The Buzz Around the Boutique Meets

The past month or so has been a whirlwind in Thoroughbred racing. In July, both Saratoga and Del Mar began their meets, that run through the beginning of September. Those two short meets provide a lot of the bang-for-the-buck revenue for both horse racing states. $15 million handles are the norm, with big days even bigger than that. At a 20% cut they supply whole lot of purse money, and that doesn’t factor in the daily attendance, which also brings in a fair amount of sheckels.

I guess it should not surprise us that much, in this day and age where time is so precious.  Bigger events in all sports seem to be getting bigger, while the lesser events – the everyday grind – can stall. Ratings for the Super Bowl continue to sky. The Reds against the Dodgers on a Wednesday afternoon’s TV ratings aren’t much, but put the two teams in a playoff battle and it’s a different story. It was released just this week that by 10 AM on Monday, ticket sales records for next year’s PGA Championship at Valahalla were smashed; this as regular weekly tournaments struggle to sell out.

We notice that concept with harness racing’s big days like the Hambletonian, where the handle and attendance has not moved downward too much, while regular harness handles have fallen precipitously. In Thoroughbred racing, where handles have fallen upwards of one third in eight years, the big events like the Derby keep busting attendance, handle and television viewer records. 

What you notice from the major short meets in Thoroughbred racing, like Keeneland, Saratoga and Del Mar, is a hard push to keep and foster the buzz. Keeneland’s marketing money is spent over a four or five week period, where they enlist partners in local business, sponsors, add handicapping contests and more. NYRA’ s marketing budget is huge during the Saratoga meet with giveaways and television coverage on NBC. At Del Mar, they market big events seemingly daily. When you spend that much money over a short period of time, rather than over 250 days a year like some tracks must, you can move the needle. It creates buzz, for an already buzzworthy event.

This is not dissimilar to racing in the UK. The Royal Ascot meet, among others, drive eyeballs from willing customers, paying upwards of $50 a ticket to attend. The sport there survives on lower takeout rates where customers bet over $20 billion US a year, augmented by sponsorship and ticket revenue. It’s an ecosystem built upon wanting to attend events and horse racing, and giving customers a good betting proposition at the same time to keep them interested year after year (going broke with high takeout rates gets old real fast).

Harness racing, through tradition, a reliance on the past, intransigence, or whatever other adjective we want to use, has not seemed to prescribe to the boutique meet concept. Horsemen, especially in slot jurisdictions, want purses, and they want them spread out over as many dates as possible. Slot tracks don’t feel too differently and want racing as many months of the year as they can. So do the states. It doesn’t seem to matter what type of product is put on, as long as it’s put on. 

We all know we need big, long meets – especially in slots states – but we don’t need every meet to be a 365 day one. We need to be much more creative on how we spend money, and paring off some dates and some marketing money for a boutique meet helps sell the sport in a way in which your on-track visitors are telling you they want to be sold to.  The customer is right, even if we ignore them. 

One boutique meet, done in a way that makes total sense from a marketing, branding and revenue perspective, is “Old Home Week” in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. “Old Home Week” is a homecoming week of sorts on the Island which is home to 140,000 residents. The week, with the tagline that fits harness racing perfectly – “be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home” – attracts over 90,000 visitors at the height of tourist season.  Piggybacked on this influx is the Gold Cup and Saucer Free For All pace. During the week, double cards are run in tandem with the festivities, which attract eyeballs and betting customers. In addition, the $20 entry fee, with thousands of paying customers, adds to the revenue. For one week, culminating in one race, harness racing has an enthusiastic, willing and paying audience. 

That buzz is palpable, and it goes beyond your average everyday harness racing fan. In fact, just this past week, actress Anne Heche, vacationing with her family, took in the sights and sounds at Charlottetown Driving Park, tweeting pictures to her followers. Can you see her, or anyone else for that matter, tweeting a regular night at Northfield the same way?

We see the handle numbers in harness racing and they are not pleasant. We’re never going to create the buzz like a Saratoga and generate $15 million handles a day. At small tracks we are not even going to do one tenth of that regularly. The sport in the old days was run on handle and attendance revenue. Like Old Home Week shows, you can charge $20 a head and get people inside your venue, if the table is set properly. That $20 a head can dwarf revenue from a 4% signal fee on $200,000 of handle, and give the sport a new revenue stream. It’s not elusive; it’s not pie in the sky and it’s not impossible. Creating boutique meets should be a staple for this sport, not just a happenstance occurrence at one or two racetracks.  Slots money and meagre nightly handles alone can only support the sport for so long.

Reprinted with permission from Harness Racing Update.

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