10/08/2013 7:16AM

Simulcast conference focuses on on-track experience


LEXINGTON, KY. – Speakers on the first day of the Simulcast Conference on Monday spent their time discussing just about everything but simulcasting.

The topics discussed on the first day – the design of facilities, the adoption of technology, and the use of social media – did not directly address any of the nuts and bolts of simulcasting, which provides the majority of revenues to racetracks and horsemen in the U.S. But organizers of the conference said that the topics were selected in part because previous conferences had often ignored the fact that the majority of wagers are still being made at bricks-and-mortar establishments, even if those bets are being made on races appearing on televisions, creating a need to refocus the discussion from the benefits of account-wagering to the importance of delivering a positive experience for racetrack and OTB simulcast players.

Chris Scherf, the executive director of the Thoroughbred Racing Association, which organizes the annual  conference with the Harness Tracks of America, said that racetrack operators are gradually coming to the realization that a decade of focus on delivering the product to far-flung locations has led to the neglect of the locations where the sport is most vibrantly experienced. Other sports are also recognizing the disconnect.

Scherf pointed to the NFL, which has never been more popular. But despite that, team owners and the league are trying to devise strategies to turn couch potatoes into ticket-buying customers to fill enormous and expensive stadiums.

“They’re asking, ‘In this age of high-definition television, how do you get people out of their houses?’ ” Scherf said.

Several of the speakers on the first day of the three-day conference represented the stadium-design and event-marketing company Populous Activate Group, which has worked with the organizers of the London Olympics and the Super Bowl and which has had a hand in the design of numerous high-profile stadiums. The speakers ran through the rapid evolution that has occurred over the past 20 years in stadium design, with a focus on concepts that seemed well beyond the reach of most racetrack budgets, even if the philosophy underlying the tactics was sound.
Todd Gralla, a principal in the firm, warned that sports that focus too heavily on the delivery of their product through technology “risk alienating their customers.”

“The physical place is still important to what we are producing,” Gralla said. “These are ideas that can translate very easily into horse racing.”

Gralla appeared on the same panel as Jason Settlemoir, the chief executive officer of the New Meadowlands, the harness track in New Jersey that was torn down and is being rebuilt from the ground up. The new racetrack is far smaller than the old track, with numerous themed bars, VIP sections for high rollers, simulcasting areas, and a private horsemen’s dining room.

The new design is part of a larger strategy to use the new facility to attract more fans to the sport and give existing fans a reason to come back. Settlemoir said that that strategy also will include heavy promotional pushes for events held at the track, running the gamut from major races to the “backyard” type festivals increasingly common at tracks and in urban locations, the craft-beer festivals and BBQ contests that are talked up in the Friday editions of local newspapers.

Bill Knauf, the vice president of business operations for Monmouth Park, gave a presentation on installing a facility-wide wireless network. The Jersey Shore track had the wireless system installed just prior to opening this year, and Knauf said that the investment in time and money paid off in numerous ways, from allowing the track to offer a mobile-phone wagering application to allowing customers to easily post comments or pictures on social-media sites.

While many tracks have recently launched smart-phone wagering applications, the returns have not yet been significant, and Monmouth had the same experience. Average per-day wagering on the application was only $900, although more than $10,000 was bet on Haskell Day, when more than 40,000 people were on hand, Knauf said.

Knauf also said that the installation of the wireless system had numerous benefits for the track’s back-office functions, including parking, admissions, inventory and dining-room reservations. He said he expected the track to find additional benefits in the coming months and years.

“This is the start of a backbone at our facility,” Knauf said.