Donn's Articles » Strategic Marketing

Strategic Marketing

The findings from the recent market research conducted on behalf of Horse Racing Ireland’s Strategic Marketing Group can be sorted into three categories: interesting (apparently fewer adults are going racing than before, but those who are going are doing so with greater frequency), obvious (lack of interest is earth-shatterlingly the main reason cited by those who haven’t attended a race meeting in the last two years), and worrying. Actually, most of it is worrying.

Like, the fact that just 22% of respondents said that they were interested in racing. Even more concerning, however, is the fact that, of those who said that they were interested, the majority were aged 50 or over.

We know that attendances are falling. Some 1.46 million people went racing in 2007, 1.39 million in 2008, 1.24 million in 2009. That’s a fall of over 15% in two years. In 2006, 17% of respondents said that they had been racing at least once in the previous year, in 2010 12% said that they had. That is a massive drop, just five percentage points but, as a proportion of attendees, it represents a fall of almost 30%. It’s staggering how far we have fallen in such a short space of time.

The setting up of the Strategic Marketing Review Group (SMG) appears to be a start at the establishment of measures to arrest this decline, and that can only be a good thing. I’m not certain about the naming of the initiative, the very mention of marketing generally, or strategic marketing specifically, is anathema to most folk, enough to send them scurrying for the straight bat, and you don’t need Philip Kotler to tell you that there is a need for radical change in the way that we do things.

There is also a sense that we are a little late arriving to this particular party, in the way that Terminal 2 is a little late arriving to the Dublin Airport extravaganza. The good times papered over lots of cracks and, now that they have stopped rolling, the depths of the problems that racing is facing are laid fairly bare. In fairness, racing is not the only walk of Irish life in which that is true, a fact that will be in even greater focus at 3.00pm today. Also, the very fact that this initiative is under way is encouraging in the sense that, at the very least, it demonstrates a recognition among the custodians of Irish racing of the need to act.

You have to hope that Ireland does not go down the British Racing For Change route. Bigger number cloths at some race meetings, jockeys’ first names in the racecard and efforts to convince the betting public that decimal odds were what they wanted are all very well, but they do not address the fundamental issue. Indeed, it is significant that their one proposed fundamental change has driven a wedge through the middle of the industry, racing people on the left, marketing people on the right.

The difficulty with the manner in which Irish and British racing have evolved is that the governing body does not have full control over the product. Almost every stakeholder has a say. If you were to run racing only for the customer, in this sense the paying racegoer, you would race only on Saturdays and Sundays and public holidays, when the public are generally free to go, as they do in Japan. You certainly wouldn’t be racing on a Thursday afternoon in the depths of winter.

There is also an issue that does need to be addressed about racing enthusiasts not going racing as often as they used to, preferring instead to watch from the comfort of their armchairs on At The Races with internet betting at their fingertips, but that is not insurmountable. Sky Sports was the making of the Premier League, not the breaking of it, and you still struggle to get one of the 80,000 tickets for Croke Park during the summer despite the fact that there has never been more GAA on television than there is now.

The best-dressed-ladys competitions and the bands after racing are all very well, and facilities and admission prices and food costs need to be addressed, but the fundamental objective has to be to get people going racing for racing’s sake. Education is key, the generation of awareness. Racing is a fascinating sport, the things that you don’t see on race day are intriguing, the training, the breeding, the riding, the form analysis. The fundamentals of racing need to be explained to the uninitiated. Racing is not, despite popular perception, a closed shop with a language and a population of its own.

The HRI initiative with kids is excellent, most of us learned about the sport as youngsters, we learned about the nuances and we asked the stupid questions, and kids are the footballers or the golfers or the racegoers of the future, your choice. More needs to be done. More with kids and more with university students.

None of this provides the short-term fix that The Fun Lovin’ Criminals do, it is a long-term strategy, but HRI can afford to be long-termist. They need to be long-termist. This is a long-term issue, and it needs a long-term view to get it right.

© The Racing Post, 7th December 2010