Optimizing Fan Experience: Lessons From An Afternoon Of ‘Horsing Around’

A day at a thoroughbred track provides the inspiration for a fresh look at key elements for optimizing the fan experience, in this month’s Media Post Marketing: Sports .

As a marketing researcher, I enjoy learning thing and observing my environs, even when “off the clock.” I’ve never been shy about intertwining personal time with my chosen profession. That’s partly why I love going places, whether it’s to all 30 current MLB stadiums or 45 of 50 states. I continue to relish as much time on airplanes as my stamina and family will allow.

Such was the case while on the road for a project the other weekend, when a few hours of downtime afforded a colleague and me the opportunity to experience an afternoon at a thoroughbred racetrack.

Unfortunately, the “sport of kings” has fallen on some hard times of late. For all the sports industry chatter about the impending irrelevance of many sports, horse racing has actually suffered a precipitous decline. A recent analysis suggests there were some 15,000 more races in 2006 than there were last year.

Attendance records report a decrease from 78 million Americans spending a day at the races in 1975, to only 42 million two decades later.  And figures are perhaps intentionally sparse, beyond then. So, during the few hours that I spent trackside, I couldn’t help but draw some observations that have implications for all sports marketers looking to optimize the live fan experience. Horse racing certainly hasn’t gotten things right in terms of building its fan base. But the sport certainly provides a platform to call out the key elements of fan engagement across the industry.

The Good

  • Interactivity: Of course, a double-edged sword of horse racing is its link with gambling. Eschewing the negative stereotype of the degenerate “rail bird” for a moment, a friendly little place bet can provide all the engagement and potential rewards of daily fantasy sports in a fraction of the time.
  • Social Spaces: With many incorporating casinos, replete with entertainment and dining options, the track is an intriguing illustration for mainstream sports venues seeking to find the proper amenities mix to draw in non-traditional guests. The venue that I visited also did a nice job of offering a trend bar and casual gathering areas trackside. It wouldn’t have been far fetched had I found an “ultra pool.”
  • Attention Deficit Appeal: Horse racing has long been referred to as “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” When fans aren’t cheering on their favorite, placing a wager, or enjoying other amenities, they have ample time to immerse themselves in the mobile device of their choosing. The rules are easy to understand, and there are countless opportunities to enjoy replays from every conceivable angle during breaks in the action.
  • Athlete Accessibility: In addition to the opportunity to position yourself along the rail, a trip to the paddock enables you to size up the jockeys and horses as they go through their pre-game paces.  It’s an intimate look behind the scenes coveted by many fans we’ve interviewed around other sports.

The Not so Good

  • A Lack of Promotable Superstars: I find horses to be fascinating and beautiful animals. But, I’d be hard pressed to name or identify any at the top of their game. Clearly the sport suffers from minimal media coverage. But, interestingly, in my firm’s annual omnibus survey, we saw a significant increase in sports fans who strongly believed that horse racing gained popularity, from 4% in early 2015 to 27% in 2016, the year after American Pharoah became the first triple crown winner in nearly 40 years. Alas, that sentiment dropped right back to 5% early this year.
  • Limited Human Drama, Aspiration or Empathy: Similarly, jockeys are far from household names. Their anonymity illustrates how other sports have done much better at creating story lines that compel fans to revere or disdain favorite players and seek out greater depth about their journeys to stardom.
  • Minimal Transparency: Our work has often revealed that fans relate to those who work hard, play fair and are model citizens. Horse racing has often been shrouded in mystery, with a negative underbelly that has been difficult to shed.
  • A Non Family-Friendly Experience: So much of what fans cherish in recounting their fan experience across other sports are the memories and rituals of attending with parents or friends. Today’s venues continue to push the needle in providing multi-generational experiences and kid-friendly amenities. These are absent from the race track and, in some instances, the presence of wagering prohibits one from sharing the experience with the much-coveted “next generation” of fans.