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21 Mar 2016

We Need New Crowds in Horse Racing - and Here's How to Get Them

Horse racing is a sport that has not only been with us for decades or centuries, but one that civilisation has enjoyed since about 4500 BC. Its ancient legacy can be traced back to the nomadic tribesmen of central Asia, who first domesticated the horse. Horse racing was enjoyed by the Egyptians, Syrians and Ancient Greeks, but it was the Romans who brought the idea to England.

Once on our shores, horse racing became the sport of Kings. Monarchs like Henry VIII and Charles I changed the face of horse racing by setting specific breeding laws and standardising rules. Their actions firmly embedded the sport’s importance in our national heritage and into the mind of the average Brit of their times.

Today, it is enjoyed worldwide, and gambling on horse races is takes place throughout most of the world, even in the United States. In the UK, horse racing contributes £3.5 billion a year to the economy, attracts 5.8 million spectators to more than 1,300 racing events a year, generates £10 billion in betting income, provides 86,000 jobs and has had almost £1 billion invested in it since 2005.

Sadly, it is also an industry facing a decline. In the past six years, the number of horses being trained has dropped by 7%. Owners aren’t seeing the same returns on their investment as they used to, with a drop down to 29p on the pound. In fact, only 40% of trainers are actually making any money.

If this continues, industry experts are worried that horse racing could collapse as bettors and spectators alike turn their attention to sports such as football and T20 cricket. Nick Rust, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, has a plan to increase the appeal of the sport and improve its finances.  Along with a team of seven of the industry’s professional bodies, Rust has set a series of targets: increasing the number of horses in training by 1,000 by 2020; raising spectator numbers to 7 million over the same period; boosting industry funding by £120 million; increasing the betting population, currently 11 million, by 5%; and showing punters they can have a stake in a horse for just £30-£40 a month.

All great steps to improve the face of horse racing, but is there more that the industry can do? We do hope Nick Rust and co’s plan works, but we’ve also got five suggestions that we think can help turn around this sport we hold so dear even quicker.

Teaching People About the Sport

To a novice, horse racing must seem like a confusing and complicated sport to invest in. A flutter at the Cheltenham festival is certainly fun, but for the industry to survive the races, it must find a way to retain their audience in a more up-to-date manner.

One idea is to educate new spectators in the sport. In America, The New York Racing Association along with fan development group America’s Best Racing have launched an educational experience for fans at Saratoga Race Course. Named ‘Racing 101,” the course gives participants a hands-on tutorial on how to bet from professional handicappers, who even accompany fans while the latter place their bets.

And it actually seems to have worked. The New York Racing Association reported a record-setting 2015 meet with a handle of $648,272,805, which was a 13.5% increase in corresponding all-source wagering activity over the previous year.

Creating Horse Racing and Casino Resorts

Good partnerships often make us stronger. For horse racing there can be an interesting ally to be found in casinos. There are 148 bricks and mortar casinos in the UK, and their attendance over the last few years from 3.55 million in April 2010 - March 2011 has increased to 6.48 million in April 2014 - March 2015. So why not support the creation of holiday resorts that include both a casino and a horse racing course? Each one would certainly benefit from the other, generating new business and bringing in new audiences.

In that exchange, it is probably the roulette that would prove more attractive to horse racing bettors. Roulette is already the most popular choice in UK casinos, with an average industry table number of 839 in the 2014 fiscal year. It is an approachable game that involves different types of bets, like corner, five-number and split bets. Its very nature is quite similar to horse racing bets, which is good news, as roulette fans will be encouraged to try horse racing betting, while horse race fans themselves would probably welcome the variety of choice a casino/horse track combination gives them. After all, the roulette has been called “the Queen of sports,” so it only makes sense that it would sit side-by-side with the King.

To attract a new and relevant, audience more race courses need to think about the alliances they can make. In America, there is already one such venture, actually launched in 1944. Gulfstream Racing and Casino Park is an entertainment destination featuring thoroughbred racing, two casinos, shopping and dining all in one resort.

So we could also build a one-stop shop for high class entertainment. Each service borrows and lends to each other. We definitely feel that horse racing could benefit from more resorts like this that turn a day at the races into a spectacular event.

Harnessing Social Media

The sports industry is hot when it comes to social media, and in turn social platforms are having an increasingly big impact on sport. If you look at football, the most successful sport in terms of attendance numbers and betting figures, every premiership team runs several social accounts to engage with their audience in a direct and efficient way. They’re directly addressing to their fans pre-, in- and post-game. This breeds loyalty amongst the fans, and allows them to feel part of their team.

And it’s a smart move. According to Navigate Research, sports fans are 67% more likely to use Twitter to enhance their viewing experience compared to non-sports fans. As a sport, horse racing needs to embrace social media more to gain a new audience.

And, as more traditional means of publishing horse racing news drop in popularity, such as newspapers and magazines, social media can pick up and fill in the void. It’s a low-cost, effective way to keep fans up to date and appeal to new audiences.

Attracting More Women

The traditional horse racing fan is typically male – studies have shown that older men provide upwards of 90% of all betting handles. However, if betting revenues are dropping then we need to target a new audience - and that audience is women.

In order to do this, horse racing needs to become less about the horses and racing itself and more about the people and experiences that surround horse racing. Premier events such as the Grand National and Ladies Day at the Cheltenham festival have no problems a all gaining attendance -  72,000 and 55,859 in 2015 respectively.

The introduction of better use of social media would also draw a female audience in, allowing them to connect with what interests them. As well as this, ITV, who has just bought the rights to broadcast all horse racing events in the UK, has promised to increase viewing numbers by targeting outside the core audience. They plan to do this by moving away from the statistics-driven style of Channel 4 to a more lifestyle-focussed format.

Using Technology to Attract Millennials

“Millenial” is the buzzword of the moment, and every business and marketer wants to know how to attract this generation’s attention. They grew up in an electronics-filled and increasingly connected and socially-networked world - so that’s where horse racing has to go to get them.

More technology needs to be introduced into the world of horse racing to attract millennials, and we have started to see this with online betting apps that allow them to beat the betting lines and make their bet directly from their phones.

But is this enough? Part of attracting millennia, ls is about offering them what they want, getting them through the door with events, technology and unique experiences - but will they fall in love with the sport?

Las Vegas is very good at attracting millennials, but gambling now only makes up 37% of the total revenue of the Strip.  They have got young people into the building – with night clubs, concerts, and fine dining. However, not all of these young people are gambling.

What millennials like to play is skill-based games, where there is a perceived edge. Daily Fantasy Sports, or DFS, is a type of gambling that was virtually non-existent in 2010, but is predicted to grow to over a $31 billion handle business by 2020.

And this is something that horse racing should take notice of. We need to offer a betting environment that focusses more on the element of skill. Horse racing fans will argue that we already do, but educating the younger crowd on the skills required to be more successful at the races is key here.

Has horse racing fallen at the hurdle? A little. Will it get back up again to run another race? Almost certainly. As long as it keeps up with modern trends, learns to connect with its audience in a more meaningful way, entices a new breed of horse better and keeps up with the millennials.