Racing, Promote Thyself - By Stacy Bearse

(Originally published in the October 30, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Stacy Bearse

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.

Valuable Lessons
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!

36 Comments

Leave a Comment:

jawjacker

What a fantastic piece... Mr. Bearse, you are 100% correct.  

27 Oct 2010 3:56 PM
milk n honey

Being involved in animal agriculture, I can tell you first hand that mandated check-off programs are not wildly popular, but they do produce results. And there is no area of animal ag that is a big profit maker so their not being able to "afford" an industry ad campaign is a tough argument to make. Can you afford to go under ?

27 Oct 2010 4:23 PM
MTBFan(still)

If men in tight pants jumping over each other to throw a pointy 'ball' to the end of a field can be popular, why not racing?

27 Oct 2010 4:48 PM
CHoffman

Want a stumbling block?  I cringe when I have to go to Hollywood Park.  It's nasty there.  Santa Anita is better.  Del Mar is far away but nice.  How many tracks are seedy and in dicey neighborhoods (don't get a flat tire in Inglewood after dark).  The tracks need to help out by upgrading their properties and attracting the people who actually have the money to bet on horses.  It's not enough to provide an upscale turf club if the club house has smelly bathrooms, bad beer and dirty floors.  The way Hollywood Park is today, it could close and I would not miss that rat trap.

27 Oct 2010 4:51 PM
FourCats

Part of the problem with the very few promotions that have been done in the past is that they promote everything but horse racing.  Things like concerts, beer, parties and a social scene.  I don't go the races or come back for any of that.  And the people who come for those things couldn't care less about horse racing.  

Here's what has attracted me for my whole life.

First, the excitement of watching the sheer athleticism and speed of the horses combined in a competitive race.  And watching great horses run.

Second, the appeal of solving the  puzzle that is each horse race.  And that the solution does not involve who the public likes but rather who runs the best.

As for funding a promotional campaign, I have no problem with all parties involved sharing the cost.  But it has to be all those who benefit, not just the owners (who take the largest losses in the game).  Trainers, fans, tracks, stable help, the racing media AND the state governments should all be required to kick in (particularly the state governments who benefit by fees and taxes but which provide almost nothing in return.

27 Oct 2010 5:02 PM
Alfred Nuckols, Jr.

Stacy,

Thanks for the "ride" and your participation in this industry during the ups and downs of the past twenty years. During your tenure as the head of The Blood-Horse magazine and all of the industry responsibility that it entails, you have been a farsighted visionary concerning the marketing and selling of our industry. Your background as an "outsider" gave you a field of vision that few within the industry are capable of seeing. It is the old proverbial "can't see the forest for the trees" for so many that have never had "life experiences" outside of the thoroughbred industry. I have always enjoyed your insights and observations and I appreciate all of the help that you have given to me in my attempt to keep a family farm operating into the 21st century. Your presence at The Blood-Horse will be missed.

All the best!

Alfred Nuckols, Jr.

27 Oct 2010 10:40 PM
SecretTriple

   I totally agree with Mr.Bearse. I have said the same thing myself for yrs..The ONLY time you see anything as far as promoting racing, is the Ky.Derby, Breeders Cup, etc.. Alllll the other sports advertise throughout the yr., which really makes me sick, too be honest. I hate basketball, its DROP BALL, baseball is covered on countless channels, and everyone wants the football team too win the SB, and after 3 or 4 loses, the season if over. What are those fans doing, why not go after them, why not do as one of the most successful businessman said too do , just 3 words, " ADVERTISE, ADVERTISE, ADVERTISE ". Thank you Mr.Turner ( CNN ),they said it would never work.ESPN could care less about the Racing Industry, and TVG just wants you too bet, although I do appreciate what they do give us.We need YOUNG minds,with GREAT commercials.Racing is truely the only all yr. round sport, count the commercials you see this wk.end,( not including the Breeders Cup ).I live, eat, sleep, own, train, muck stalls, bath, tack,walk,feed,etc...everyday,365 !And I LOVE IT !!!

27 Oct 2010 11:56 PM
christy tate

i agree with Mr. Bearse a hundred percent. Also i think maybe if there were more movies like SECRETARIAT, being made, that might also help. the human intrest side of the sport could be talked up as a way to get people in, like they do in hockey, football, and basketball, focusing on the teams that are doing the best. In racing the team is the horse, the trainer, and the jockey, and there could be an angle there. also embracing new media like the Web, and IPhones, might help. anything would be worth it at this point, and as long as the promtion is done in a classy and tasteful way, then it should be done.

27 Oct 2010 11:59 PM
Bellwether

EXPO$URE BABY EXPO$URE!!!...

