Mills: Racing Must Draw Fans, Upgrade Technology Moving Forward

by | 01.04.2015 | 11:47am

Dennis Mills, a former member of the Canadian Parliament and former Magna International executive, is the founder and president of Racing Future. The goal of Racing Future, according to their website, is “to motivate and inspire a new generation of fans to get involved in and support horse racing.” Mills posted the following piece on Racing Future's website Dec. 31.

Racing Future was founded with the goal of inspiring a new generation of fans to participate in horse racing. This year, with our #NoFansNoBusiness mantra, we have been highlighting great ideas for change in our sport as well as the many extraordinary horse racing experiences from around the world including Dubai, Hong Kong, Australia, Japan, France, Ireland and the UK to name a few. What do these examples demonstrate? That, despite a few examples, North American horse racing is still not inspiring potential fans to participate.

We acknowledge there have been positive developments in North American racing in 2014 such as discussions on takeout rates and the critical issues of integrity, animal welfare, and medication reform. Some facilities engaged in renovations and refurbishment and there were ongoing marketing initiatives such as America's Best Racing. There were also exciting signature events such as the Triple Crown series and the Breeders' Cup. In addition, there were some great horse racing marketing initiatives in North America. The development of Pegasus at Gulfstream Park, for example, addresses a critical missing ingredient in horse racing today – a public presence outside of the well-attended signature events. What better way to put horse racing back on the map than to build the world's largest bronze equine statue? Constructed between two 6-lane thoroughfares with over 1 million people passing by every day, Pegasus fairly shouts, “Horse racing is here!” Where else in the world does horse racing get that kind of exposure? Overall, however, we failed in 2014 to bring a consistent and large enough fan base out to watch the races. We believe that from the fan development perspective, horse racing leaders across North America need to spend some time over the holidays meditating on some life-changing questions:

  • Would you like to go to a professional sports game in the NHL, NFL, NBA or baseball leagues where more than 80% of the seats are consistently empty? Where fans are expected to watch replays on monitors that are more than 20 years old? Where live games broadcast from other places look like they were filmed in 1975? How can you justify that?
  • How do you get fans out to the track during the week in the afternoon? Other professional sports consistently bring people out to their mid-week games. How do they do this?

When tracks in other countries can bring thousands out to the races, why can't North American tracks consistently do the same? First, we must develop a total obsession about our potential fans who have grown up in the digital age and have very specific expectations about what they want and need from their sports and leisure experiences. And second, while recognizing that each track is a self-contained business, everyone in racing needs to collaborate both with each other and with all organizations that have access to millions of potential new fans.

What does the digital generation want from sports and entertainment experiences?

  • Mobile is the centre of everyone's very social and sharing life
  • Autonomy and independence are a priority
  • Free or freemium access with free information and education
  • Involve fans in actual play (All Stars, fans of the day, social sharing, etc.)
  • Advertising is tolerated if not expected
  • Agile responsiveness to customer needs and wants
  • Ability to engage through micro transactions

 

Currently, where we see these expectations being met is in the world of online poker and social casino games, which have millions of players. We believe there must be an alliance with organizations such as Amaya (which owns PokerStars) for access to their massive players' databases and for their marketing and distribution expertise. We surmise that the joint venture between Churchill Downs and Big Fish Games was inspired by this idea. As Churchill CEO Bill Carstenjen remarked, “the mobile and online game space gives us new products, new customers, new geographies and new sizable growth opportunities that are large enough to matter.” Companies such as Amaya, Big Fish, and other gaming entities could be one of horse racing's best hopes of re-building and growing the fan base.

We cannot stress enough the critical need to continue to upgrade the quality of all horse racing experience for fans. Integrating digital technology at every opportunity is crucial in this effort. All off- and on-track facilities must suit the expectations of potential fans and betting must be fully modernized and “packaged” for the younger generation and the gaming audience. This requires ongoing, significant investment in facility upgrades and marketing but most especially in technology and particularly in the kind of technology that is accessed and used by people who can be converted into fans. This means going far beyond free on-track WiFi. Tracks should offer free tablets with pre-installed betting apps, such as BetMix, and much of the data and video that fans are expected to use to handicap and place bets should be available free or via a micro-transaction on mobile both on- and off-track.

We should never forget that the essence of our business is celebrating the majesty of the horse. If people aren't coming to the track, take the track and the horses to them through technology and equine ambassadors. A number of current and retired racehorses have their own social media accounts and on channels such as Twitter horses such as Wise Dan even have their own hashtags: #WiseDanWednesday. Racing needs to draw on these spontaneous developments and foster the ambassadorial role that horses can play. We can take a page from Australian racing's book and employ an actual horse representative to take horse racing to people who are not currently coming to the track. We need to turn our horses into heroes, as the Japan Racing Association is so adept at, and share their stories and images through many channels. Horses are not part of most people's daily lives here in North America as they once were. Racing needs to change that by asking, what is part of people's daily lives? and invest in incorporating horses at every opportunity. This means that stories and photos of horses being athletic and majestic, being heroic and healing need to be everywhere possible: on Social Media, on billboards, on the subway, on every day products, and in the non-stop advertising on everyone's phones, tablets and computers.

It is our hope that as a race track executive, you will read this letter knowing that we are passionate about racing and are more than happy to use our knowledgebase and experience to help all tracks overcome the greatest challenge our sport faces. We know you will have heard much of what we're saying before but we believe horse racing is at a tipping point with the digital generation. If we do not join together and each lever our strengths for the good of all, our sport may be running out of time.

As we begin a new year, Racing Future would like to thank our patrons in 2014. Your support provided us the opportunity to explore the best that horse racing has to offer around the world and to interface and share our research with those that care about the business. We hope we can count on your support in 2015 as we all dedicate ourselves to horse racing's number 1 priority – working together to rebuild the fan base.

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