Leading by Example - by Eric Mitchell

Two and a half years ago The Jockey Club launched a barrage of initiatives with the hopes of slowing and ideally reversing years of decline suffered by Thoroughbred racing.
Improved TV coverage, fantasy games and social games, new ownership tools, and strong social media efforts were all part of a nine-point plan built off the recommendations of a 2011 report done by McKinsey and Co. entitled “Driving Sustainable Growth for Thoroughbred Racing and Breeding.”

This same report made dire predictions if the sport collectively did nothing to improve its place alongside other professional sports and entertainment. The status quo, it stated, would lead to a 25% decline in handle, a 50% drop in owners, and 25% fewer viable racetracks by 2020.

The Jockey Club invested millions in all the initiatives and has learned some valuable lessons midway through its five-year plan.

For one, it’s often better to be a partner than an owner. The Jockey Club developed two games: the Major League Horse Racing fantasy game and the Thoroughbred World social game (think Farmville), which have both been shelved because they didn’t gain traction in a gaming market that changes so quickly.

“There is a demand for games, but the consumer is looking at Facebook and mobile and other platforms. Even the companies like Zynga are still trying to figure it out,” said Jason Wilson, vice president of business development for The Jockey Club. “There are a lot of other people developing content now. We felt some of those games had gotten to the point where we could provide support rather than be at the forefront of development. We are looking to be more of a distribution partner.”

Also learned is that racing’s target audience should be 20-somethings.

“You look at surveys of people who are involved in racing who are in their 40s and 50s now, and they got involved in horse racing in their 20s or even younger,” Wilson said. “If we don’t focus on this next generation, they are not going to suddenly show up. We have to go out and connect with them.”

One fairly effective means of connecting, so far, has been the efforts launched under the America’s Best Racing banner. Wilson said those efforts have actually exceeded expectations because what started as just a new website morphed into a campaign. Horse racing got introduced to more than 40,000 people in 20 states and garnered 60 million media impressions nationwide through the racing ambassadors tour in 2013. Meanwhile, social media and the website attracted 500,000 followers and generated more than two million page views, of which 63% of all viewers continue to be new visitors.

“We are hitting the demographic we’re trying to,” Wilson said. “We skew toward a younger, more female demographic than an Equibase or a Daily Racing Form.”

Perhaps the most important result to date from The Jockey Club’s initiatives has been raising racetracks’ interest in improving customer service and owner development. Santa Anita Park, the New York Racing Association, Woodbine, and Laurel Park are among the top five sources of traffic to a new online owner resource called OwnerView, a joint venture between The Jockey Club and Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. These same racing outfits also have expressed interest in supporting a new owners conference in the fall, and the Del Mar Racing Club, Keeneland, NYRA, and The Stronach Group have begun working together on their own customer service initiatives for owners and fans.

If the 2011 McKinsey-inspired projects ultimately prove to be catalysts for long-term initiatives that make Thoroughbred racing more attractive to fans, get new owners involved, and improve the welfare of the horses, then it won’t matter as much which of the nine are still viable by 2016. The real goal will have been achieved.

“There has always been the recognition that we cannot continue alone,” Wilson said. “Part of the goal (of the McKinsey study) was to spark discussion and from that standpoint it has certainly done its job.”

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