28 Oct 2010 12:34 AM
New Yorker Down Under

I'm currently in Melbourne Australia.  It is amazing how everyone is totally nuts over racing.  The major department stores have nothing in their windows except racing outfits and are jammed with people getting their last minute outfits for this Saturdays Derby and Tuesdays Melbourne Cup. Children become racing fans from a young age because their parents are fans and a day at the races is fun.  The crowd at last Saturdays Cox Plate had a large percentage of younger fans sitting on the lawn, drinking champagne and having a great time.  There were a few rock concerts during the day but it did not seem that was the reason they were there. I don't feel a marketing program will be effective in the US getting people interested in racing.  It may get them to the track once or twice but I don't feel this is the way to make a racing fan.  The Aussies do it right.

28 Oct 2010 3:47 AM
Bob Hope

good luck on the rest of your journey Mr. Bearse!

But I would like you to ponder the following: spending $100 million on advertising without knowing "why we race" won't get it done.  We have placed large budgets in the hands of smart marketers who have no clue as to what it is that we are trying to accomplish. Horse racing needs a constitution to exist in a society that does not understand it.  In the 1980's the gurus wavered and decided to make it about gambling.  This resulted in losing nearly 99% of all newspapers in America.  When it was sold as a sport we had much sympathy and dedication.  If football sold itself on gambling the result would be the same even though billions are bet on the game!  think about it!

28 Oct 2010 7:34 AM
Gin Preston

You have been a great inspiration to your peers and staff throughout the years.  You genuinely cared about your people!  Good luck and good fortune, Stacy. Wonderful editorial, but will they listen?

28 Oct 2010 7:43 AM
John August West

  What, exactly, does the horse racing industry actually have to promote or market?

  The obscene takeouts that make serious wagering virtually foolish?

  The way most of the real stars of the game are rushed to the breeding sheds after brief, three year old seasons?

  The never-ending drugging issues?

  Sure, there are great experiences to be had, like, for example,  summer at Saratoga, or the excitement of a Triple Crown race.  But more common are completely charmless and grimy racetracks, OTBs , and satellite wagering facilities, not to mention countless  claiming races wherein the runners are worth less than a rebuilt transmission for an old used car.

  What's the point of trying to attract new people to the game if, in the main,  there is nothing to keep them there?

28 Oct 2010 8:24 AM
RG

JAW

You see no charm in bottom claiming races?

28 Oct 2010 9:24 AM
Roger Way

Yes,Stacy, racing is about people.I have always been buoyed with your compassion and understanding of the racing fan. You have done a lot for the good, but there is so much more to be done, and you will be missed. I hope you will find a way to stay involved in the greatest customer participating sport in the world.

rwwupl

28 Oct 2010 9:34 AM
fanofallthree

Find a way to get more national TV coverage.  Racing industry shot itself in the foot many years ago by not going with tv - afraid it was going to hurt betting.

You've got to bring the sport to the people - not the other way around.

28 Oct 2010 10:09 AM
David

Racing is faced with so many impediments for growth.  Standardization isn’t in the vocabulary of most with meds, licensing, betting menus, tracks surfaces, alphabet soup organizations and market shareholders who don’t know each other’s phone numbers only the short list.  Maybe Stacy is right though . . . forget about where to start and focus on a generic campaign surrounding what we know to be true – the game is pretty damn good.  

As to funding, maybe some of the new-fangled Exchange platforms that claim to be lord and savior can provide put-ups.  If you listen to those guys a marriage of their model and US racing is guaranteed to turn the tide.  If that’s the case they can use some of those IPO proceeds to fund a campaign that will – by their own estimates – get an immediate return.

That, of course, begs the question of who is capable enough to aggregate existing recourses and garner new participation.  You can’t play golf all the time Stacy.    

28 Oct 2010 10:52 AM
Pedigree Ann

Would British or French or Australian authorities allow an individual track to emasculate two of their signature races, the way the NYRA has the CCA Oaks (which was the Fillies' Belmont) and the Suburban H (part of the handicap triple)? That's the problem with US racing; each track and/or state is its own fiefdom and is interested only in its own numbers, not in the sport as a whole. That's why the NTRA's lame 'Go Baby Go' ad campaign of the past had no impact; the idea had to be so generic, it had no focus.

In other countries, tracks can't schedule races that would attract the same horses at the same time, thus weakening fields. Like the Jim Dandy and the Haskell, same distance, same potential field, on the same weekend, a van-ride apart.

