How Horse Racing Is Using Digital Media to Grow Fan Engagement

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Horse racing is no different than other professional sports in how it is working hard to evolve with the digital media landscape to boost fan engagement. Whether it’s attracting new fans or keeping current fans connected, there are a lot of entities trying to collaborate. Different organizations, racetracks, owners and individuals like trainers, jockeys, media members as well as other influencers, are all seeking ways to capitalize on digital media to reach target audiences.

Just like major sports leagues, Thoroughbred racing has been transforming its media distribution strategies and pushing out more digital content. The main difference, though, is that horse racing does not have an official league office or governing body as its chief authority. Unlike most professional sports, it does not have a commissioner or president to lead an all-encompassing vision for horse racing’s digital media future.

Different organizations are trying to team up across platforms, while people working in racing have been using outlets like Twitter to express their personalities with fans and build their personal brands. Ed DeRosa, director of marketing for the handicapping information website Brisnet.com (owned by Churchill Downs), said, “individuals have made better use of social media than most industry properties have. For better or worse, the industry is more reticent to inject personality into its brands.”

The Jockey Club and America’s Best Racing

The Jockey Club, founded in 1894, primarily serves as the breed registry for North American Thoroughbreds. Among other roles it plays, the organization supports and leads different initiatives associated with horse racing, which according to its website, includes serving the information and technology needs of owners, breeders, media, fans and farms. In 2012, the Jockey Club launched America’s Best Racing (ABR), a fan engagement initiative for Thoroughbred racing.

“An increase in digital video content, along with strategic cross-promoting and sharing of the content by racing entities, serves to expand the digital and social footprint of the sport and its compelling lifestyle to the modern consumer,” said Stephen Panus, president of TJC Media Ventures, a subsidiary of The Jockey Club. “Continued and increased communication and collaboration among racetracks and America’s Best Racing, the Jockey Club, and the Breeders’ Cup, among others, across digital and social channels will enable the sport to better target and attract new fans, increase engagement with casual fans, and offer existing fans new promotions and a better overall experience when attending a racetrack.”

ABR serves content distributed across multiple platforms, including a national radio show in collaboration with SB Nation, a mobile app featuring fan contests, as well as its social channels which have a combined audience over 250,000 across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. The initiative is also the title sponsor of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series televised by NBC Sports, and has content-sharing partnerships with NBCSports.com and CBSSports.com.

According to Panus, in 2017 alone, ABR produced more than 1,500 written content features and more than 300 videos, not including videos shared on social media.

“Unlike traditional media, ABR covers the sport in a unique way leveraging the power of social, digital, video, radio/podcast, and TV channels that brings people closer to the people, horses, destinations, venues, and lifestyle that fuel the sport. This includes fashion, bourbon (and other cocktails), food, travel, celebrities, pop culture, art and culture, business, and more,” Panus added.

2018 Horse Racing Study

Earlier this month, the Jockey Club hosted its 66th Annual Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing. McKinsey and Co., a global management consulting firm that conducts qualitative and quantitative research to guide management decisions, released its 2018 Horse Racing Study at the conference, indicating that racing needs to create more engaging mobile content and increase money invested behind promoting the content.  Additionally, the study suggested that horse racing must do a better job capturing fan data that can be used for more personalized digital marketing strategies.

Senior external adviser for McKinsey, Mike Salvaris, stated at the conference, “we need to promote our content so casual fans can see it. Publishers of all types discover the vast majority of their consumption happens outside of their sites and apps, and therefore, they need to invest to target fans and promote their content to them on social platforms.”

DeRosa, who has been attending races his entire life and has a career in racing, feels there is an opportunity to increase fan engagement through the type of content being shared, coupled with different entities expressing their personalities more through digital media channels.

“I’d like to see the industry inject more personality into its brands. A lot of the industry-owned Twitter accounts follow a similar template for engagement in terms of the type of content they share,” he said. “I’d also like to see a lot more information on betting on the races. There’s a duality to consuming baseball around the casual fan enjoying the game and the so-called stats geeks really getting into all the ways to parse information, including quasi-proprietary information like WAR, fWAR, etc.”

DeRosa also added, “racing has done a poor job using its data-rich history to appeal to people who like activities such as this.”

Legalization of Sports Betting

The recent legalization of sports betting may provide an opportunity for racing to reach new fans and benefit from digital media opportunities in the future.

For example, surrounding the $1 million betfair.com Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in New Jersey this past July, a parlay option was available at the track called the “Grand Slam.” It allowed bettors a chance to win if they selected the winners of three races, including the Haskell, along with the winner of the Major League Baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals game that evening.

Panus thinks that these types of synergies are a way to introduce horse racing’s product to a wider, more diverse audience who may be inclined to engage with and wager on sports, many through their mobile devices.

“Offerings of a blended parlay among other sports and horse racing, such as what Monmouth introduced on Haskell Stakes day this past July, serve just that purpose,” he said.

The growth of digital media has proven to be a successful fan engagement tool for horse racing, just like other professional sports. However, it is unfair to compare Thoroughbred racing’s digital strategies to a league like the NBA, which some experts try to do. While fan engagement goals are similar, the sports are set up differently and have different resources backing them. Horse racing’s different entities and individuals must continue to collaborate and work toward common objectives.

This does not necessarily mean that more digital content needs to be distributed; but the focus should be on more creative and innovative offerings with dynamic personalities behind them. Without a central league office enforcing policies, this can open up creativity and new ideas that other sports cannot implement. That can drive its digital media vision and push the horse racing fan-engagement needle forward.