By Terry Lyons, Contributing Columnist
The great Cathedrals of Sport all serve as the best venues that host world class sporting events that combine rich history with hard-earned gravitas to become the place where dreams come true for athletes and fans alike.
Think about them: Augusta National for golfers. Madison Square Garden for hoopsters. Wimbledon for tennis buffs. For the Sport of Kings, the cathedrals are many and are located across the United States. At each, the on-track experience for the ticket holder is built in a foundation to watch and wager on the horse races, but the experience is enhanced by the beauty and splendor of a sport that is simply thrilling, even to the old, hardened horse player who always comes up with one, two and four on his trifecta wager.
As the Triple Crown racing season fast approaches with Churchill Downs hosting the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, the gaming and sports business industries continue to struggle to identify the solution to increase interest in horse racing.
Detractors say the sports and entertainment world offers much more competition to horse racing than they did decades ago and point out the decaying facilities with subpar fan experiences, along with the lack of mainstream media exposure. Except for the Triple Crown races and maybe, The Breeders’ Cup, they may have a point. Less informed fans might question animal rights issues or even whether the sport is on the level because of past scandals.
Just what is being done?
“In 2010, The Jockey Club decided to commission a study to find out exactly why the sport was eroding, and importantly, what could be done about it,” explained Ken Adelson, the co-founder of MediaForwardtv who was hired by The Jockey Club to head-up the daunting task of rebuilding digital broadcast aspects stemming from the Club’s plans.
He said the study touched on all the key points and negative perceptions, and the conclusion to right-the-ship was to aggressively market and promote the sport through both traditional and advanced media exposure.
Adelson explained initial strategy was to significantly increase the number of ‘live’ events on national television in the USA while significantly increasing the digital media, social media and grassroots marketing behind the enhanced schedule of events. The concept was to direct all of these efforts at a new audience – The Millennials – to target potential fans, ages 18-35,” he said.
“This was not intended to be a slap in the face to the current fans, but the focus was to attract a new generation of fans to bring newfound enthusiasm and interest to the sport,” noted Adelson. “There was resistance from many in the old guard of the industry. In fact, the media itself covering the sport at leading outlets, tended to reflect the current audience, older and set in their ways.
“The theory advanced by some of the old guard was to actually keep the sport going by promoting to the current fans, so not to lose them. Of course, you don’t want to alienate your hardcore fans, but they’re obviously not the long-term future of horse racing and, in reality, they are generally passionate about the sport and they’re probably not going anywhere,” said Adelson, who spearheaded the broadcasting efforts from 2011-2014 and pointed all of TJC’s digital assets in a meaningful direction.
The initiative was dubbed “America’s Best Racing,” and a small group of dedicated souls set out to create programming that did exactly that, span and integrate all forms of traditional and new media with a coordinated PR and communications strategy. The new programming included network television production.
“And I spent a great deal of time as the Executive Producer for the 10-part “Jockey Club on Fox” series in 2014, and had the opportunity to work with NBC Sports in 2012 and 2013 on “The Road to the Kentucky Derby” and their “Summer at Saratoga” series.
Adelson worked closely with the Breeders’ Cup on their television ventures, developing consistent messaging, a cross-platform media strategy and day-to-day content.
While The Jockey Club’s efforts over the past few years deserve praise, the horse racing industry still struggles to cultivate new fans. The wonderment of a day at the races at the jewel tracks of Gulfstream (Miami/Ft. Lauderdale), Keeneland (Lexington, Kentucky), Santa Anita (Arcadia, California), Del Mar (Del Mar, California, near San Diego) and Saratoga Race Course (Saratoga Springs, NY)
is offset by the absolute turn-off to fans from the aging facilities such as Pimlico (Baltimore, Maryland) or Aqueduct Raceway (Jamaica, NY).
The family friendly environment of a summer day at Saratoga or an early autumn afternoon in the paddock area at Belmont (Elmont, NY), just can’t be compared to the more common experience of a fan who frequents some of the hundreds of other tracks that are better described as a dull, dim, smoke-filled room, where some a group of railbirds personify a stereotype that the horse racing industry can not dismiss.
The answer is to keep on keepin’ on.
The mass media efforts forged by The Jockey Club need to be complemented by constant investment by the tracks themselves. Better facilities are a must, highlighted by much better food and drink offerings, luxury suites and easy access points. To that point, Gulfstream has even opened an adjacent shopping mall, The Village at Gulfstream Park, to enhance the experience of the railbirds with their credit cards readily available.
Of course, the influx of casino gambling, slot machines, sports gaming, whether the actual – call it eventual – wagering on sports or simple Fantasy Sports offerings such as the concepts being floated by Monmouth Park in New Jersey, will all supply the race tracks with opportunities to supplement revenue.
What can not be lost in the shuffle is to focus on the ticket holder and the door-to-door experience for a fan, young or old, spending their hard-earned dough at a day at the races.