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Looking At Another March Madness

The frenzy that is the NCAA Tournament is now underway, and brands of all size and shape are trying to find ways to capitalize on all the hype and hoopla that surrounds the games. One entity looking to grow its own fan engagement platform leading to another signature American event is horse racing. Last fall The Jockey Club, in conjunction with The National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) announced a broad-based initiative to re-establish horse racing in the lexicon of mainstream sports in North America. Although their first push began over the winter, their chief focus has begun with a series of initiatives this spring, leading towards and through The Triple Crown.

As a result of the cooperative work being done in the sport, America’s Best Racing, the integrated brand initiative that includes a new website (followhorseracing.com), increased national television coverage, and a free-to-play game, among other elements, were recently launched by The Jockey Club, to promote and market horse racing.
At the forefront of the campaign is Jockey Club President and COO James Gagliano.

We caught up with Gagliano to talk racing, promotion and the business of “The Sport Of Kings.”

Q: Horse Racing has long been considered a fractured business by sports marketers. What is the biggest reason to say that has changed now?

JG: “America’s Best Racing” presents strategic partners, sponsors and marketers the opportunity to align with the best jockeys, horses, trainers, owners and racetracks.

Moreover, having both our seasons – Road to the Triple Crown (January-June) and Road to the Breeders’ Cup (June-November) – experiencing increased television coverage under the NBC Sports Group umbrella provides additional opportunities to reach the diverse and avid audience who follow and participate in our sport, as well as expose it to casual and prospective fans.

Thoroughbred racing has also bolstered its national publicity and promotional efforts in the past year. With funding provided by The Jockey Club, NTRA Communications added an experienced sports marketing talent as the vice president of communications and a social media manager, and they will be spreading the word about our sport’s interesting personalities and events through traditional, general-interest media and social network outlets.

Q: Is The Jockey Club’s program just domestic or does it have international ties?

JG: The initial launch of America’s Best Racing is domestic-focused, but our sport is very much an international sport, whether discussing breeding or racing, and there will be opportunities to expand the brand down the road.

Q: All sports are looking to enhance the fan experience, and horse racing has the one key element no other sport in the U.S. has — legal online betting. How does that betting experience lead to fan enhancement?

JG: It certainly provides horse racing with a key opportunity. We are the only sport on which you can legally place an online wager in the U.S., whether at the track or from the comfort of your laptop, iPad, home or office.

The future brand of Thoroughbred racing will cater to new types of fans, loyal spectators from all backgrounds enjoying a day at the races together. The sport offers a unique opportunity to build a trendsetting fan engagement strategy from the ground up. Using video sharing, social networks, new TV and digital tools, and social games, the fan-centric strategy will engage new and younger targeted demographics and drive fan growth from diverse arenas.

Q: The demo for horse racing is older. What are the four things this initiative will do in 2012 to try to reach a younger fan base?

JG: First, The Jockey Club, in collaboration with NTRA Communications, just launched the splash page for America’s Best Racing’s new fan-centric website, followhorseracing.com, where fans are eligible to sign up to win the “Ultimate Racing Weekend” sweepstakes. The winner and seven of his/her friends will be given $5,000 in a wagering voucher and a VIP experience at the 2012 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park on November 2-3.

Second, we will soon be launching a new free-to-play online game, Major League Horse Racing, designed to introduce the casual fan with a no-risk method to learn how to wager on horseracing. This user-friendly tool will teach the next generation how to handicap a horse race with confidence. Younger fans are more likely to learn about a sport online, and we believe this game can serve as the gateway for the next generation of horse racing fans.

Third, in addition to the additional live horse racing on television, The Jockey Club, along with some seasoned television producers, is considering some alternative television programming that will highlight aspects of life inside our sport and the personalities who comprise America’s Best Racing.

Finally, The Jockey Club has engaged a prominent producer to oversee the development of a social game for horse racing. The initial phases of design have been completed and a launch is planned for May.

Q: Is there a celebrity element, and if so who are the key faces in promotion?

JG: There has always been celebrity interest in horse racing – whether they participate as owners or fans. Bobby Flay, Jim Rome, Rob Drydek and Bo Derek, among many others, are big fans of our sport. Celebrities find our sport exciting and fun and they enjoy the communal and engaging experience of watching live horse racing.

