Monday, May 28, 2018
From Goal Posts to Post Times?

One of the themes that we'll explore in this space centers on the kind of aggressive thinking that can help to significantly grow and sustain the Thoroughbred horse racing industry. These ideas will invariably exist somewhere in the middle of the spectrum from the practical to the quixotic. And the first "big idea" to be visited -- leveraging the National Football League's rabid following to grow horse racing's broader appeal -- fits that description. Not manifestly practical but not utterly quixotic either.

It is virtually impossible to live in the United States and be unaware that another NFL season has started. Those involved in the promotion of Thoroughbred horse racing must regard this juggernaut of a spectator sport with envy and awe. In the last decade or two the NFL's explosive popularity has left horse racing and most other major sports reeling in its wake. Surveys generally reveal that better than one in pulaski_countythree of all sports fans consider pro football to be their favorite sport. At the other extreme, surveys typically indicate that horse racing is most favored by one or two in every hundred sports fans.

This point is underscored every fall during horse racing's championship event -- the Breeders' Cup World Championships. Organizers of the Breeders' Cup do not even attempt to compete with the NFL on Sunday, choosing rather to stage the now two-day event on Friday and Saturday instead of the more logical Saturday and Sunday. And despite this concession, television ratings and mainstream awareness of the Breeders' Cup continues to trend downward. What was designed to be a championship event shared with the general public and mainstream media to advance the sport struggles to remain viable under the shadow of pro and college football. It's little wonder that the Breeders' Cup leadership has honed in on internationalization as a new growth strategy.

As disheartening as this situation appears, do the hordes of fans who follow the NFL actually represent an open door of opportunity to market Thoroughbred horse racing? There is plenty to like about the profile of NFL fans, beyond their sheer volume. They skew much younger and are far more diverse than horse racing's core following. They admire speed, strength, competition and raw athletic ability. They appreciate spectacle and their favorite sport is flattered by high-definition television. They fully embrace rsz_2heinz_field_people_crowding_entrancethe "tailgate" culture and would feel right at home at Keeneland on a fall day or the backyard at Saratoga in the summer. A large segment of NFL fans wager on the outcome of the games and participate in fantasy leagues, therefore a large segment of NFL fans enjoy the process and intellectual challenge of analyzing information to predict results.

At first blush, these qualitative observations suggest that many NFL fans share some important attributes with horse racing's fan base -- enough to warrant further scrutiny.

Before we go any further, I strongly believe that Thoroughbred racing should be marketed as a spectator sport. There are voices in the industry who believe that horse racing should abandon the "illusion" that it is a major spectator sport and be marketed solely as a gambling option. This viewpoint is short-sighted and pessimistic. Many, including myself, feel that Thoroughbred racing has "missed" a generation or two. The reasons for this are manifold, not the least of which are the increasingly cluttered sports landscape and the NFL's appeal to younger generations.

Yes, horse racing should also be marketed as a gambling alternative to specific target markets likely to be receptive to that message. But the potential growth in that area appears limited in comparison to the potential growth from marketing as a major spectator sport. After all, in addition to new fans and new horseplayers, the industry is in sore need of new owners. Marketing as a sport does not mean mass marketing, however. Those days are long gone.

The relevant question lingers -- are NFL fans a viable target market for Thoroughbred racing?

Google Trends is a free and very useful tool that allows anyone to take the pulse of the nation on any given topic over time, where search term volume and online news volume serve as an accurate surrogate for measured interest. Comparing two or more unrelated subjects can often reveal interesting patterns. This is the case when the terms "NFL" and "Kentucky Derby" are submitted to Google Trends. The Kentucky Derby is Thoroughbred racing's most valuable property and the singular event that transcends the sport's insular walls into the mainstream.

The Google Trends chart to the right illustrates a stunning and all_yearsregularly repeating phenomenon where the height of annual public interest in horse racing (Kentucky Derby) coincides with a relative lull in public interest in the NFL. Note that interest in the NFL nosedives into a late spring-early summer dormant period every April just after the NFL draft. This exact time period happens to coincide with what is famously known as the Triple Crown season in Thoroughbred racing. If Thoroughbred racing were to launch a focused 6-week targeted marketing campaign on NFL fans, this could very well be a roadmap for timing. The drama, tradition, and compelling narratives underlying the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes can make for a forceful introduction to Thoroughbred racing at a time in the year when NFL fans are not engrossed with their favorite sport. The obvious objective is to hook them in before the NFL ramps up again in late summer.

Assuming that key Thoroughbred racing organizations could unite and muster the resources to launch a carefully researched and finely executed targeted marketing campaign during the Triple Crown season, what would such a campaign look like? I'll leave that to the creative teams but it's clear that "Go Baby Go" will not cut it. The campaign would have to be highly relevant, clever, and tactical in its use of both rsz_4drew_brees_kuwait_2social and traditional media. Perhaps even buying spots on ESPN's prime time NFL draft telecast that draws many millions of viewers.

Ideally the campaign would be anchored by an admired and influential human face or two. Somehow Thoroughbred racing has not cashed in on Thoroughbred-owning and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Drew Brees while at the apex of his celebrity status. Not yet anyway. And let's not forget horse racing's own iconic and underutilized Calvin Borel. There is not a more down-to-earth, genuine personality to be found in all of sports. Except for Drew Brees, maybe.

Check back for Part II when I'll share the results from original analyses using some tantalizingly relevant survey data that may either bolster or cast doubts on this proposal. I haven't peeked and don't know what to expect, but it promises to be interesting.