SBJ/May 1-7, 2017/In Depth

Coaxing the next generation

Racing industry sees opportunity with social media, events

Racetracks are betting that younger fans who are interested in social experiences are developing an affinity for horse racing.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Photo by: PENELOPE R. MILLER / AMERICA'S BEST RACING
Leonard Kim had heard of Santa Anita Park, but it never occurred to him to actually go there until he received an invitation from America’s Best Racing.

“I knew it was there, because I live in L.A., but I never thought, ‘Oh, I could go to a horse race,’” said Kim, 32, an entrepreneur who owns a personal branding company called Influence Tree and has more than 414,000 followers on Twitter.

Kim received an email from Jose Contreras, ABR’s millennial outreach person, inviting him out to Santa Anita Park one Saturday in February.

“I thought it was amazing,” Kim said. “The jockeys alone — like how they are around 5 feet tall — that’s pretty spectacular in itself. And Jose explained why they have to be that short to be able to ride the horses and how they have to adhere to a strict diet.”

He thought the horses were “gorgeous” and Santa Anita’s 1930s art deco architecture was “vintage.”

While there, he posted photos of the track and its views of the San Gabriel Mountains on his Twitter and Instagram accounts. He said he plans to go again and take some of his friends.

That is music to the horse racing industry’s ears.

Horse racing was once the most popular sport in America, but it has suffered from declining attendance and an aging fan base. Getting millennials, born from the early 1980s to the 2000s, to take notice of horse racing tops the priority list for many tracks and racing organizations around the country.

ABR, horse racing’s trade industry group, has invited dozens of people like Kim — millennial social media influencers — to racetracks all over the country the last few years, said Stephen Panus, ABR’s vice president of media ventures. The organization has also built up social media followings on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and has filmed videos of young and beautiful people enjoying a day at the races and posted them on YouTube.

ABR is not the only horse racing organization putting a full-court press on the generation.

“It’s the holy grail, right?” said Lynn LaRocca, New York Racing Association senior vice president and chief experience officer. “It’s the crowd that most event-driven properties are trying to attract, the millennials. They are the biggest generation since the baby boomers. And they have different opinions. They have different desires.”

Tracks around the country are trying to figure out ways to fulfill those desires and get them to come to the races.

Belmont will be hosting its college day Kentucky Derby party this weekend for the fourth year in a row. NYRA officials started it using what LaRocca calls guerrilla marketing tactics, by inviting college students from the nine to 12 schools close to Belmont and adding sweeteners, like a $1,000 prize to the school that sent the most students to the track.

The number of students attending has grown by 25 percent to 30 percent a year, and Belmont is expecting a crowd of 600 to 700 this year. And what’s more, they treat it like a special social event.

“They are dressing up,” LaRocca said. “They are wearing bow ties and young women are coming in really nice dresses and hats.”

Once there, the Derby party-goers are taking photos and selfies and posting them on their social media channels, LaRocca said. NYRA, like other horse racing entities, is putting a big emphasis on social media to attract millennials, because that is a key element in getting their business, she said.

“They are willing to spend money to have experiences that they can then share with their friends,” LaRocca said. “They are sharing with their friends live. They are sharing with their friends on their social channels.”

The Breeders’ Cup put in more effort than ever to try to reach millennials at its 2016 event at Santa Anita with social media. The plans included hiring Grand Slam Social, a company that specializes in helping businesses and events reach consumers through social media, and making a deal with Snapchat. “We worked with Snapchat and they were on site and were helping us with specialty Breeders’ Cup screen shots,” said Bryan Pettigrew, Breeders’ Cup senior vice president of marketing and sponsorships. Snapchat created a special filter so users could take a photo with a special frame showing they were at the event.

Pettigrew noted that 73 percent of Snapchat users who viewed and/or posted to the Breeders’ Cup 2016 Snapchat story were between the ages of 13 and 24. The Breeders’ Cup commissioned a report from Snapchat about the engagement.

Churchill Downs, meanwhile, has been working with Snapchat for three years, said Jeff Koleba, vice president of programming and marketing for the track, home to the Kentucky Derby. Snapchat, more than any other platform, reaches the crowd that the track is interested in, people 25 years old and younger, he said.

Each year, Snapchat has increased its presence and work with Churchill.

“This will be our third year partnering with them to do an ‘Our Story’ around the Kentucky Derby,” Koleba said. “They will be curating and collecting snaps from people all over the racetrack showing their Kentucky Derby experience and weaving it together into a kind of montage of what it is like to be here.”

Millennials have a heightened interest in unique social experiences, Koleba said, “so the Kentucky Derby is a unique social experience, an extremely unique social experience. So our job becomes showing the millennials how the Derby fills that, whether you are talking about on-site or a Derby party.”

The Kentucky Derby has been drawing near-capacity crowds of 160,000 to 170,000 in recent years. Churchill Downs executives are now focused on growing the event outside the boundaries of the Louisville, Ky., track, including to people celebrating the race in their homes.

Ultimately, the goal is to make the Kentucky Derby, which has been held the first Saturday in May for 142 years in a row, like Super Bowl Sunday, Koleba said. The track has a ways to go, but getting millennials’ attention is key to that strategy.