There will be a celebrity league for our upcoming free-to-play social game (Major League Horse Racing) and there are ongoing discussions with a host of celebrities who are interested in participating and sharing their passion for horse racing. We hope to announce those names soon…so stay tuned.

Q: Last year’s Triple Crown saw an uptick in interest. How will you capitalize on that this year?

JG: More than 30 million people watched the three Triple Crown races last year, and television ratings for the 2011 Belmont Stakes — with no Triple Crown contender, I might add — were up 55 percent from 2010. Moreover, the 4.8 rating (7M viewers) for the Belmont Stakes was three times the rating of game five of the NHL Stanley Cup finals.

The potential field of 2012 Triple Crown contenders is shaping up nicely. Union Rags (winner of the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes), Hansen (winner of the Gotham Stakes), and Creative Cause (winner of the San Felipe Stakes) all won major prep races recently, and we’re sure to see some others punch their proverbial tickets to Louisville in the next several weeks. With the additional lead-up television coverage in the coming weeks and the launch of America’s Best Racing, we anticipate and are planning for the positive trend to continue.

Q: Are there any new brands looking to activate around racing? Who and how?

JG: We have had discussions with representatives of a wide range of mainstream brands who have expressed an interest in aligning with America’s Best Racing to market to racing fans. We are continuing those conversations and believe our sport and our loyal fan base offer intriguing touch points for new brands and sponsors.

Q: Horse racing has at least two networks dedicated to covering the sport. How will they be used and how will your partnership with NBC expand the footprint of the sport?

JG: HRTV and TVG will continue to produce the comprehensive, quality programming that serves our existing fans so well on a daily basis.

At the same time, we’ve very excited about complementing those broadcasts and reaching a wider audience with programming on NBC, the NBC Sports Network and CNBC. The Jockey Club is collaborating with the NBC Sports Group in providing “The Road to the Kentucky Derby” (live coverage of six major Derby prep races March 24 – April 14). The series will be highlighted by a 90-minute live broadcast on NBC featuring the Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park on Saturday, April 7.

The other four Kentucky Derby prep races are the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes from Turfway Park on March 24 and the Florida Derby from Gulfstream Park on March 31, both of which will air on the NBC Sports Network, and the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes from Keeneland Race Course and the Arkansas Derby from Oaklawn Park, which will air on CNBC on April 14.

Clearly, there are now more opportunities to watch major races on national television than there were a year ago. From July 25, 2010, through June 11, 2011, there were 35 Grade I and Grade II races on national television; from July 23, 2011, through June 9, 2012, there will be 57 Grade I and Grade II races on national television, which represents a 63 percent increase.

But increasing the television presence of Thoroughbred racing is just the first step in a long-term, multi-media strategy focused on fan retention and new fan development. Together with racetracks and other industry organizations and stakeholders, The Jockey Club plans to aggressively cross-promote Thoroughbred racing on a variety of traditional and new digital media platforms.

Our partnership with NBC Sports Group and their commitment to the sport of Thoroughbred racing, which now includes long-term deals for the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup, and is further supported by the Summer in Saratoga series and Autumn in Keeneland series, greatly expands the footprint of our sport across our two seasons: the Road to the Triple Crown and the Road to the Breeders’ Cup.

Q: Have you already seen a positive effect from the new campaigns at the end of last year, and if so what have they been?

JG: It’s early yet but we are seeing some encouraging signs. There seems to be a greater awareness and enthusiasm than in past years as we head into the Triple Crown season. According to the most recent monthly economic indicators report produced and distributed by Equibase, wagering on U.S. horse racing is up 3 percent this year and purses are up 8 percent. Our big events continue to thrive. Mainstream media is taking notice and we have dramatically grown our social media presence. As we promote Thoroughbred racing, we are fortunate to receive exceptional support and cooperation from owners, trainers and jockeys. The NTRA Communications team will continue to work hard to showcase the sport’s rising stars, such as jockeys Rosie Napravnik and Chantal Sutherland, and draw new fans to a great sport.