Yeah, this is old, but still interesting, though it would’ve been rude to post it earlier in the weekend. Jeb Lund tweetpromoted his own “Can Dirtbags, Pretty Ladies and Twitter Save Horse Racing?”
… Assuming you aren’t a Kennedy conspiracist, there’s very little more seductive than the idea of the magic bullet, the notion that the minimal effort required to pull a trigger is all you need to do to generate a hurtling force, irrevocable and intelligent, capable of solving all the intricate problems that vex you, and even those you don’t yet know about. Thoroughbred racing has sought one for years, looking to solve problems that are even less susceptible to magic than you’d expect….
… Over the last decade, track attendance has declined by 30 percent, and handle—the total amount bet at the track per year—has declined by 37 percent. Faced with these numbers, the Jockey Club did what any upstanding American institution would do, and commissioned a report from McKinsey & Company, the famous consultancy.
The report, which came out last year, correctly diagnosed the same basic structural issues Crist identified: declining amenities at older tracks, a plummeting TV presence, and increased gambling competition. It also noted more technical problems: declines in starts per horse, smaller fields, and ineffectively staggered race schedules across the country. Most worrying, though, was an array of statistics that between them suggested that the sport is in a state of existential crisis.
McKinsey concluded not only that just 20 percent of the public has a favorable view of the sport, but that only 35 percent of people who actually follow it are “proud to be a fan.” Thoroughbred racing loses 5 percent of its fan base per year because of people walking away from the sport, and makes new fans at only a bit more than half that rate. Every year, an additional 2 percent of the dedicated fanbase dies…
This isn’t the kind of problem easily solved by the technicians of scientific capitalism. So, while McKinsey proposed concrete plans for addressing races, fields and gambling, the Jockey Club also created its own marketing wing, America’s Best Racing, to address these more perceptual aspects of the sport and try to arrest and reverse the erosion of the base of thoroughbred racing.
Thus the Brand Ambassadors: a magic bullet. They would generate regular bursts of interactive content through social media in hopes of going viral, which virality would do something or other. When not blogging and tweeting and updating, the Brand Ambassadors would go out in the world seeking converts. Each would appear at the Florida Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and 16 other major races, all the way to Santa Anita and the Breeders’ Cup….
March 30, 2013, turns out to be such a beautiful day for horse racing and for Florida in general that locals might describe it as unfair. It’s warm and breezy and only faintly humid, the sort of perfection that augurs the misery that will linger until December, when the eight weeks of autumn begin.
Gulfstream Park, home of the Florida Derby, is quintessentially Floridian, sublimely and even pleasantly artificial. After a tram ride across the radiating heat of an illimitable parking lot, one arrives at a two-story horseshoe of arcades that contain a racetrack, a casino and a mall. It is the Rue de Rivoli and Milan, processed through Vegas and gussied up by a designer at Restoration Hardware. It is a lovely kind of nowhere…
Beyond the poured concrete around the railing near the finish line lies packed dusty earth, thick enough to plant beach umbrellas and anchor beach chairs, in which you’ll find the best representation of cross-generational and youth interest in horse racing: Latino families. Kids and grandparents abound, sitting on big Coleman coolers, running around, making a tailgate of the event.
Conditions in the clubhouse couldn’t be more different. ABR has provided me and my friend Dann seats at the window, just behind the exact point at which those in sweltering summer heat at race tracks stare resentfully, looking at the sky reflecting off the glass. Everything feels lavish to the point of discomfort… The atmosphere emits a politely trapped scream of affluence; the people making bets around us do so in sums orders of magnitude higher than anything we’re comfortable with. We, in our mid 30s, are by far the youngest people here who aren’t either expected to fuck someone later or in the company of an older relative who buys family members political positions…
ABR’s clubhouse tickets are, in a word, inapt—for the target demographic, for how partying kids would visit the track, for how they’d even understand it. I venture to the ABR Madden Cruiser, where I gawk at TV screens wired for satellite transmission of races around the country. This is where the Brand Ambassadors can handicap, tweet, and exchange strategy on the road. Somehow I wind up pinned in a formica booth, behind a cheese plate, listening to Brand Ambassador Mary Frances Dale enthuse about the fashions one can see around the track….
Cornett admitted that the Latino crowd, which turns out with ideal cross-generational representation and has ties to the jockey and backstretch-worker aspects of racing, was not currently on the ABR radar, something the monoglot focus of its Twitter and blog efforts won’t help. There doesn’t seem to be any intentional monochromaticism at play here, but the effect is the effect.
The present approach also crowds out a vital demographic element seen at ballparks, soccer stadiums, and race tracks all over the world: dirtbags. Dann and I were both such when we were just out of college, living two blocks north of a dog track. On Fridays, $10 was enough to get you drunk and fed on $1 hot dogs and $1 beer, and could send you home with enough to get drunk for many more days, if you bet just right… Dirtbags are the backbone of American gambling, and they are precisely the sort of people who need constant reminders that things are going on, gambling- and sport-wise. (They’re often drunks, after all.) The trouble is that marketing to dirtbags, while fun, isn’t sexy, and the process probably seems foreign to the sorts of wealthy people who can afford to commission marketing schemes. We went to a historic trendy bar in the expensive part of the city and handed out lots of merch sounds like an approach teeming with more potential than, say, We went to a handful of bars that sell $2 shots on Fridays.
Further, the upscale-venue approach to promoting horse racing omits a major driving force behind computer poker, fantasy football and fantasy baseball: dorks. The occupationally deskbound and socially awkward demographically took poker out of smoky rooms and other socialization-dependent fora and made it an online power… More importantly, thinking like this fails to acknowledge that thoroughbred racing’s problems aren’t just a matter of not meeting the right kids. They’re systemic…
Sports wax and wane. The United States once sprouted with bridge clubs like mushrooms after a week’s rain. Shuffleboard was a big deal. Five years ago, football was supposed to be invincible; now right-thinking parents regard the idea of letting their kids play as akin to handing them a pack of Parliaments. In a decade, there will probably be pristine beer pong and cornhole parlors dotting the country while Golden Tee machines gather black mold. Boxing has withered with bloated pay-per-view costs and, like, thoroughbred racing, become a sport of semi-annual spectacle while it withers and rots on the day-to-day level.
All of this should be okay for anyone not operating under the delusion that like publicly managed companies, sports should be—must be—in a constant state of hypertrophic growth. World Series ratings have declined for over a decade, in part because baseball cannot compete with … life. Even beloved things erode in a tide of alternatives. When you think of the multifariousness of entertainment options—not only sports and cable, but Netflix or iTunes or Hulu or XBox or MMORPGs or calling friends on Skype or live-tweeting episodes of the 1978 Battlestar Galactica to a thousand people who don’t know any better—it’s okay to suggest that every sport is a little doomed…
And then there’s boxing. Which seems to have gone in the opposite direction from horse racing — making it as easy as possible for ‘dirtbags’ and newbies to network / bet online, or show up once every five years to drop $100 on pay-per-view or $10,000 on a Las Vegas event where the ticket includes upscale surroundings and the chance to be in the fuzzy background when the papparazzi speed-snap genuine celebrities. But then, boxing can rely on a steady trickle of desperate, angry street kids willing to beat each other up in a series of grotty basements for the benefit of hardcore gamblers and ‘local promoters’. Boxers are easier to acquire, cheaper to board, and infinitely cheaoer to dispose of than thoroughbreds… although I don’t think any international finance consortium has yet to succeed at putting a retired boxer out to stud at $1.5k a pop.