Good news and bad news came out of consumer research made public during the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's fourth annual Marketing Summit recently.
Horse racing was one of a handful of sports that gained in popularity from 2000 to 2001, according to the ESPN Sports Poll, which tracks 37 different sports throughout the year. Of those polled, 33.3% said they were horse racing fans, an increase of 1.8% in the last year and up nearly 3% since horse racing became part of the ESPN Sports Poll in 1999.
The most popular sport is the National Football League, which registered with 66.8% of those polled, with Major League Baseball second, at 59.6%. Sports whose popularity is similar to that of horse racing include the National Hockey League (34.8%), women's professional tennis (34.6%), and men's professional tennis (31.4%).
According to the poll, racing is more popular than the Arena Football League (29.7%), professional wrestling (27.8%), and Major League Soccer (24.2%), but not as popular as boxing (39.5%), the WNBA (38.5%), and the PGA (37.3%). While some other sports (college football and basketball, the NBA, figure skating, and NASCAR) measuring in the 40-55% range in popularity may be out of reach, horse racing should be able to gain ground, based on a separate survey conducted by the SWR Worldwide research firm.
SWR was charged with learning how to turn the approximately 19.5 million people who have attended the races at least once in the past two years into more frequent customers. As part of that research, telephone surveys and focus groups helped SWR understand more about the demographics and attitudes of those "light" fans and what barriers there are to more frequent attendance. A demographic and attitudinal profile of light fans helped SWR estimate there are 37 million people it refers to as "target" fans. This is in addition to the approximate 3.2 million "core" horseplayers that have been identified.
Now the bad news. The target fans considered their favorite activities to be geared toward family and "people like them," and a majority did not see horse racing in that same light. In fact, the target fans thought of themselves as responsible, family-oriented, and intelligent, traits they did not see in racing fans. Many of them saw racing fans as "losers."
One focus group participant said what he remembers most about his infrequent visits to the track are the "desperate, sad faces" among those in attendance. That's not a pretty picture, and a tough one for a marketer to overcome.
Nevertheless, the pollsters pushed ahead, asking what factors might increase racetrack attendance of the light and target fans. Aside from having friends or "people like me" who were racing fans, the main hurdles to increased attendance involved the intimidation factor that racing presents to the novice. Special beginners' windows, easier access to information, and a system to teach people how to bet were among the things light and target fans mentioned during interviews.
SWR recommends an advertising campaign showing more social and family activities. The researchers also suggest racing expand the customer experience beyond horse racing. They cited the variety of entertainment options at casinos, cruise ships, or sports stadiums like baseball's Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
The NTRA is taking heed. The 2002 advertising campaign, being readied for an April 1 debut, promises to intersperse images of fans--female, younger, and more family oriented than in the past--with exciting video of horses racing. Tracks are being encouraged to offer more "bring a friend" promotions.
Will all this work? Let's hope so. Otherwise, the desperate, sad faces may be in racetrack marketing offices or at the NTRA. b
People who do not attend the track regularly see racing fans as a breed apart from themselves.