I’ve been hooked since I was a kid. My father taught me how to read a Racing Form before he taught me how to catch a ball. And as we grew older and our relationship found its commonalities, horse racing remained a link but it also evolved. Trips to major race days and partnerships in syndicates became the way we interacted through the sport. Like everything else, we needed to keep the relationship fresh. And in the modern content world, it’s beyond time those in the sport rekindles their general relationship with fans young and old.
And this is where modern connectivity meets engagement. Cell phones didn’t exist in my youth and horse racing coverage was whittled down to learning how to handicap. The only time the sport seemed to shift away from that model of engagement was when we tuned into the Kentucky Derby which was presented more as a pop culture event then a gambling exhibition.
Where are we now? I’d argue the sport has not advanced away from this model. In fairness to my colleagues at Americas Best Racing, I’d also argue that they have been rocking this boat for years and have made massive inroads in “alternative” horse race programming, but they remain near lone warriors.
Major American sports leagues are now finally coming to the crossroads that horse racing knows full well. What are you selling: the games, the stories behind them and lifestyle of being a (pick your sport) fan, or are you attempting to educate the public into becoming gamblers? The massive advertising spend by gambling operators will clearly dictate a portion (how significant is to be determined) of the content structure. Given this reality, will the games become more of an opportunity-driven day-trading experience, or will the leagues attempt to maintain a storytelling platform with an alternative option on a different stream? Will the second screen become the first screen? We’ll see if the public and corporate partners end up being in lockstep on those choices.
Horse racing has always had this relationship with its public. The sport is predicated on constantly educating experts and newcomers on a consistent basis. This plays out (without any offense meant to the providers) in a relatively cookie-cutter manner. There is a set with a panel of two or three analysts and a person walking the grounds for information. They preview and break down a race and then offer picks. The race happens, they’ll recap the race, and then they may then recap a stakes that’s recently been run or just move on to the next race. The message is implicit that to be part of the culture, you have to have a general understanding of what the hosts are talking about. And while I want to reiterate how skilled these broadcasters and networks are at explaining this particular topic, I’d argue it’s time for racing to alter its approach to engagement. And in fairness to the content providers who say, explain to me how you fill hours upon hours of coverage with all these different (and likely far more expensive) content offerings, I’d argue back, you don’t. This is not about engaging with your audience at the 1 p.m. post time at Belmont Park. This is about the major race days which – if presented from a lifestyle perspective – is most weekends from March through November.
The idea here is to shift away from the tenet that handicapping and gambling are the integral parts of being associated with horse racing. The idea is to implant the idea that horse racing can have lifestyle and cultural implications and should be presented as such. At its core, the question is, how does a modern fan engage? And if they are engaging with the athletes and through lifestyle, why don’t providers lean into the modern way of connectivity? Go look at social media followings of the sport’s major stars and you’ll see numbers that absolutely pale in comparison to their counterparts. For example: John Velazquez has half the amount of Twitter followers than Zac Rinaldo. If you are asking who Zac Rinaldo is, then you are asking the right question. I found him by searching on Twitter: “members of the Calgary Flames.”
And yet here is what horse racing has that almost every other sport does not: the ability to appeal culturally across all demographics in various ways. Fashion, Food, Alcohol, Travel, Pathways to Ownership and yes, Gambling are all viable content streams. The point is while other sports are now incorporating gambling into their official catalogs, they built loyal followings across cultural lines without it being at the forefront of their appeal. This is where horse racing, in my opinion, needs to modernize its thinking.
Skateboarding, competitive BMX racing, surfing and snowboarding were and are alternative sports. But just take a glance at how their stars engage with the sport and how the lifestyle of the sport is presented. The fashion, the music, the scene and of course the gear are the main constructs. They are asking you if you want to be part of this. Horse racing has all of this in the palm of its hand and yet continues to focus its primary outreach on handicapping. This is a branding problem. If the sport were invested in growing social media audiences in and around the sport through celebrity (or potential celebrity) owners, jockeys, and the travel/lifestyle, the scene portrayed would provide insight into the WHY of the sport. No longer would you be messaging that being in involves complicated data analysis for informed betting strategy. Under this branding structure, the gambling would be implicit but not focused. And it is safe to say there would be an uptick, not a drop off (see Fantasy football).
This has to be a structural and coordinated initiative to make this happen, which in this sport has been problematic on a variety of fronts. But it will be worth it. My father and I grew with the sport. The sport now has to believe it needs to grow up too.