Developing the racing fan

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?

11 thoughts on “Developing the racing fan

  1. “…sitting at your laptop with your kids next to you, OTB channel on in front of you, discoursing on the merits of rolling doubles.”When have you been to my house?Great post. Let’s hope NYRA/NTRA read it.

  2. I’m on the team too, but can’t go to Vegas as I have way too much going on next week…your post covers a lot of what I’ve been trying to get into the presentation – yes, we want gamblers, but equally we want people who simply like sports, people who want a nice family day out, etc. It’s in there!

  3. You hit the point head on when you say: ” 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” Do an internet search and read Halsey Minor’s ideas on bringing more people out/getting new fans-he its on Fans comforts at track, making the program easier to read, etc.Also the golden rule for all Marketing: KISS – Keep it simple Stupid !!!!!Remember this you Marketers out there.

  4. You’ve dispensed excellent advice. I cannot even count how many times I’m at the track during live racing – enjoying sunshine, margaritas and horses – when “rookies” are completely clueless on how to read a race program or how to place a bet. It only takes a few minutes between post times to make very simplified explanations on a variety of easy statistics, subsequently suggesting simple WP wagers. Usually, the newcomers are so excited that they make $1.40 on the ability to semi-handicap, not on the name or color of a horse. It’s a simple beginning, but racetracks don’t even provide basic instruction. And let’s face it, handicapping is not an innate talent, unless of course, you’re Alan and you possess that particular gene.And let’s not forget the older bettors. We’re spending lots of energy on Gen Y but what about The Greatest Generation? Many lack transportation to racetracks. I would encourage some of the facilities to provide some sort of round-trip shuttle service on various occasions to retirement homes or assisted living facilities. Frankly, they make better bettors than the nearby high school soccer team.

  5. I want to clarify my comments because I wrote a lot of the stuff at Railbird. I agree with everything you say, Teresa (and I hate the new Gulfstream), but I do believe (check that, I do hope) that if the tracks could cultivate new high rollers, money would flow down to making the plants more hospitable and inviting to all fans. I know, it sounds like Reaganomics, and it may be, but I just don’t see tracks spending the necessary money to make themselves more pleasurable without having a lot more money already rolling in. The old saying is true: You’ve got to spend money to make money, but it’s also true, alas, that companies tend to cut back rather than spend when business is hurting. It’s hard for people responsible for the bottom line and answering to higher ups to do otherwise. . . unless, of course you’re going to wind up with a bailout from the taxpayers, but, then, that’s another post at another blog. — John S.

  6. Eliminate grandstand admission. Eliminate general parking fees.You can advertise the word ‘free’ which will be a powerful lure in these troubled economic times.

  7. I thought this was interesting…Party goes to fairgrounds Event shifts to Altamont after crowd concerns at Saratoga track By DENNIS YUSKO, Staff writer First published: Saturday, September 13, 2008 SARATOGA SPRINGS — There will be no mosh pit in the parking lot of Saratoga Race Course this weekend after all.The 2008 SoCo Music Experience, a nationwide music festival featuring several youth bands, has moved its local show scheduled for Saturday to the Altamont Fairgrounds from the track because of logistical concerns in Saratoga Springs, a New York Racing Association official said. In April, the whiskey maker Southern Comfort and NYRA announced plans to host the free music shows in the track’s main parking lot along Union Avenue. But after meeting with area political and business leaders, as well as concert planners, NYRA decided to cancel the event because of parking and crowd concerns, said Charlie Wheeler, track facility manager.Originally, the track facility envisioned a crowd of 5,000-6,000 people. Southern Comfort had said that up to three times that number attends the festivals. That raised concerns crowds without tickets would gather at the track gates, and also not have places to park, Wheeler said.”The space and scale of that would be totally different,” he said. He added that horses are still being kept at the track.Scheduled to play at the show on Saturday in Altamont are The Whigs, Severe Severe, The Heartless Bastards, Disasters of Hollywood and more.

  8. BB,I agree that the non-professional player is the hope and future of the game. Your anecdote about your brother teaching his friends brought back some wonderful memories as that’s exactly how I got started.The surest way to create new fans that I know of is for an existing fan to take a close friend or relative to the track; first because you simply want to share their company, and second because you want them to find out enough about this passion of yours to see if they want to share it. Most of the time that process recruits a new horseplayer if the person has a capacity for financial risk and finds their new surroundings exciting and desirable. I’ve found Saratoga and Santa Anita to be far and away the most successful settings for such initial exposure.Tracks need to promote and support these initial forays into the racing experience, to see the horses up close when they’re being saddled, mounted in the paddock, and giving their best through the stretch as viewed from the rail. My experience has been that there needs to be an element of risk involved. Splitting a ticket is more potent than receiving a free betting voucher, though the latter might be effective in getting slots players over to the racing side.Thanks for an enjoyable reading experience.ISB,What is needed at least as much as transportation for elderly horseplayers capable of attending on-track is access to viewing and handicapping materials for those who are not. For those with infirmities who can still handle the betting side, having a wagering account can be a real spirit lifter. This is one reason I think the Breeders’ Cup’s limiting TV to cable and satellite is irresponsible. Retired fans deserve no less concern and recognition as retired horses.

  9. One group of potential new fans I’ve noticed recently is the slot players “taking a break” by watching a few races at the racinoes. At Presque Isle this makes up at least half the crowd. They are already there, they obviously like to gamble, but no efort is being made to help them understand/enjoy the races-then again, maybe the racino wants them back in front of the machines. I’ve been beating the same drum you are-people become fans via live racing.

  10. One problem that I have with taking new fans to the tracks that I think they would enjoy going to is the overall length of the day.Saratoga carded more races this year than ever before. 10 races most days. A few thank god 9 in length and 11 at the weekends.10 races is 5 hours. Far too long for me to keep most newbies interested for the whole day-especially with the feature race normally carded as the penultimate race.Shorter days. 7 or 8 and 9 on a day like the Travers. Be able to have slightly longer gaps between the features etc.American racetracks will know when they are winning the battle for new fans when you don’t see hundreds leaving in the middle of the afternoon

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