12/04/2012 6:49PM

Symposium hears of 'social game' plans


TUCSON, Ariz. - The emergence of so-called "social games" - games that are played on social-networking websites - and racing's unique position as the only form of legalized online gambling are creating incentives for companies to create sometimes novel, sometimes bizarre games tied to the sport.

On Tuesday afternoon, officials of five companies that have introduced or are developing new games with racing themes hyped their products at the University of Arizona Global Symposium on Racing and Gaming here on a panel devoted to the burgeoning segment of the market. The offerings ran from a live-money game that placed a social-gaming-like interface over real races, to a full-blown effort by the Stronach Companies to create a free interactive game simulating nearly every aspect of racing, breeding, and betting.

Many officials in racing believe that games will play a major role in marketing the sport to new and existing fans. A report commissioned by the Jockey Club last year recommended that the sport develop games on Facebook and free-money apps in order to assist in its marketing efforts. The Jockey Club launched both projects this year in the summer.

The games that were described on Tuesday afternoon were largely for-profit projects, with the exception of the Stronach Group game. One project, Derbyjackpot, allows customers to place real bets on horse races, with payoffs determined by the results. However, the interface for the game does not resemble a traditional betting interface, and the names of the bets were changed. Churchill Downs is attempting a similar strategy with its Luckity.com site.

John Ford, a former vice president at Ladbrokes who launched an interactive-game company, BAM, in 2007, said that racing could do well by creating new versions of fantasy-league games, even if the players of the games are only following their fantasy teams for a weekend, rather than over an entire season or year. Ford pointed out a federal law outlawing most forms of online gambling created an exception for fantasy sports that allows administrators to profit from the games (as long as the fees are not more than 10 percent of the amount collected from players).

Fantasy-type games are "a great substitute for sports wagering," Ford said. "There's going to be a lot of creativity in this market to see what's possible."

Robert Earle, the CEO of 123Gaming, said he was trying to get support for a new racing wager that would allow customers to make selections from an entire card of races and then generate payouts based on how the customers' selections fared in the win, place, and show pools. The person earning the most points among all the players would get the highest distribution from the pool, Earle said.

The game developed by the Stronach Group, the private racetrack company, is currently located at a website, where any player can sign up to play. The game allows users to customize their silks, breed horses, and train and race them at digital recreations of tracks. The game is similar to several PC and platform games developed over the past 10 years, none with any real widespread success.

But Michael Calderone, the chief marketing officer of the Stronach Group, said the real value in the game was teaching the intricacies of racing to potential new customers, as he displayed the chart and past-performance data generated by the game.

"We can have someone learn all this without having to go to the track or sit through a 40-minute tutorial," he said.

Then there was Bodugi.com. Dave Nevison, who said he was a former professional horse racing gambler in England before launching the game, did not provide a detailed explanation for how exactly the "social" game would work, but he had a slick video uploaded to Youtube featuring thumping music, buxom young women holding tablet computers, and slickly dressed men holding beers and yelling at a television.

Following the panel, the last of the day, attendees were invited to try the games out in the foyer of the hotel where the symposium is being held, the Westin La Paloma.

Voices of experience heard

Earlier in the afternoon, participants in a panel put together by the Turf Publicists of America urged racetracks to utilize social media in their marketing efforts. The panel included two old-school journalists, Tom Pedulla, formerly of USA Today, and Ray Paulick, the founder and main content provider for the Paulick Report, who both told highly personal stories about how their role in horse racing media has evolved over the past 40 years.

The panel also included Penelope Miller, the senior manager of digital media for America's Best Racing, a promotional project launched by the Jockey Club late in 2011. Miller had direct advice for racing publicists, recommending that tracks incorporate a wide range of social-media tools in their marketing efforts. She said Twitter was probably the most effective of the tools, in part because of its ubiquity but also because of the large number of metrics available to Twitter users to analyze the impact of a track's efforts.

Late in the panel, Dave Zenner, the communications manager at Arlington Park, asked Miller for advice on dealing with crises such as "a heat wave" in which critics on Twitter are making life miserable for a track or an individual.

"At what point do you shut down the wall?" Zenner asked. "When they're really getting after you, calling you a criminal?"

Miller answered: "At no point do you shut down communication. That's the worst thing you can do." She recommended that track officials craft a statement acknowledging the problem and subsequently promise to keep fans updated on the progress the track makes to address it.

"The best thing you can do is say you hear them, you're listening, and you will respond to them," Miller said.