28 Oct 2010 10:52 AM
katethegreat

The back stories are interesting and make good drama.  The TV series about jockies was very entertaining and I hope it comes back.  We also need more "underdog" stories, to emphasize the fact that modest people with limited income, can and do produce great racehorses.  Horse racing is a suspension of reality, much like movies and other forms of entertainment.  

28 Oct 2010 11:24 AM
Rachel

You are great, I wish you well and enjoy yourself.

Until people see racing as something that loves the horse first, you will not keep fans long. I have many horse friends that every weekend spend lots of money showing & competing in anything "horse." NOT ONE will even watch a race on TV with me, never mind actually go to the track.

Once horse racing treats its thoroughbred as something other than a breed that needs "rescuing" once its usefullness is over, you may get the horse crazy population to come & even spend a few bucks.

28 Oct 2010 3:25 PM
markinsac

CHoffman, Hollywood was a shrine in early October when Zenyatta raced there.  It is the home of the first Breeders Cup and the place where undefeated triple crown winner, Seattle Slew, tasted defeat for the first time.  It is an American Racing Palace that has seen better days, no doubt.  But for that one day, the day of the Lady's Secret, we were such a happy crowd.  I'm hoping Hollywood Park is not torn down.  It needs to be bought by the racing community and return it to a dignified place, not what the current owners see it as (make the most money out of it, regardless if horse racing stays).  

28 Oct 2010 4:06 PM
Larry Ensor

Rachel, makes a VERY valid point that most of those in the racing industry that don’t travel in other equestrian circles aren’t aware of. I do and I have heard the same.  An industry PR firm would address this sort of thing.  Everything is in the word and how it is interpreted the images it conjures up. We need stop the constant use of “unwanted”, abandoned to every horse that come off the race track.  Because the vast majority are not. Why does the industry back the use of the term “slots”? It makes me think of gangster and such.  Video gaming is what I always use.  The industry should produce a well made “feel good” TV mini series from last cover to the winners circle showing what the actual life of the average race horse really is.

Pedigree Ann, is spot. And one of the reasons I am not a big fan of the Breeders Cup and what it has done important late season stakes races.

New York Down Under, until most race tracks rebuild, remodel and generally clean up their facilities along with their business model I see no sense in trying to bring new people to the table. They may like the food but they won’t like the atmosphere.  The tracks that have been rebuilt/remodel are mostly ones with video gaming and that is what they cater to, racing is treated as the stepchild. I attended the Far Hills Steeplechase in NJ last weekend. More then 30-40,000 people were there. All of the races were stakes races, the feature was a grade 1 with a $250,000 purse.  Anyone hear or read about it?   The Virginia Gold Cup in the Spring? They get 40-50,000 every year. My point being is that Steeplechase racing is treated as the step child of flat racing but it draws very large crowds year after year with little to no advertising. No betting, per say, no grandstands, no nonsense, just a simple well maintained friendly facility.  The treat their owners and trainer well along with the help.  And people turn out in droves year after year. Go figure.

28 Oct 2010 7:59 PM
John August West

RG:  Nope.  Watching two and three thousand dollar claimers stagger through the stretch doesn't do a thing for me.  And wagering on such horses is the fast lane to the poorhouse.

29 Oct 2010 4:02 AM
KevinL

People like to identify themselves with their heroes. I'm a Tiger fan, I back the Wolverines. This is why Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra were good for the Sport, they started a rivalry which draws attention and passion. The fact that Zenyatta has raced three years is another major factor in her popularity. Unfortunately the comments of the others are very correct, Horses do not race long enough to develop a fan base, the facilities are less than hospitable, the top horses do not need to face each other due to the numerous options available to owners. Horse Racing is exciting but building a fan base with generic horses does not allow fans to attach themselves to specific athletes. Marketing is very necessary to build identification. And when you turn over the focus as often as racing does, A LOT of marketing is necessary.

29 Oct 2010 7:39 AM
Giddyup

I think the marketing model thoroughbred racing should take a hard look at is NASCAR - a one time regional sport in the Carolina boondocks that is now second only to the NFL in fan base. Of course any smart business operator knows that attracting customers is just half of the equation to success...you also have to reward the loyal customers you already have - yet the industry has some insane notion that increasing taxes on wagers is the way to do that.

29 Oct 2010 8:15 AM
steve from st louis

Markinsac: Hollywood is an American Racing Palace like Hialeah or like Washington Park or Bowie before that? Puleeze! There is nothing as bad and desparate as an old racetrack showing its age.

Until racing can sell itself as somehow more exciting than pulling a one-armed bandit every 15 seconds, it is dooomed to die this slow death we are witnessing.

29 Oct 2010 12:17 PM
fb0252

better late than never, I suppose.

what role our TB magazines in promoting promotion?

