Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake this week covers horse racing's pursuit of new fans, wondering is the industry concentrating on the wrong demographic?

  • Monday 16 December
  • Blog
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For many decades, there has been a common view in horse racing that the sport’s supporter base is getting older, thus the need to attract younger fans should be a priority if the sport is to survive. This is true of course. After all, time waits for no one.

As a result, the question of “what can we do to attract more young people to racing?” is never far from the agenda and huge investments have been made in various ideas across the industry to try and do just that.

However, being frank, I can’t help but think that an awful lot of time, money and effort has largely been wasted chasing these elusive young people as potential followers of racing over the decades.

The reason why I think it has largely been wasted is a simple one. Young people, let’s call them between the ages of 16 and 25, tend to have an awful lot going on. Forgive the generalisations, but it’s probably fair to say that in many cases they have enough on their plates, be it getting educated, trying to find/keep employment and/or playing the field in search of a potential life partner.

For most, it is a very fast-paced and fast-changing time of their lives. What is also highly relevant to this conversation is that they don’t tend to have a whole lot of disposable cash or time on their hands. Thus, focusing so much effort on trying to coax this demographic into getting interested in a sport such as horse racing that requires a significant investment of time and money to understand/follow it has always seemed ill-advised to me. 

My idea of the demographic we should be focusing on is a couple of steps up the life ladder. Young professionals aged in the region of 26 to 35 seem a much more realistic target. To again risk the wrath of the non-conformists by generalising, I would dare say that by this age many people have settled down into a steadier rhythm of life. A steady job, mortgage, possibly a long-term relationship/kids etc.

Most importantly, people at this stage of their lives can often find themselves with money in their pocket, time in hand and keen to get out of the house to do new things and meet new people. Horse racing is ideally suited to this demographic, yet the sport makes precious little specific efforts to attract them.

There are any number of ways that this loose group could be targeted. Many people that are in that aforementioned rhythm of life just want an excuse for a day out that they can plan for well in advance. Organised events at the races that offer good value and incentivise people to bring friends with them would be a fair starting point.

Greater promotion of a day at the races for workplace events such as Christmas parties and team building are another possible area of focus. Given that this demographic is more likely to have disposable income, having representatives from the HRI ownership department at these events to encourage and facilitate the forming of syndicates makes sense too. These are just a couple of simple suggestions and there is surely ample scope for greater targeting of this demographic by those that specialise in marketing and promotion. 

“But what about the younger people?” I hear you cry. Well, personally I wouldn’t worry too much about them, as horse racing will always attract a certain type of young person on its own merits. I should know, as it grabbed hold of me as a teenager from a non-racing background and hasn’t let go since.

What attracted me to the sport was the depth of the puzzle that a horse race represents and the excitement of watching that puzzle being solved by these incredible animals competing against each other down to the finest margins. As hard as it seemingly is for many in racing to believe, our sport is an exceptionally good one that can actually attract young people that go on to have a lifetime interest in it without having to resort to sideshows or gimmicks. 

On the subject of those that do have a lifetime interest in horse racing, it remains a complete mystery to me why a centralised loyalty scheme hasn’t been introduced in Irish racing. It really isn’t rocket science. The most valuable customers that horse racing has are its committed supporters that follow the sport daily and go to the races.

Attracting customers with this level of commitment is not easy, yet racing does next to nothing to show them how valued they are. The fact that the man or woman that loves racing enough to go to the track 20 times a year is obliged to pay the same price to get into the races as a once-a-year blow-in racegoer is just unfathomable to me.

Why isn’t racing showing these individuals that they are highly valued and appreciated?

In Irish racing, the mechanism that such a loyalty scheme could be run through is already in place in the shape of the existing AIR swipe card system. It could be used to keep track of how many times an individual goes racing and, for example, if they go racing 10 times in a calendar year that will trigger a 25% discount on subsequent attendances.

If they go 20 times a year that will trigger a 50% discount on subsequent attendances and so on. There could also be added rewards such as stable tours that could help broaden the interest of the regular racegoer. 

Not only would such a scheme make racing’s best customers feel valued, it will also encourage them to go racing even more. Given the sad state of some of the recent attendances at high-profile race meetings in Ireland, one would think that all involved would be doing everything they can to incentivise people to go racing.

Not only would such a scheme be a certainty to achieve this, it would achieve it the right way by attracting genuine racing fans rather than a rent-a-crowd drawn in by a non-racing sideshow.

I first proposed such a scheme to HRI's Strategic Marketing Group all the way back in 2010 and have followed up on it in print on multiple occasions since then, both in this space and others. Despite some positive noises being made at various different times, a loyalty scheme has yet to be created.

One can only imagine the hundreds of thousands if not millions of Euro that HRI have spent on marketing to try and attract new customers in the near decade since the suggestion of a loyalty scheme was first tabled. Yet, they still haven’t considered it worthwhile to create one to look after their most valuable customers that they already have in their hand as committed followers. Depressing, isn’t it?

Kevin Blake
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