A recent conversation at Railbird has attracted a number of contributors weighing in on what racing needs to do to market itself. Given the upcoming NTRA marketing summit in which a number of internet racing writers will participate (including Jessica at the aforementioned Railbird, Dana at Green but Game, Patrick at Handride, and Kevin at The Aspiring Horseplayer—chime in, please, if I’ve missed you!), it’s not surprising that thoughts are turning in this direction.
Also unsurprising is that there are strong and convincing voices who say that first and foremost, racing needs to cultivate the big bettors; it is they, after all, who fund the sport, and who can argue with that? But if big bettors were all that mattered, we could follow Gulfstream’s lead and virtually shut the fan out of the racetrack experience; I’ve heard from more than one gambler that the on-track betting experience offers no benefits and a number of disadvantages to wagering at home, so if betting were all that mattered, we could simply focus on the off-track betting experience, narrowing the goal to improving the ADW/racing channel mess.
But nobody thinks that the new Gulfstream is a good idea, and I can’t believe that anyone really thinks that fewer people at the track is a desirable outcome. After all, the race meets considered to be the most successful in this country, with the highest regular attendance, are those at which many of the folks at the track are not heavy hitters: those folks are there as fans, to see the horses, to bet a little, to experience being at the track. And that’s where new fans, devoted fans, are made; I just don’t think that sitting at your laptop with your kids next to you, OTB channel on in front of you, discoursing on the merits of rolling doubles, is going to have the same effect as bringing the kids to the track and letting them see the horses in the paddock.
So, how do we get more people to the races, which in and of itself will improve the experience of being at the track, and how do we get them to bet more?
There are certainly finer minds than mine thinking about this, and none of this is exactly earth-shattering, but not having seen much of a discussion of it lately, I offer the following thoughts, in no particular order.
How do we get people to the track? Make it easy, and make it comfortable. In New York, get rid of that silly law that prohibits free passes to the track; if we can get liquor stores open on Sunday (hallelujah!), we can get free passes.
Particularly around high-interest times (Derby, Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup, Saratoga), figure out a way to get traffic to your website. I do Internet searches on racing pretty regularly, and I seldom end up at the website of an actual racetrack. Build the track’s website content so that it shows up more frequently in searches; get people to register as members so that you can keep track of them; and offer a limited number of free passes (ten a year? one a month?) to those who enter the site with their membership log-in.
Once they’re at the track, make them comfortable. I’ve been to Delaware Park a couple of times and love that on the second floor, just inside from the entrance from the paddock, there are loads of tables with easy access to tellers/betting machines; a bar/coffee stand; and the track. I can sit, handicap, snack, drink, and see live racing. At too many other tracks, you get a bench outside with no place to spread out and no protection from the weather. Provide reasonable, comfortable indoor space, conducive to handicapping, where people can hang out.
As one handicapper recently pointed out to me, once a person increases her betting, she’s not going back; the non-bettor becomes the $2 bettor; the $2 bettor becomes a $5 bettor, and upward we go. The $10 bettor doesn’t revert to $2 betting.
So do a little backwards planning: on average, what do you want your new patrons to bet each day? Start there, and figure out how to get that money through the windows. I have a NYRA Rewards account ONLY because of the “Bet $50, Get $50” promotion at Saratoga a year ago; I signed up for a NYRA Rewards account, and as soon as I had bet $50 with it, an additional $50 was added to the account. As was, I am sure, the case with most people, that additional $50 went right back into NYRA’s pocket, and as part of the registration, a phone/internet account was opened for me—I don’t use it all that often, but it’s there when I want it, and I’d never have opened one without the promotion. And I get promotional e-mails from NYRA, which keeps racing on my radar screen (speaking now as the hypothetical casual fan, who’s not going out of her way to get to the track). The more I learn about the game, the more interested in it I become.
So start that promotion again—maybe with $20. $25? The gains here have to outweigh the losses, I’d think. Who’s not going to wager with free money?
And then teach people what to do with that money. Do small handicapping seminars, where people can ask questions; give them a program and teach them the preliminary information. Every time I’ve done that with racing rookies, they are wowed both by the information available and how smart they feel once they’ve figured it out, and they apply it to the next race. About five years ago, I was at the track with a friend when she discovered the joys of the three-horse $1 exacta box. Is she changing the odds with her wagering amounts? Nope. But she goes to the track several times a year and she bets every race. And she brings her kids to the track, too.
At Saratoga my brother brought some friends to the track for the first time. At one point, I saw him leaning over the picnic table, pen in hand, sketching something out, his two friends intently attentive. He was teaching them a strategy for betting a ten-cent super that would cost them $7 a race, using five horses total. He explained the strategy and the logic, and he made it manageable and accessible. One of his friends gave it a shot, but, a little hesitant the first time to use the five horses, he used four, reducing the amount of the wager; the horse he left out came in with his other three, and his smaller bet became a larger one for each subsequent race. Thirty minutes max of this kind of orientation gives people the incentive and the desire to experiment with exotics.
Again, this is not targeting the whales, the folks who are truly keeping racing going. The challenge for all track execs is marketing the same product to two (at least) very different groups of people, and figuring out what they need to keep coming back.
I groused recently to a friend about the amount of time and money my Rangers’ season tickets will absorb this season, and he suggested that I simply forego the subscription and invest the money in a state-of-the-art television, to watch the games from the comfort of my living room. It’s a tempting possibility, but not, in reality, one that I will likely seriously contemplate. I don’t mind watching a few games curled up on my couch, Molson Canadian in hand, but that experience won’t sustain me through the winter, in the same way that even when November comes, I’ll be on the A train to Aqueduct, because watching racing from home just isn’t the same as being there.
I’m not suggesting that Belmont will ever be like Saratoga, but I have to believe that it’s possible to attract more people than are currently heading out to Elmont on the weekends, and I absolutely believe that racing needs more than the gamblers who fill the coffers. Reducing racing only to odds and payouts desecrates its history and its stories, and will, ultimately, alienate more people than it attracts. Surely there are minds out there who know how to combine the richness and magic of racing with the thrill of gambling; so, where and when do we start?