Digital Toolbox - By Evan Hammonds

We were reminded recently that the biggest challenge in Thoroughbred racing today is how to grow the sport. Mindful of not having a boatload of cash for a national, or even local, advertising campaign, the problem is real. The question is how to solve it.

Racing is by no means the only entity with concerns. The major college sports have seen declining attendance. Major League Baseball has struggled the last few years with bringing fans out to the ballpark. In the consumer marketplace, name brands are losing market share as trends and habits shift.

Sales of wine—yes, wine—dipped in 2019 in the U.S., according to a report earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal.

“With the rise in low- and no-alcohol products and general consumer trends toward health and wellness, wine is in a tough place,” said Brandy Rand, COO of wine industry tracker IWSR.

Racing has been in a tough place for quite awhile. But here’s a corker:

“The Wine Institute, a California trade body, said while consumption has fallen off in recent years, it expects millennials to start drinking more wine as they get older, just like baby boomers did,” the Journal reported.

“Expects” is the key word that should strike fear in the heart of wine producers.

No industry should “expect” habits to change over time. The racing industry learned that a few decades ago.

However, there are grassroots groups out there working hard to nurture the next generation of horse lovers. The mission of Central Kentucky’s Horse Country—a coalition of farms, equine medical clinics, and equine attractions—is to develop fans of farms and clinics through tourism experiences.

Horse Country tracks each person who buys a tour ticket and reports show the average buyer is in the 40-55 age bracket…and skews female. However, each does buy on average 2.5 tickets, so more than likely younger people are brought along for most tours.

“It’s gotten consistently younger since we started tracking,” said Horse Country executive director Anne Sabatino Hardy. “That’s a common age right now, but we’re working on younger markets. Young people have always been a focus area for us because of the potential life cycle.

“The way that we get into those younger groups is to focus on events where there is a horse affinity, such as Breyerfest (a festival to promote toy horses that takes place at the Kentucky Horse Park),” she said. “That has been a place where we have put an investment into event space, and we book special tours for then. That covers a spread of typical purchase-age people along with their kids, who range from grandchildren to young teenagers.

“We’ve worked with some different education initiatives that try to get people in the middle-school range out to farms,” Hardy continued. “In trying to truly capture the millennial demography, our big push there is with our marketing materials, which are geared toward appealing to that specific market. Our social media program is very much geared toward communicating with them.”

Thank goodness Hardy has done her homework.

“In the travel industry they say there are five phases of travel planning: the first is inspire, then there are research, book, experience, and share.

“ ‘Inspire’ and ‘share’ are driven by social media and online interaction. We try to invest in Google Adwords or targeted specialty advertising, where we are hopefully posting content that is going to resonate. That tends to be a good payoff place for us.”

And it appears to be working, according to Horse Country’s analytics.

“We have good data that show we are making some progress,” Hardy reported. “One of the most influential over the last couple of years is that tour attendees that have paid $20 for a ticket have now invested $1 million in different ways of ownership, be it a partnership mare or racing. There has been a significant amount of investment from $20 tour attendees.”

While we like to think racing is a unique sport/business/event, it’s not. Sweeping national ad campaigns to market events are going the way of the landline. It’s hand-to-hand combat these days; grassroots efforts; a personal connection. Most everyone got into this great game through a family member, a friend, or has had hands-on experiences such as a Horse Country tour.

We can make it happen. Let’s share the love.

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