Monday, January 6, 2014

How Social Media Can Save Horse Racing

Horse racing’s biggest problem is that it is not a nationally marketable sport.

There, I said it.

We can go on all day about takeout, handle, and size of fields, but the fact of the matter is that racing needs fans. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it’s desperate for fresh faces who will visit the track or watch races on television.

Plain and simple, racing needs more young adults and women among its fan base, and yet instead of focusing on “the small things,” the industry is looking for a “home run” solution in the form of concerts and celebrity ambassadors. In the end, however, as is the case in so many facets of life, it’s the thought that counts and we’re kidding ourselves if we believe that attracting young adults and females is truly thought about by industry executives day in and day out.

Both of these groups have one thing in common, they are social beings and interaction is, in my opinion, the key to gaining fans from those demographics for life.

The horse racing community has a presence on Twitter that would make many other sports green with envy, and yet it is not used to its potential. The simplest of changes could make the biggest impacts in that sense, as well.

Take a look at the PGATour, which has recently created a Social Hub that displays tweets from players, fans, and media; allows fans to vote on topics or answer trivia questions; and shows the latest and greatest shots and moments via YouTube. They have even gone as far as having players answer questions from fans live from tournament events or host Twitter Q&A sessions.

Sure, that strategy is not as simple as hiring a band to come play at the track or having a supermodel prance around in a fancy hat and pose next to the winning horses. It takes a commitment. It’s these types of commitments, however, that make new or potential fans feel involved and wanted, which are two of the key ingredients in producing a lifelong lover of the sport.

Just promoting something as simple as “teams” for fans of horses before key races produces a sense of belonging and gives people more reason to root for their favorites. I saw it among some of us who were on #TeamOrb, #TeamPalaceMalice, or #TeamVerrazano before the Travers and the conversations and debates that preceded that race were phenomenal.

I would still consider myself a new fan, being that I have only extensively followed the sport for a little over a year. And yet, it was the conversations on Twitter, the debates about which horse was truly a classic distance runner, “group therapy” after a bad beat, and putting my neck on the line for the horses I played that hooked me. I felt accepted by people who I considered to be very knowledgeable fans and, in turn, wanted to know more, learn more, and (hopefully) win more.

Combine tweets from fans with videos of big name horses working out; replays of the latest races; photos of fan favorite horses away from the track; updates from the retired greats; and tweets from owners, trainers, and media all in one central location and you have a one stop shop for gaining new fans. For a sport that's often criticized as being difficult to understand, that would be a quick, visual, and simple way to show someone what racing is all about.

So, you may ask why this is all important because, clearly, very little of this directly affects the amount of money being bet on the horses. But, just as much as NCAA basketball needs brackets during March Madness, racing needs ways to include their fans without always pulling at their pocketbooks.

Bringing in a more diverse group of fans, increases the viewership, which makes racing more marketable among advertisers and sponsors allowing it to have the potential to be broadcast on more mainstream media, which, again, allows the sport to grow in popularity. Even if not every fan bets every race they watch, the exposure to a mainstream audience itself, would surely result in increased handles overall.

The “degenerate gamblers” may keep the sport afloat, but it’s going to take much more than them to bring it back to life.

6 comments:

CraigH JohnsonTC said...

This is a great conversation starter. But the missing component is how to get social media to attract the attention to tie in the wagering. Horse Racing run 14 hours a day for 3,4 or 5 days a week. The key to social media is content and Horse Racing has lots of it. But it's unorganized Football, and Golf Get this, but they also have organziations. Horse Racing has no national stake. Every Track is out to get theirs and everyone wants to charge for their information. Baseball and Football have learned that by releasing FREE data from the past, people will make statistics out of it and then write about it and share on Social Media accounts. At the end of the day there will never be a 100 Million Dollar TV contract for Horse Racing, but a full fields and plenty of information to make a "wager" that one feels confident about would go a long way. People bet millions of dollars on sports, because of all the free or relatively cheap information, horse racing charges for everyhing and even information from the past they want to charge you for so you can't make up new stats.

JP Fanshawe said...

