Truth in Numbers - By Evan Hammonds

As most sporting endeavors have suffered through delays, disruptions, and cancellations amid the current COVID-19 pandemic, Thoroughbred aficionados proudly pointed out that our sport’s profile has been lifted as racing continued and handle soared.

We now have empirical proof. The good folks at Sports & Leisure Research Group shared its “New Sports Fan Insights from the Back-to-Normal Barometer & Sports Omnibus” that shows horse racing engagement has grown 63% from April 2020 to January 2021 in its “Sports I Follow Closely” infographic

“I was at the Pac 12 basketball tournament when the world came cascading down last March,” said Jon Last, founder and president of Sports and Leisure Research Group. “Two thoughts came to my mind. The first was, this is going to be a real shot across the bow for most of our core clients, and the second was that we needed to create a barometer to poll people as to what they are going to do.

“Our back-to-normal barometer is something we do once a month, and we have from 550-750 respondents. We balance it to be reflective of the national population of sports fans.

“One of the things we’ve discovered in our research and that we are personally attuned to, is that continuity is really important. During the pandemic it shows that having something reliable that people can turn to, especially in distressing times, is important, and I think in this instance, racing has done that.

“There is the gambling side, which is a huge opportunity, which other sports have begun to seize upon, especially during the pandemic. I still think racing has that campaign aspect, that spectacle side, and just the fact you can follow story lines. One of the great attractions that we found in our work about a sport such as baseball is that it’s a long journey as opposed to just a quick hit. If you get invested in that, it’s like family members, and you can say that if you root for a university or you root for an NFL team, they are always there for you. That is, for me, where horse racing has gone.”

Besides crunching the numbers over the last 11 months, Last has been converted into a fan of racing.

“I have become addicted to racing. I got through the pandemic watching ‘America’s Day at the Races’ and TVG,” Last said. “As I came back into it, I thought, ‘OK, I’ve always been interested in this, and I’m going to see if I really love this.’ And it didn’t take me more than a couple of weeks of watching ‘America’s Day’ before I became hooked.

“I always watched the Triple Crown,” Last professed of his pre-pandemic engagement. “Racing captivated me for its pageantry, but I’m honestly not a gambler. In certain points of time, I’ve made my way to different tracks around the country, but I never really got to understand so many of the different layers. There are so many nuances to it that it fascinates me from a sports marketing perspective and from a sports fan perspective.

“I’ve climbed a really fast learning curve, but there’s so much more that needs to be done. For example, last weekend as everybody was talking about the Saudi Cup, I actually went and researched the leading transport companies just to see how they were getting these racehorses across the globe.”

Last’s story is added proof that racing remains relevant. Our job is to continue banging the drum and spreading the word.

“This is a golden opportunity to strike while the iron is hot,” Last said. “We can convert a whole lot of additional fans.”

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