29 Oct 2010 12:54 PM
David

I’m I the only one that feels the vast majority of blogers surely must inflicted with ADD?  It supports the “bridge to nowhere” adage and regardless of the subject, some are just going to talk.

29 Oct 2010 5:06 PM
Hildene

Though I'm old enough to remember Tropical Park, it is modern marketing which will make or break todays racetracks and the industry. On the breeding end? less is better. A stallion's book used to be 40 in Ky and now they are commuting to Australia. Too many horses for too few races/racecourses. The current breeding trends for young age and speed in the US MUST be changed. The forestock of our 3/4-one mile 'champions' ran twice that distance without blinking. More bottom and breed OUT to get it.What happened to all the 1Million$ yearlings of yesteryear. DO the original owners know or care????

It's late and a warm stall beckons.

The blue hen will sleep well tonight after venting what you already know.

29 Oct 2010 8:59 PM
Bellwether

LONG LIVE THE CLAIMER$ BABY...NOE GAME WITH OUT THEM...ty...

30 Oct 2010 2:27 AM
Don D

I have played and viewed many sports. None give me the thrill of a thoroughbred horse race. I believe Mr. Bearse is right on the money. "If we build it (national marketing campaign) they will come."

31 Oct 2010 9:48 AM
Julia

I am sorry to see one so educated about our sport leave such a position.

I believe that education and marketing are both necessary to further the future of our sporting industry.

For example, a great percentage of people that do show up for the concerts and beer at the track have no comprehension of the language of the industry. i.e. What the heck does 5000 dollar claiming mean? How many places in a race get paid? Why do horses need medication to run? What is a bullet work? Why do some horses wear blinkers and others not and why is this horse wearing them today? What do you mean that horse is a closer and likes two turns and is in short today? Why shouldn't I bet on the pretty filly who just tried to tip over in the paddock and is all sweaty? and on and on.....Our sport is a lifestyle to us and has it's own language which the general public does not know. Nor do most of them realize what it takes to get the horses to the race- bottom-dollar claimers included. Look at most race cards and see what is filling the card in order for the stakes race to run that day. Those of us who cannot afford the over-priced promise of young horseflesh stay in the game by running what we can afford- the gallant, gutsy dreams of yesterday who throw you a great race every now and then and allow you to catch up on your bills so you can continue to maintain your life with horses. It is SO much better than the alternative. We MUST find a way to educate and promote or those of us who provide the sweat and blood will all be answering phones at some call center.

31 Oct 2010 12:00 PM
Eric Rickard

Thank you for stating what I have been thinking and screaming for years. But, heck I'm just a fan, a lowly race enthusiast. For 37 of my 42 years I have been attending tracks all over the world. Give the sport a chance and it will succeed. Along with the marketing; it should be more family friendly. I have "dragged" my four kids with me. They have grown to love it too. They are the future of the sport. Get the kids involved and everything will work out.

Enjoy the next chapter of your life.

31 Oct 2010 8:32 PM
Pedigree Shelly

          I know what Georgia needs - A race track w/ Pari Mutuel betting !! Alot of people remember The Birmingham Turf Club which is now turned to dust , or maybe a Super Walmart has been built there instead :( :( In the 1800's The South was known for it's superior race horses , It can be that way again !

01 Nov 2010 9:12 PM
Barry Irwin

Stacy, thanks for publishing my op-ed pieces when your staff thought they were too touchy! And best of luck to you in the future. I hope there is a future for our sport, but we've shot ourselves in the foot so many times, we are running out of toes!

01 Nov 2010 10:39 PM
tanner

dear bellweather, i`m glad you were in melbourne for our spring racing carnival,it`s s sensational tine, but the truth is , the problem is no different over here. the other 51 weeks of the year find it hard to attract patrons to racing of any code. administrators over the past 25 years only worry about turnover and have totally ignored the genuine fans and participants. i don`t have to tell you that a strong supporter base is paramount to racings survival.the reasons that i see on racings downfall are,1 the average person just dosen`t get what it`s about 2 the everyday race meeting has no excitement factor and people get bored(even owners and trainers)3 if it was just about gambling people have lots of choices on how to spend their money these days, and i can assure you that they aren`t` going to get involved if the product on offer, has no attachment to them(they will play a slot or bet on the football instead. there are other things, and the list could go on, but just if the powers to be focused on people first,the dollars will look after themselves. it`s one of the few sports where battlers and dreamers can compete and occassionly conquer some of the wealthiest people on the planet.i love it, but it`s not me your trying to woo. anyway cheers everyone, we also can dream of days gone of the huge crowds every week and hope they will return.

05 Nov 2010 6:33 AM

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