Good piece, but as Craig points out, the lack of any semblance of unity between tracks is one of the biggest obstacles to overcome. Hell, there isn't even a loose confederacy among tracks. (Stronach and CDI seem like they are drawing up lines for a war.) But even if one track were to start on a small level and employ some of the strategies you mention here, I think, would be a move in the right direction. Even though handle keeps the game alive, I think the industry does a poor job marketing the idea that races are just puzzles, and more than that, puzzles that will pay you money if you solve them. I agree totally that providing programs and info databases at no cost would be a huge boost, but I think the game has a real problem with minutiae. By this, I mean, many newcomers look at the conditions of races and are just lost. Now, this is stuff that I actually love at this point, but as a longtime handicapper I am comfortable with it. If we really want new people to get into the game, I think it would help to change the lingo of the condition book. People see Clm5000n3l or Clm12000n2x and have no idea what that means. Some sort of simplification using just a simple numerical or alphabetical scale might help. As in, "oh this horse is dropping from B-level races to C-level races." Also, tracks and the industry as a whole don't do nearly enough team building. Other successful sports have defined seasons, and we kind of do, but racing happens every day, so that kind of makes it hard to really have the build that other sports do. Why not really promote the barns, trainers, owners, and jocks the way the NFL does its teams, coaches, and players? This ties directly into your social media idea? Why not have tracks offer future wagers to customers based on which barn will earn the most? Which trainer and jock will win meet titles? Why not even create Fantasy barns where players have seven horses and square off against each other in leagues throughout the year? I am not one to naysay about the state of racing. I really don't think it is that bad. People look back at its history, when it ruled with boxing and baseball, but times have changed and the fact is because of population growth, more people are involved in the sport now than in the 1920's, but it just doesn't seem so because our piece of the sports pie is so much smaller. It will always have its niche, but it could do a whole lot better growing that niche if it would do as you suggest, and really optimize its social/guerrilla/viral marketing.

Peter May Jr said...

Good article and good responses from Craig and JP-

I'll just add this point: whatever method youre using to attract more fans to the sport, how do you get just 1 in 10... yes, only 1 out of every 10 to treat it than more than just a novelty? To become a a semi-regular attendee, handicapper,etc? To get them to learn to read a past performance and really become educated?

To me, getting just a fraction of casual fans that only come out on big days, watch on big days, pay attention to the Derby, BC, and otherwise don't have much interest the rest of the year- how do you turn just 1 out of 10 to them into more of a regular patron? To turn into a somewhat serious handicapper? The sport needs that I think as much as anything.

PS- Craig, I didn't know you have a blog. I run into you all the time at CBY. We always goof on Khalib lol. Happy New Year

Yenni Vance said...

Interesting blog. I believe that Social Media has the incredible power of creating awareness and at the same time getting fans interested and engaged in a product, service or brand, and even getting them through the door; but the key is to build a
successful program on a larger stage that converts all that social data into customers.

In other words, the hypothesis is accurate as long as it factors in "big picture" thinking. We always refer to ourselves as an "industry," but we never seem to act like an industry. If we want to be successful, it needs to be accomplished together. There is so much synergy available if all tracks would embrace the value of Social Media. Accordingly, the missing component for growing our sport is a central focus, with all tracks working together as a Social Media tandem.

One of the biggest challenges we face today is loyalty, and this is where programs that involve data play a big role. With customers interacting in a more dynamic environment, and seamlessly moving in and out of marketing channels as social media, it has become increasingly difficult for many marketers to tie together and make sense of all the data that is available there. Successful social media loyalty programs are key for understanding who the fans are and where they come from. Identifying the most highly engaged fans and nurturing our relationship with them is the key to the future of our industry; not just messaging online, but a one-to-one relationship with them.

If we don't have customers, we don't have a business. And turning those customers into raving fans that keep coming back is the key to having a successful business. Social media attracts and converts the fans into customers, but we can't forget that the experience when they get in the doors is what creates loyal customers. If we become a rock star of service, in every way, and we can unexpectedly delight our customers when they land on our social media channels and when they arrive at our facility, that is where the WOM (Word Of Mouth) starts and it can help save our industry by employing the true power of Social Media, but it requires that the entire industry come on board in a collaborative effort.

The operative word here is "together." Then, as a true industry, we can use Social Media as our most powerful tool to not only reverse negative trends, but to provide a springboard for legitimate and substantive future growth. In capsule form, it means engaging and nurturing a fan base.

jaypz83 said...

Nice article and the kind of thinking the sport needs to increase its fan base and try to improve its image. Handicapping contests, social media, and broadcasting big races on a national level are a great start but the path and direction we take has to endure.

Despite these efforts, Horse racing is still an old mans game and it needs to attract new and young fans alike who care about the sport and are willing to stick around and continue to care about it. There is buzz for the Triple Crown and the Kentucky Deby but not much else. Unlike other sports, the athletes careers are just a few short years. The fragile creatures are retired to stud or broodmare right away, race sparingly, or get hurt and never race again, thus denying the fans the ability to track and maintain a relationship with there favorite horses. Not sure how we change this, but there has to be a way to create long term relationships with horse racing. Maybe it has to start with the home tracks or being part of a social media group about the sport.

It may have taken years to happen but the horse racing industry has finally made available a portion of its historical statistics. The results charts for every race from every North American race track from 1991 to the present can be accessed at Equibase. The Historical Charts section is under the Results category on the main menu. The link is below. This is a great way to quickly look up a horse in a race your handicapping, track running styles at different tracks and more great information. Hope this helps.

http://www.equibase.com/premium/eqbRaceChartCalendar.cfm?SAP=TN

Piers Lyman said...

I heard a successful entrepreneur named Ivan Gelfenstein who is from Venezuela and a horse race lover.

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