation didn't have their parents, relatives or friends take them to the racetrack to interact with the sport, the horses and the events, so our focus is creating new fans through meaningful and impactful engagement.”
Panus points out that this millennial generation looks to a very different set of primary influencers than did previous generations, which means one of ABR's primary charges is to fit in with and leverage the younger set's ever-evolving media consumption habits.
“Everything is available to them on their smartphones and iPads,” continued Panus. “They hone their preferences based on digital influencers more so than the human influencers – parents, grandparents, relatives – that past generations relied on.”
Armed with that information and focusing on the big name events, horses and tracks, ABR has been hard at work at increasing the profile and visibility of North America's best Thoroughbred racing events through a variety of efforts, including their Americasbestracing.com website, a brand ambassador program, an online game called Derbyjackpot (which allows players to place bets at over 100 tracks across the country using a contemporary, intuitive interface), events at both racetracks and popular spots in targeted cities, tours to bring bloggers, celebrities and social media influencers to the racetracks, and more.
“It's important to note that the folks we're trying to reach through ABR have, in most cases, no perception of our sport, versus having a negative perception or misperception,” said Panus. “It's much easier to create a positive perception than it is to reverse a negative one.”
According to Panus, ABR's efforts are accomplishing their mission. According to his analytics, Americasbestracing.com had more than one million unique visitors between January and October of this year, which is in addition to the one million unique visitors the website had throughout 2013. ABR's growth on both Facebook and Twitter, the two most widely-used social media platforms in North America – are both up by double digit percentages since last year.
“It's a process. New fans don't magically sprout overnight and lifelong fans take time,” said Victoria Garofalo, brand ambassador for ABR. “Sometimes someone gets hooked the first time they come out, others may want to come out with us [the brand ambassadors to the track or one of the ABR events] a few times to really feel comfortable alone or introducing their friends to it.”
Garofalo explained that one of the brand ambassadors' main roles is to lessen the intimidation factor about racing — helping people understand the lingo, the betting options, the program, and simply navigating the track on race day. They do this by appealing to younger generations on their own terms and in their own language.
“We have created a huge digital platform of education, news and entertainment,” Garofalo explained. “Sure, we give the top racing news, but I think it's the blogs that compare horses to popular celebrities, giving tips on how we would bet each race on a $20 budget, showing the lifestyle and fashion of the track, and our constant activity and availability on social media that really catches and keeps new fans.”
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