(Originally published in the February 23, 2013 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter
“If your facility does not meet the standards that (fans) come to expect in their daily lives, they’re not going to come back.” – Russ Simons, managing partner at Venue Solutions Group.
Though spoken in 2009 at the annual University of Arizona Racing Symposium, Simons’ words still deliver a relevant and sobering message for the Thoroughbred racing industry. In too many cases our sport is trying to attract new fans with grossly outdated facilities.
The message horse racing is sending to new visitors with its dingy facilities, poor concessions, little fan education, and grandstands littered with losing pari-mutuel tickets is that we don’t care enough about our sport. If racetracks look like they don’t care, why should the new fan? We know the answer from Simons: They won’t.
Pimlico Race Course is the poster child for badly needed renovation, but interestingly its home state of Maryland also happens to offer some inspiration for turning things around.
The lesson horse racing can learn from Maryland is how to best use supplemental revenue from casinos. We need to keep in mind that casino dollars are indeed supplemental and will not lead to long-term growth if we only use them to boost purses. Higher purses are important and help keep owners in the game, but purses alone don’t improve the quality of the racing experience.
Maryland has taken the right approach by mandating that a portion of casino revenue go to a Racetrack Facility Renewal Account. According to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, video lottery terminal revenue for purses is projected at $37.5 million in fiscal year 2013, $71.9 million in fiscal year 2015, and $82.6 million in fiscal year 2017. The racetrack improvement fund would earn $13.4 million in fiscal year 2013, $25.5 million in fiscal year 2015, and $29.2 million in fiscal year 2017.
Improving our racetracks so they become true entertainment venues will help attract fans and grow handle. Forget the Frank Stronach dream of surrounding a grandstand with concert halls and retail shops; we’re talking about just making the main grandstand itself a nicer place to be.
Look at what’s happened at Ascot since its renovation.
“A significant competitor of Ascot is Wimbledon,” said Paul Roberts, author and architecture consultant, referring to the internationally renowned Grand Slam tennis site in London. “People who are casually attending an event, going with their friends, when you look at the quality of facilities, you have to compete at that level. Ascot is driven by that leisure market. Racetrack attendance in England is increasing because what they’re offering is attractive to wagering fans, people who enjoy racing, casual fans, and people interested in the environment.”
Casino revenue currently is pouring into purse accounts, but that revenue stream is fickle. Casino revenue will always be vulnerable when states need to balance their budgets or look for ways to fund new programs without raising taxes. Racing needs to invest the money available now into improvements that will pay dividends over the long haul, like our competitors. Between 1989 and 2005, more than $53 billion was spent on capital improvements on U.S. casinos or in adding slot machines to racetracks. What a difference we would see if just a slice of that had been put toward making racing more inviting.
Racetracks and new modern stadiums are like neighboring restaurants; one is a dive and the food (the sport product) is good, but next door is a brighter place with more comfortable booths and entertainment that is just as good. Which is the fan going to choose?
Simons did offer some encouraging words. He said a racetrack doesn’t need a $100 million rooftop-to-apron renovation to improve its appeal. Smaller things such as offering card processors at concession stands, improved cleanliness, good lighting, better food, and graphics can make a big difference. And deliver a strong message to new fans.