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 Editorials

Thoughts from our editor, Joe Clancy. For archived editorials click here.

New fans could help tracks fly high

Frisbee.

During a question-and-answer session with Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred writer Vinnie Perrone (see page 14), entrepreneur, venture capitalist, college professor and racing fan Tom Kuegler said he and his son could have played Frisbee on the track apron at Pimlico without anyone complaining. On a day of live racing. 

It’s a great line, one that makes you laugh. Or cry. Depends on how you look at it. Teach a graduate-level course at Loyola in business innovation and you’d smile when you said it. Work in Thoroughbred racing and you might cringe, or at least start polishing up your resume.

Read the entire story though. It’s far more than one throwaway line. 

Kuegler took a unique look at racing in Maryland (though it could probably be any state) via his students and the class project. The idea was to challenge the students to create a business plan to attract spectators to Maryland’s racetracks. The students steered clear of other issues in racing?–?facilities, funding, racing dates and so on?–?to take a clean look at an overall issue. There aren’t enough people at the tracks, and therefore new fans are not being created.

 Though their professor has a long connection to the sport, few knew much about racing beyond the Preakness. 

The results ought to make it to the desk of racing executives in the region and beyond, though I’m not naive enough to think tracks can spend money they don’t have or wave a magic wand and cure a long list of problems. But, core problems present themselves in the work of Kuegler’s class. Core solutions are there too and it behooves racing to consider such outside thinking.

Yes, racing depends on existing bettors (and slots players or other gamblers) to fuel the purse structure and other revenue, but that does not mean racing should give up trying to recruit new fans?–?who may or may not be bettors. Get people to the track first. Convince them to bet later. That ought to be a marketing principle at any Thoroughbred track in the country. Recruit new fans, or look up someday and have none. 

The Preakness draws a full house to Pimlico. Few are hard-core racing fans, but they show up for the event. Nobody will create another Preakness, but tracks need to cultivate more events. Maryland Million, Haskell Invitational, Pennsylvania Derby, Delaware Handicap, Virginia Derby, West Virginia Breeders Classics
. . . the region’s tracks have some events but could use more. And get with the times. You need food/drink specials, concerts and other hooks at your events. People come to the Preakness for that stuff. Give them another reason to think about the racetrack.

Embrace technology. Few sports merge past and present more than horse racing. On one side, you’ve got generations of breeding and tradition. On the other, you’ve got speed figures and exotic wagering choices. Keep the old, but embrace the new. Does your racetrack have an app? New fans will expect that. Does your racetrack have a fantasy league? New fans will expect that too.

Create a season. Today’s sports fans want a beginning, an end, a clear season like other sports. Baseball starts with spring training, ends with the World Series. Nationally, racing has a season that leads to the Breeders’ Cup but the path isn’t always clear to novice fans. Locally, the season is simply the racing calendar and some tracks race virtually year round.

Ultimately, the sport comes back to the animals though. And Kuegler’s class touched on this too. A room full of college students pursuing master’s degrees came to the conclusion that horse welfare matters to fans. The students think drugs should be eliminated from the sport. Again, that’s not happening immediately or easily, but medication issues affect new fans. Remember that.

Like always, new initiatives in racing must find a way to get funded. Who’s going to pay for all this? Kuegler is a venture capitalist and he thinks it can happen. He talked of pooling resources, maximizing talents, attracting leaders from other industries, leveraging some of the contacts racing has now to develop a new model. 

As Kuegler’s class looked at it, the goal must be to get more people to the track. And leave the Frisbees at home.

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