What the Hook Can Do: The Laws of Attracting Fans to Horse Racing
Although horse racing is a sport that has survived the test of time, attracting new fans is never a negative.
Updated: Feb. 15, 2019 • 2:20 PM ET
Horse tracks can offer viewing experiences other sports can't.
All great pieces of writing need a hook that leaves the reader thirsting for more: Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The tome about the whale, “Call me Ishmael.” Ralph Ellison, “I am an invisible man.” Even Ready Player One, "Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest.”
It’s called the hook; meant to engage, intrigue, challenge and inspire. Most read on, some don’t. The hook draws one in, but sometimes seems like a distant memory at the end.
What makes us become interested in something? Is it part psychology, an ounce of chance, or destiny?
In the post-modern world, sports vie for our attention. You hear the moniker, “It’s about the fans…the fans.” League officials, ownership and industry leaders are seemingly obsessed with it. Imagine them waking up at 3 a.m. in their silk pajamas in a cold sweat.
Horse racing occupies that space in between. I dare you to try to search for it from the main page of ESPN.com. It’s like trying to find an honest fellow in Congress.
Racing has a longer history than professional baseball and unlike every other sport, it never has an off-season. Think about this: somewhere on the planet right now, there are horses circling a track or a race is about to go off. In my estimation, it’s the only truly global sport that’s not in the Olympics.
An odd assortment, but one laced with a strong core of followers. Why? It’s made up of horse enthusiasts who are here for the animals, gamblers (more softly now known as horseplayers) who are in it for a different kind of ride and a bunch of casual observers that are like those folks that show up at church only on Christmas and Easter.
How does this American industry, a sport that suffers from bouts of decentralization, entice new fans?
What The Barns Can Do
The horse racing industry is vast and so complex, reminding one of the tax code. Breeding operations spanning state lines must adhere to rules and regulations. Raiders are criticized for invading tracks like Lee at Gettysburg. Barns have a responsibility to adhere to the letter of the law; however, confounding that might seem.
Yet, more transparency is needed from them. Horse racing is one of the most accessible sports, where fans can interact with trainers, jockeys and the horses themselves. Wanna go see American Pharaoh? You can! Give a holler to Mike Smith, he would welcome it!
I once asked Kirk Gibson for an autograph; all I got was a glare and a choice expletive. Andre Agassi hated the “image is everything” campaign from Canon in the 90s, but it has applicability here. Let’s clean the Augean Stables!
What The Racing Secretaries Can Do
These folks wield tremendous power, and tracks in America need someone in the irons with vision and a steady hand. Enough with the racing metaphors. I’m sure it’s a difficult position, answering to so many, but this position is a fulcrum.
I’d like to see less gimmicks and more education about the sport. Check out what Monmouth Park does during its meet. They open up their doors. You can go behind the scenes and tour the barns.
Further still, look at Canterbury Park up in sunny Minnesota. They’re working on scholarships for shippers! Pell grants for those willing to pack a bag. Not bad. It all begins at the starting gate!
If we’re going to get folks of all ages to the track and great fields, we need outreach and an environment that’s open.
What The Media Can Do
In a world where everyone seems to have a camera, laptop and feed, anyone can be a journalist — democracy giveth and taketh away, I suppose. Criticism of NBC, and once again Fox (we are back to watching Andy Serling doing his bit), doesn’t seem to help the cause.
Until we get regular broadcasts 2-3 days a week (not on the cable network TVG) instead of these one-off days, we won’t make any headway. Considering the “way” people watch stuff today, this might seem old-fashioned; but I still think that broadcasts that fully integrate actual races with education about the sport show promise.
But, until we adopt a better scheme, it won’t matter. People will pull a Timothy Leary and tune out. There are just too many distractions.
What the Book Can Do
Here’s the rub. Does horse racing need more fans or more gamblers?
You can be a fan of the sport, but not a gambler. Less so, you could be a gambler and not a fan. I have known plenty that just care about the tote and don’t really understand nor care what’s going on around the oval or off of it. This is tricky territory.
We know that irresponsible gambling breaks up families and can ruin your financial state. Most of this, I am fairly convinced, is true. If we are after new fans, then you run the risk of creating gamblers and thus, people addicted to it. Maybe that’s just part and parcel in this game.
This past week, the National Handicapping Challenge took place in Las Vegas. For those that don’t know, this is a three-day tournament where horseplayers place fictitious wagers on live races across the country, thus amassing a tally that in the end can win them huge amounts of cash. There was amazing attendance and once again, a virtual unknown won.
I think tracks that invest in tournaments where they can teach handicapping and responsible gambling are on the right course. I would urge them to make it free. This enticement might lure more folks to take part, and it makes for great fun. Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas abandoned the “open” tournament format last year, a poor decision.
The bottom line when it comes to what the Book can do, is that racing needs to seek a lower takeout. Until the percentages go below 16 percent (the typical range is 14 percent to 18 percent) and align themselves more with casinos (typically down in the 5-6 percent range), it’s going to be difficult to attract more folks to the sport. “Losing is a disease,” to quote that two-bit hypnotist from “The Natural”. People need a hook mind you, and nothing draws people in like a real shot at cashing a ticket.
Perhaps none of these “can do” suggestions can coalesce to bring new fans to a sport that was once all anyone ever thought about. Maybe we should revert to the only entity that can make a difference.
What the Horses Can Do
I can’t believe I’m paraphrasing a Disney movie, but “Let ‘em run their race.” Applied here, these are the only folks in this business that don’t have to change anything that they do or have ever done. Once again, it’s the humans that need to change.
Maybe that’s the only hook we will ever truly need.
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