By Nan Mooney

At its March marketing seminar, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association cited reaching female fans as a primary target. The research suggests 45.9% of racing's "light users," those outside the core group or regulars, and 54.2% of "lapsed users," people who attended the races once but don't any longer, are women. Beyond that, an estimated 59% of inactive (potential) fans are female, an audience-in-waiting yet to receive the nudge necessary to get them to the races. That makes over 30 million women out there curious about the track.

Already wheels are turning. An NTRA-backed book entitled The Female Fan Guide to Thoroughbred Racing is in the works. Author Laura Hillenbrand, the best woman to hit racing since Regret won the 1915 Derby, has written a book on 1930s champ Seabiscuit which topped the New York Times best seller list, and I'd guess a good portion of those millions of readers are female. Then there's the recent emergence of the female sports fan, evidenced by the WNBA women's basketball league, and the popularity of athletes from track star Marion Jones to the Williams sisters in tennis.

It's fresh ground. It's also big business. A new women's professional soccer league is backed by Time-Warner and scored major sponsors, including Johnson & Johnson and Nike. Now's the perfect time for racing to ask how to claim our seat on the ride.

Marketing a sport to women takes more than just hanging out a "Ladies Welcome" sign. It requires creativity, and some shared wisdom. Here's some of what we might learn from these other sports in their efforts to draw female fans:

  • Strike While the Iron's Hot -- Women's soccer hit the public eye in a big way during the 1999 World Cup. Racing might take advantage of events that wake up female fans. With the popularity of Seabiscuit: An American Legend, it's prime time for advertisements, like the first season NTRA Lori Petty spots, which target women. When Jenine Sahadi brings The Deputy to the Derby, Kris Prather tops the ranks at Turfway, or Surfside faces the boys in the Clark, women have a stake in the outcome. So sound the trumpet call.
  • Publicity -- Tennis player Martina Hingis was a Vanity Fair cover girl. Soccer star Mia Hamm out-trounced Michael Jordan in a popular Gatorade commercial. Racing has scores of women players and the industry should publicize them as much as possible. Build advertisements around female riders, trainers, breeders, and owners, then air those ads during women's basketball and tennis matches. Push to feature female jockeys, trainers, and even superstar fillies in magazines like Sports Illustrated for Women and Women's Sports and Fitness. If women feel they are a part of racing, they are more likely to show up.
  • Merchandising -- Here's no big surprise: women shop. On WNBA night, the giftshops at Madison Square Garden overflow with jerseys, bags, caps, keychains, and trading cards, all geared toward female customers. The WNBA also holds fan appreciation nights, handing out free goodies and shop discounts. Racetracks could easily offer a twist on this. How about "Ladies Days" featuring filly races, bargain admissions and free programs, T-shirts, and betting vouchers for women?
  • Internet -- The female sports audience tends to be young, a generation largely linked to the world online. Women's basketball and soccer make a serious effort to reach fans via the Internet. They have flashy Web sites so girls and women can participate in the game. There are online chats, weekly Q&A columns, and behind-the-scenes info. Whereas many male sports nuts swear by statistics, women are more likely to be drawn in by a story. Racing could take a step in this direction. Web sites might feature regular "What's Happening" segments on women at the track, or let users monitor the careers of the most promising female jockeys and fillies.
  • No, racing isn't a women's sport like the WNBA or even women's tennis and golf. But if females comprise half the potential fan base, and if too many of these women aren't making it to the track, it can't hurt to examine how these other sports have succeeded. They've proved the women-sports link can be incredibly lucrative.

    As for increasing racing's audience, let's defer to a law of nature: Wherever women go, men are sure to follow.

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