Engaging with the sport

A big problem all racetracks face in bringing in not just millennials but any newcomer is that the sport of horse racing is complicated, to the point of being daunting.

It takes a bit of education for people who didn’t grow up around the track to figure out what is going on.

First of all, new fans must learn about the bets, which include not just win, place and show, but a plethora of exotic options, including exactas, trifectas, superfectas, daily doubles, pick threes, and so on.

The handicapping component of why horses win a race may be even more challenging than the betting menu and includes factors such as pace, pedigree, class, trainers, jockeys and so on.

Keeping younger fans engaged, either through wagering via phone or with the atmosphere, is a priority for the industry.
Photo by: PENELOPE R. MILLER / AMERICA'S BEST RACING
Tracks have employed all kinds of education efforts. NYRA, for example, has created a Bets Squad, a group of happy NYRA employees who explain wagering to racing neophytes.

But TVG, the 24-hour horse racing network, has come up with a different way to deal with the problem. The network, owned by British company Betfair, uses an exchange wagering system, which uses a simpler form of betting, just win place and show. Unlike pari-mutuel wagering, which is the traditional form of betting at horse tracks around the U.S., bettors can place or cancel bets via computer, phone or tablet on horses while the race is going on and until the first horse crosses the finish line.

“You can make 10 or 20 bets on a single race, trading in and out of positions as the price changes, just trying to make a small arbitrage in return,” TVG Chief Executive Officer Kip Levin said.

“Everywhere we’ve gone [with the exchange wagering system] the average demographic has been younger,” Levin said.

This type of betting system, which is used throughout Europe, is legal only in New Jersey and California. TVG has rolled it out to residents of New Jersey and found that the average customer using it is 20 years younger than its other U.S. customers, Levin said.

Marketers trying to reach millennials are often frustrated by the generation’s notoriously short attention span. But Levin said exchange wagering is almost custom-built for the group.

At U.S. racetracks, people generally place bets one time and then wait several minutes for the race to go off.
“It’s a pretty passive experience, right?” Levin said. “But with this [exchange wagering], you are not done playing until the first horse crosses the finish line because you are trading in and out, you are thinking, ‘Do I take my money off the table?’ The thing that is different is its constant engagement.”

Social experience

Some tracks in other areas of the world have had big success attracting younger customers. Hong Kong is the prime example.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club employed a strategy of making its Happy Valley racetrack more like a nightclub, and it has paid off. The amount of money wagered, called handle, went up, and half of the patrons are younger than 35.

Vice Sports profiled the phenomena in a story headlined “Inside Hong Kong’s Weird Mecca of Horse Racing, Happy Valley.”

Bill Nader, a former NYRA chief operating officer, took a job at the Hong Kong Jockey Club in 2007, when the handle had decreased precipitously.

“They had a very good network of core customers,” said Nader, who has recently returned to the U.S. “The problem was reaching out to a new audience. Much like here, the problem was the aging demographic.”

Nader and the other executives came up with a plan to attract younger customers with a party atmosphere, replete with DJs, music, other entertainment and special areas for younger people.

“There are different places where young people can go in Happy Valley, including a dining area with an iPad with a [computer program] race simulator.” Happy Valley would give its customers an iPad on entering the area and take it back when they left.

You can’t market to millennials the same way you market to older audiences, Nader said.

“They want everything differently,” Nader said. “They want their information delivered differently, and they want to be with each other. They don’t want to hang with the older crowd. They want an area they can go to with their friends and their dates.”

In the U.S., meanwhile, a track that continues to make inroads with millennials is Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in the San Diego area. Del Mar has always had the reputation of being a glamour track, since its founding in 1937 by Bing Crosby as a place where Hollywood could go to see the races in horse racing’s heyday.

Del Mar has doubled down on that glamorous image, using photos of beautiful women, rather than horses, and the slogan “Cool as Ever” to attract fans. “We found if we could get the females, the males would follow,” said Craig Dado, Del Mar executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

Del Mar’s latest study of demographics, in 2014, found that a majority of its customers, 62 percent, were age 49 or younger. The age group of 18 to 34 made up 27 percent of the fan base in 2014, an increase of 35 percent over 2001.

Like other tracks, Del Mar’s “bread and butter” continues to be the serious horseplayer, who is typically older and male, Dado notes. Younger people don’t tend to bet as much, but they spend on food and drink, including the track’s signature cocktail, the Del Margarita. “Our profit margin on the Del Margarita is higher than it is on a $2 win bet,” Dado said.

Dado is one of several industry executives bullish on the prospect of the sport bringing new, younger fans to the track.
ABR’s Contreras said millennials find many things attractive about horse racing once they are introduced to the sport, including the gambling, the entertainment and the social atmosphere. Many millennials are already playing skill-based games, such as poker, competitive video gaming and daily fantasy sports and are interested to learn that horse racing is a sport you can bet on, not only at the track but on your computer or your phone.

“I’ve personally brought hundreds of millennials to the track,” said ABR’s Contreras, who is himself 31. “Actually, I don’t think it’s hard to get millennials into horse racing.”


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