NTRA: Reaching a New Generation

One of the major concepts at the NTRA Marketing Summit was reaching new fans.

After a three-year hiatus, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Marketing Summit was brought to the forefront of a growing list of necessary steps toward creating a better industry.

The three-day conference, held Sept. 21-23 at the Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa in Las Vegas, covered a variety of topics, from reaching new generations of fans, to discussing updates on several NTRA programs and initiatives. Kicking off the Sept. 21 session-packed day was John Della Volpe, founder of SocialSphere Strategies and director of polling at Harvard's Institute of Politics who introduced the NTRA concept called “Reaching a New Generation.”

“We have the ability to empower fans and give them the ability to learn things themselves,” said Della Volpe, who explained how the racing industry currently is in an era of collaboration on the Internet. “There are more smart people outside your organization than inside. Technology can help us connect. There are big ideas here that we never thought of because we never engaged the fans.”

Della Volpe explained how Alex Waldrop, president and chief executive officer of the NTRA, did just that by outlining his vision for the industry in a document called “A New Way Forward,” which was published in Horseplayer Magazine and mailed to 140,000 racing fans.

Waldrop then asked for feedback from the piece. He took it a step further by posting a blog on NTRA.com 10 days prior to this year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) in response to the feedback he had received. He received more than 800 comments from fans who expressed their thoughts on the declining state of the industry, especially in light of the fatal breakdown of the filly Eight Belles.

After comparing and contrasting other blogs and taking fan comments into account, Waldrop challenged racing enthusiasts to provide the NTRA with new ideas to better market the sport of horse racing. The request received more than 1,000 interactions, which were then generated into a 48-page plan.

Five representatives from the fan-based online task force, all of which have racing-related blogs, were on hand at the conference to present their thoughts on ways to improve the face of horse racing.

“These aren’t just horse racing fans,” Della Volpe said. “They’re inside of it, on top of it, living and breathing it, and driving conversations around it. Best of all, they’re chomping at the bit to enliven you with their perspectives.”

Kevin Stafford, 30, whose love of racing was cultivated by attending the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) in his native Maryland, brought up the idea of the NTRA building on a strategy called “Take Back Saturday.” Since most of the important stakes take place on Saturdays, including prep races leading up to the Kentucky Derby, Stafford said the NTRA could create a continuous story to tell the casual fan why the races are vital to a horse’s career.

“When there’s winning and losing on the line, we’re drawn to that—it’s compelling,” he said. “We need to take back Saturday and carve it out to reach a broader audience. This will give us a chance to change the face of racing. One of the reasons we’re up here is because we fell in love with racing. We need to make others fall in love with it, too.”

Stafford also brought up the idea of merchandising owners, trainers, and jockeys via various wearable products instead of just marketing a specific event. “Let’s market the stars—that will help fans have a more vested interest,” he said.

Troy Racki, a licensed dentist from California, said he stumbled upon the sport through a virtual horseracing stable on the Internet. “We need to find a way to link the internet to our live racing product,” he said.

Virtual racing, which parallels a live product and simulates entry-level ownership, could be used as an education tool to learn how to read a Daily Racing Form and be able to handicap real races, Racki said.

One of the most interesting aspects brought up by the NTRA’s online task force was the idea of an ambassador program by which volunteers would host new fans at tracks and show them the ropes of the sport. Ambassadors would not only show newcomers how to read a Daily Racing Form and handicap races, but they would also give onsite tours to provide opportunities to actually see and touch the horses.

In an experiment of the program at Del Mar, the response was overwhelming, with a 137% booking of ambassadors within 48 hours. “There’s a need for this type of program,” said Racki, who noted the NTRA planned to launch a similar program at Oak Tree at Santa Anita Park in 2009, and hopes to eventually offer the program to all NTRA-affiliated tracks.

Dana Byerly, 40, said the NTRA could connect with fans more deeply by pushing information out to people on the Internet via widgets, mobile alerts, mobile applications, and ring tones. “We can give people access to what they want,” she said. “In today’s world, people expect to get data anywhere, anytime.”

Jessica Chapel, author of the “Race Day 360” blog on the site Twitter.com, gives 140 character updates to fans from the barn area of tracks on race days and has a small, core group of fans that can receive her information via mobile updates. Chapel said her idea could be expanded on the NTRA’s Web site to give more up-to-date information to fans.

“It’s a good way to keep in touch with fans and players and see what they think,” she said.

Other ideas brought up by the task force to help create a larger fan base included the creation of a partnership rating system on NTRA.com, and giving more credentials to bloggers at major racing events.

A full report of the 48-page task force document, as well as a podcast of the Sept. 22 presentation in Las Vegas, is available at NTRA.com.