(Originally published in the October 30, 2010 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
By Stacy Bearse
I’ve thought about this column for 20 years now. What thoughts should I share on the eve of my retirement from The Blood-Horse?
Actually, it’s quite simple: Horse racing is all about the people. Yes, I know, purists have told me over and over that “it’s all about the horse.” But horse racing isn’t very spectacular without the spectators. Regrettably, our customer base of fans and bettors is steadily deserting the sport, and these lost souls are not being replaced.
The marketing and promotion of racing have been adrift ever since racing lost its central office. Racing remains one of the few sports without a structured national program for fan recruitment, development, and retention. My friends at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association do a solid job influencing Washington policy-makers but simply don’t have the resources to tackle national marketing.
Can we persuade America to go gaga over racing? This is the country that has gone gaga over pet rocks, pro wrestling, Olympic curling, mixed martial arts, televised poker…and, er, a lightly talented show-off named Lady Gaga. You bet we can sell racing. In fact, given racing’s very low visibility among the American public, doubling the popularity of racing is doable. Double the interest and double the handle. Double the handle and many of racing’s problems are ameliorated.
Robert Clay of Three Chimneys Farm was on the right track nearly two decades ago. After looking at marketing campaigns by milk producers (Got Milk?) and pork producers (The Other White Meat), he suggested a similar scheme for the promotion of horse racing: Take a little piece of nearly every transaction and invest it in a professionally run marketing campaign to expand the popularity of the sport. It was a great idea that was suffocated by the narrow-minded status quo.
It’s time to blow the dust off of Robert’s proposal. Reconstitute a streamlined central office, engage all participants, and negotiate a program of shared sacrifice. A broad-based program of modest tariffs on starts, handle, concessions, registrations, sales, and other transactions could easily raise an annual marketing fund of $100 million.
Each and every penny should then be dedicated to growing the popularity of racing. A budget of this size would be enough to attract the attention of world-class marketing firms and significantly change consumer perception. Bid the job, pick the best proposal, give the winning agency guidance, and let it work its magic. In this new media environment, amazing results can be achieved in very short order.
Many industry participants already operate in the red so such a program may not seem “affordable” to most. But there is no real alternative. We won’t reverse the decline in the public perception of racing without dedicating significant resources. Bottom line: If we each bleed a little bit, we can heal this sport. The consequences of ignoring a national marketing initiative won’t be pretty. The declining fan base is depriving the industry of essential capital. Without ambitious fan development, racing and breeding will remain trapped in an ever-tightening spiral that will lead to a catastrophic end.
On a separate note, I offer sincere gratitude to my fantastic team here at Blood-Horse Publications. You guys rock. I owe everyone whom I’ve had the pleasure to work with during the past two decades—both staff and board members—a debt that cannot be quantified. And to the thousands of fans and industry insiders I have met over the last 20 years: Thanks for sharing your time. You taught me valuable lessons about the subtleties of sport, business, and life. It’s been a great ride!