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ABR Brand Ambassadors move forward in 2014

In the sport of horse racing, short-term and long-term goals don't have to be at odds with one another. We can focus on both.

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Jamie Squire

The other day The Jockey Club, along with NTRA Communications, re-upped the America's Best Racing Brand Ambassadors for the 2014 racing season. The marketing initiative was a result of an increased focus by the industry over the last couple of years to educate and attract new fans to the sport. From the press release from the Jockey Club:

On the heels of a successful debut in 2013, The Jockey Club announced today that it will continue the America’s Best Racing mobile marketing tour with a team of six brand ambassadors embedded in key racing markets throughout 2014 and 2015. The major racing events of the tour will be supported by the 2014 edition of the "ABRV," a bus that will focus on hospitality and direct fan education.

The two-year fan development campaign will focus on Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and New York, with two ambassadors based in Los Angeles and New York and one each in Chicago and Miami. In addition to efforts in their "home" markets, the ambassadors will also work within the region to reach other racing fans and racing facilities.

Here's the thing with the kind of marketing The Jockey Club is doing with the Brand Ambassadors and the America's Best Racing website: this is exactly the kind of long-term investment the sport needs to engage in over the next 10 to 20 years. It's not an immediate cure. It's not a band-aid that will cause handle to jump 15% in the next year. It's a longer term investment, pure and simple.

Since betting handle is the name of the game, attempting to get younger fans interested in the sport pays off when those fans have disposable income, usually after they finally get out in the real world and start pulling in steady paychecks. As we work more (and get older)  and our income grows, we get to do things like buy a boat, or that cabin in the mountains, or any of the other "toys" that we dream of when we're younger. Or splash more cash at the track.

While the sport of horse racing needs to continue to push initiatives to increase handle in the short term - either through reduced takeout, wagering advances or modifications, methods of increasing purses in the hopes of attracting more ownership, television... whatever it is - there also has to be a focus on growing the sport with younger fans, even though those fans won't be a significant portion of the handle for quite some time.

I'll relate a little anecdote from when I was growing up here in Seattle and attending baseball games with my father in the mausoleum known as the Kingdome. The Seattle Mariners Baseball Club of the late 70s/early 80s (heck, all the 80s... well, and now in the 2000s) was pretty much abysmal in every way, shape or form. The team wasn't just bad, but they played in a huge, depressing concrete domed stadium that required people to go inside during the summer in Seattle to watch baseball.

Summer in Seattle.

The one time of year when you really want to be outside.

You could count the number of people in the stands by the third inning. So not only did the team stink but it literally had a ridiculously small fan base.

Anyway, the Mariners at that time had a marketing program known as the Pepsi Junior Mariners, which was a program where parents and their kids aged something like 5-12 (can't remember what it was) could buy a pack of 10 or 12 tickets to a pre-determined selection of games for a massive discount. This wasn't a novel concept as other teams and sports did and do similar things, but it was certainly a good deal.

I forget what the cost was in 1979, but it had to have been something like $20 (if it was that much, may have been $12) for the whole pack which included tickets for two. (They marketed these ticket packs heavily with the various Seattle Little League teams as I recall most of my teammates and their parent buying packs and all of us going to quite a few games together.)

During those Pepsi Junior Mariner days the attendance still stunk at Mariners games but you had a large number of young kids that regularly went to around 10 or so games every year, like I did. (Actually, my dad and I ended up going to a lot more than that, since we're diehard baseball fans.) Those kids got used to going to games and it was integral part of their youth... despite the atrocious baseball played between the white lines.

Fast forward a couple of decades later and most of those Junior Mariners were now (somewhat) productive members of the workforce. You know what the first thing I did when I got my first real, post-education job? I bought season tickets to the Mariners. For the first time in my life I had the money to be a season ticket holder and I jumped at the chance, and a lot of that harkens back to the routine of attending games when I was young.

Furthermore, as the Mariners eventually found a way to win a few games, attendance at games took off, even before the team vacated the Dome. And while winning certainly helped the most in increasing attendance, even when the team fell down to the bottom of the barrel again (pretty much the last 10 years), attendance has never fallen to the dark days of pre-Griffey. (Seriously, this chart. Avert your eyes from the 70s and 80s)

Quality of the product is still the most important key to success, but you give yourself a bit more wiggle room when you don't have an extremely small or thin fan base.

Okay, so how does this translate to horse racing? There certainly isn't an apples-to-apples comparison to be made from baseball to horse racing, but I think there is a major lesson to be learned about targeting youth and trying to build the younger fan base: it's not an immediate "win" because it takes time to actually build something up from scratch (or re-build in the case of horse racing).

One of the complaints I've read in the past about targeting an increase in young fans for our sport goes something along the lines of "college don't have any money to bet; we need people with disposable income that will spend several hundred dollars a week at the track." That statement is partially true: we do need more people with disposable income right now betting at the track. But the first half is not true at all. We ALSO need to win over a new generation of young fans.

There is also the general complaint that the typical player is older (or too old) which I can't figure out why that's a complaint. I mean, how many races are run in this country on weekday afternoons? Seriously, people with disposable income that are available during weekday afternoons to bet on horses are, sorry to say, largely in the retirement age (or already part of the industry). The rest of us actually have to punch the clock from 9 to 5.

Saratoga runs races four days a week where the first post is something like 10am Pacific time. I play as much as I can but, let's be realistic, most of us that don't work in the industry just don't have an option. Taking an afternoon off to hit the track is one thing but it's not a routine or an every day thing. The nature of the sport predisposes a demographic that is going to lean heavily towards those in the later half of their life, not in the first half. Racing can survive with an older demographic but they have to keep replenishing that base.

What racing needs to target, and what they are trying to target with initiative like the ABR Brand Ambassadors, is very similar to what the Mariners and other teams were doing back in the 70s and 80s with their discounted youth tickets: get younger, impressionable fans in the routine of following the sport.

Yeah, you're not going to see huge monetary dividends in the short-terms future, but neither will any initiative that is looking to build or re-build a fan base; it's not accomplished over night.

One thing is for certain: any industry that faces a demographic crunch with its core constituents can't afford to ignore the future. While ideas and initiatives for growth evolve and change over time, successful growth is a fundamental requirement for a healthy industry in the long term - whether it's baseball or horse racing..