If Jockey Club chairman Stuart Janney's concluding remarks at the 66th annual Round Table this week are anything to go by, the organization is taking some significant cues from its English counterpart.
The majority of Sunday's Round Table served to review a 2018 McKinsey and Company study and its updated suggestions for improving the sport. One session however, outlined the work of the British Jockey Club, and there were clear parallels to newly-announced American Jockey Club programs.
Simon Bazalgette, group chief executive of The Jockey Club in England, detailed the organization's mission. Founded in 1750, The Jockey Club was once the sport's regulatory agency in Britain, but gave that up in the 1990s with the formation of the British Horseracing Authority. Now, it focuses on maintaining the racing and training centers it owns, and marketing the sport.
“One of the really important messages for us, for ourselves but also our customers, is we don't make money to go back to shareholders,” Bazalgette said. “It's all about reinvesting in the sport, for the good of the sport. Our long-term mission is all about the long-term sustainability and success of racing.”
In many ways, the task of marketing British racing is a different challenge than what the American Jockey Club faces. Racing is the second most-attended sport in Britain, and an estimated 70 percent of the adult population are aware of the sport, but don't attend races. Because the portion of people who are unfamiliar with racing is so small, The Jockey Club focuses on marketing to the 70 percent who are 'aware' of the sport. The efforts seem to be working – Bazalgette said that in five years of surveys, the number of people who count racing in their top favorite sports doubled.
British racing has concentrated on improving cleanliness, food and drink, and entertainment options at its meets, hoping to capitalize on research like McKinsey's 2018 study showing new fans see a day at the races as a more social experience than previous generations. Despite being part of a landscape that includes legal sports betting though, Bazalgette isn't necessarily as interested in handle as he is on-track attendance.
“There are other sports, other leisure entertainment events, other things they can bet on. In the UK, that's been true for a long time. That means you can't lead with 'Have a bet – come racing!'” Bazalgette said. “That's not good enough anymore. It's got to be the other way round. Enjoy racing, then have a bet on it.
“We have to now go back to first principles and say, 'Let's engage our consumer with our main product, i.e., racing' and everything else will grow from that.”
The Jockey Club has tried to become smarter about the sale of its media rights to improve cash flow, and with better exposure in the media, has also attracted more corporate sponsors.
The concerns facing the sport in Britain are not unfamiliar to American racing fans: equine welfare, and perceptions of equine welfare. Bazalgette warned, as many in the States have done, that a lack of education to non-racing people can prove fatal.
“It's very easy for us to say, 'Actually we're very good at looking after horses' but the truth is the 80 or 90 percent of the population that don't engage, they don't know that, and they have a very simplistic view. If we don't deal with them, they're the ones that end up changing laws and getting things banned. If we only talk to people who only know about racing, we're going to have a major problem,” he said.
Bazalgette said The Jockey Club is also trying to make its sport more accessible to newcomers and is experimenting with ways of creating a sense of 'teams' based around groups of horses or people to counteract the problem of horses starting infrequently and retiring early. The group has noticed some elements of the sport which seem intuitive to insiders are confusing to fans of other sports – they find it strange, for example, that a horse can turn up and win just one race and be named a “champion,” while in other sports this happens as the result of several designated matches.
Among other projects/interests for Bazalgette: racing on city streets, expanding the organization's digital marketing content, and improving diversity in racing's fan base.
There's an obvious similarity to the new initiatives announced by the American Jockey Club, which plans to expand digital content via America's Best Racing and will create a fund to purchase or lease racetracks in danger of closing. But while American racing is trying to figure out how to both get people to the track and help them brave the complex world of wagering, Britain is more worried about the first part of the equation.
“If we want racing to sustain, grow, and ideally thrive in the future in the United Kingdom and the United States and elsewhere, we must find ways to give more people a reason to care about the sport, not just as something to bet on and something to go to,” said Bazalgette. “We're up against other global sports brands and entertainment brands and we need to do more to promote strong messaging. That's something we need to do in the UK, and it's the same challenge you have here.
“We need to leave Thoroughbred horse racing in a better state that we found it, on a proper, healthy growth path.”
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