12/10/2013 8:22PM

Racing symposium: Attracting and retaining fans the focus on opening day

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TUCSON, Ariz. -- A perennial question raised at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming, the largest conference of its kind in the U.S., is how the industry should market to its current and potential fans, and this year was no exception. That question has taken on more urgency since 2008, when handle numbers cratered immediately after the recession, and even though handle numbers have stabilized over the past two years, annual wagering on U.S. races is still nowhere near the 2003 highwater mark of $15.2 billion (it was $10.9 billion last year, unadjusted for inflation).

Marketing to attract and retain fans was brought up in all four topic-related panels on Tuesday, the opening day of the three-day conference. Chris Kay, the new chief executive of NYRA, said the focus should be on creating a new “guest experience” at racetracks and marketing specifically to women. Participants on separate panels sparred on whether racing should focus on its horses or the overall attraction of a unique, competitive betting game. And a panel of horseracing tournament players, all male, said explicitly, and without exception, that the game’s best way to attract and retain its fans is to get them to experience the thrill of winning a carefully calculated bet.

The tournament players included Michael Beychok, the winner of the 2012 National Handicapping Championship (the DRF is a sponsor and co-administrator of the tournament), and Christian Hellmers, the runner-up the past two years at the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, a $10,000 buy-in tournament, both horseplayers with years of experience in the game. Both pointed to another panelist, however, as evidence that tournaments and internet sites could take the place of the live racetrack as the sport’s best way to introduce a new fan to the game.

The panelist was Matt Bernier, who first qualified for the 2013 NHC when he was 23. He said he was introduced to the game one day when “sitting around at his parents' house channel surfing” and found Television Games Network.

“I remember that I instantly wanted to know why a horse was 10-1 and why a horse was 3-1,” Bernier said. “This was before I knew anything about past performances.”

He said he began researching the game on-line, and he won the very first handicapping tournament he entered, which happened to be an NHC qualifying tournament. (In case you think there’s a storybook ending, he was crushed at the 2013 tournament.)

“This is the guy that we need to get to the tracks, to the OTBs, to wherever we’re wagering,” said Beychok. “He’s young, he smart, he’s got disposable income.”

In one way, at least, Bernier is the typical horseplayer. He’s male. Keith Chamblin, the NTRA official who runs the association’s tournament program, said that a survey conducted by the association revealed that 95.4% of tournament players are men. Nearly 90% are over 40, the vast majority have at least some college education, and income skews far higher than the national average, according to Chamblin.

Perhaps that’s why Kay – and so many others before him – have said that racing must do much more to attract both young people and women, since they are so underrepresented among the sport’s most earnest players. Specifically, Kay said that NYRA was going to attempt to market to women who control a family’s budget, using data that show that most families’ retail and vacation decisions are controlled by women, something he learned during his time at Toys ‘R’ Us and Universal Parks and Resorts.

But the data also beg another question: If the vast majority of racing’s handle is provided by older men (studies have shown that older men also provide upwards of 90 percent of all betting handle), and racing is currently attractive to only a small minority of that segment of the population (2 to 5 percent, depending on what survey you read), shouldn’t the vast majority of racing’s limited marketing budget be devoted to targeting the market segment that is most likely to play the game at a high level and provide it with the revenues to expand its efforts?

The flip side of the argument is that racing has much to gain by targeting the enormous segments of the population that have not shown much interest in betting. But the original question, which is not a particularly politically correct one to ask, perhaps deserves discussion as well, at least for the sake of argument, if not for the sake of devil’s advocacy.

“I think what this data shows us is that there’s a tremendous opportunity,” said Chamblin. But he wasn’t referring to the data that showed that wagering is attractive to a very specific group of people. Instead, he was referring to the fact that there are so many other groups out there to target.

At other times of the day, the recurring question of whether racing should be marketed for its gambling or for its superstars got some cross-panel attention as well.

Pat Cummings, an executive with the data company Trakus, got the ball rolling on Tuesday morning when he displayed data showing that the 100 top-earning horses in 2012 made an average of 6.8 starts, which amounts to racing for “about 14 minutes.” He then compared those numbers with the 162 games played by a Major League Baseball team (even if there’s only about 14 minutes of live action in each three-hour game).

“If you’re a fan of the Red Sox and you miss one game, have you missed the season?” Cummings asked. “No, you’ve missed one game. If you miss 14 minutes of a horse’s performances, you’ve missed its entire year. So, should we be marketing horses?”

Cummings used the data to suggest that racing should be marketing its jockeys, using a wealth of data that can be generated through the Trakus system, as far as jockeys’ ability to save ground during races or outperform their peers. But the point he made – that marketing horses can be a fickle, unpredictable task – spilled over into an afternoon panel at the conference, when media members and other officials were asked whether the sport is erring in hyping the Triple Crown and racing’s equine stars.

Michael Blowen, who runs the Old Friends retirement facility in Central Kentucky – and who was honored with the Clay Puett Award for outstanding service to racing at a luncheon on Tuesday – said that racing would be wise to hitch its cart to already-developed stars, even if he briefly pooh-poohed the hype surrounding the Triple Crown. He cited the crowds that Suffolk Downs in East Boston drew in the mid-1990s when Cigar raced at the track in consecutive years. At the time, Blowen was living in Massachusetts and Suffolk was on the brink of bankruptcy.

“Cigar singlehandedly saved Suffolk Downs for two years with the attention he brought to that track,” Blowen said.

Amy Zimmerman, the lead producer for HorseRacing TV, said that “stars are everything in this sport,” citing the narrative they provide for storytellers and the ability of superhorses to draw people to the live racetrack, where the vast majority of hard-core fans first developed their connection to the sport (if Bernier’s experience is evidence, that dynamic may be changing). Zimmerman and others specifically cited the role the Triple Crown plays in drawing attention to racing well beyond trade publications and racing’s inner spheres.

That led Cummings to ask the panelists a question, this time as an audience member, rather than a panelist. He wanted to know what the racing industry would do if the sport crowned its first Triple Crown champion in 35 years. How would it exploit a horse that would almost certainly be rushed off to stud?

Zimmerman had a quick answer. “Secretariat last raced in November of his 3-year-old year,” Zimmerman said, “and [the racing industry] rode the Secretariat wave for an easy ten years after that. So I don’t necessarily think that if they leave at the end of the season their influence is decimated.”

Another panel looked at making sure newcomers to the game can better understand the intricacies of determining a horse’s chances at winning a race. Marc Attenberg, a former DRF employee who has helped to launch a competing past-performance product called U.S. Timeform, displayed the product’s new approach to handicapping information, which leans heavily on simplified rating systems to replace raw data, the kind a new player might find in the data-heavy Form.

Obviously, no one on the conference panels claimed to have the one-size-fits-all answer to overcome the erosion of racing’s fan base, currently at a 2 percent annual rate, according to a study commissioned by the Jockey Club last year. But it’s clear that the industry isn’t suffering from a lack of ideas, perhaps as a result of the troubles it is facing.