It’s not often that opportunity and need coincide anywhere in business or sport. But these coincidences are becoming increasingly frequent, and made possible, almost exclusively, by the exciting and brave new world of technology.
If the industrial revolution changed the world back in the days of our pioneering ancestors, with technology, the best is yet to come with no one knowing what this might be as we have come to expect the unexpected.
Racing, like every other sport, is not immune from technology. Thankfully, the future and destiny of racing, and many mainstream and niche sports, have been taken out of their hands, and been brought, dragging and screaming, to confront the brave new world, which, if they had their choice, might have been allowed to pass them by.
While racing has been underpinned by its rich and colourful history, the goalposts have changed and keep changing.
We can no longer rely on the past, and those hardened punting souls to keep racing alive and kicking.
Through the sheer laws of natural attrition, old style racing fans and punters are going the way of the dinosaurs.
The new breed of punters are out there, but they speak a very different language, have a very different culture and use very different tools to access information and engage in racing. There is a massive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for racing if it adapt to these changes. Other sports have recognized this and are making the rapid strides and changes, which racing needs to do. Take any mainstream sport – cricket, soccer, football, tennis, rugby, cycling, to name just a few. In their own and special way they are well on the way to reinventing themselves, and, through this process, capturing the attention and engagement of billions of people across every continent in the world.
Racing, through its obsessive fear of change, and through the very narrow, and often, compromised vision of its administrators, has a very sad history of being left waiting at the altar.
It is the most reactive sport in the world, and, so often, gets bogged down with the trivialities and distractions that matter little and which are such a turnoff for the generation coming through- the generation which racing needs to connect with and has the unique opportunity to do so.
Take the example last week of former Hong Kong race caller Darren Flindell, below, who called his first two meetings since moving to Sydney- a Thursday meeting at Warwick Farm and Saturday’s Rosehill Golden Slipper. It was a baptism of fire handled well by Flindell, but, as always, out came the knockers on twitter.
This social media tool can be a useful one, but it can also lose sight of priorities, especially when it comes to discussing horse racing- a very old school way of using what should be a new and immediate form of interactivity.
Soon, there were the comparisons between Flindell and the equally good former Sydney caller Mark Shean, below. Pointless stuff in the grand scheme of things.
It was just another roadblock to racing’s rocky road to capture the opportunities which are staring it in the face.
It made us wonder about the future of the sport, and how it’s going to get to its destination, and what it will look like once arriving at these New Beginnings.
More to the point, who will lead this long march forward? No sport or business is capable of moving forward unless it has the right calibre of leadership.
Arguably, leadership defines success and failure. And racing better take a crash course in developing and identifying the leaders that will be essential if it is to embark on its own, and hopefully, march forward.
The one racing jurisdiction that is in a league of its own is Hong Kong as it is managed by an organisation that is much more than a racing club, a “character trait”, which gives it the room to grow.
The HKJC is hardly perfect, but the Club has a skilful leader who understands every aspect of the sport, along with the strengths and weaknesses of building a holistic business model with the future in mind.
With KPI’s the envy of every other racing jurisdictions- and many other sports with a global footprint- such as record breaking turnover figures after every racing meeting that average HK$1.1 billion even for an eight race card mid-week meeting, two world class tracks with Group 1 venues, the marquee value names of jockeys Joao Moreira, Zac Purton and Douglas Whyte plus equine superstars in Able Friend, Designs On Rome and Luger, others waiting in the wings and Hong Kong being the spoilt child of Mainland China, the question is, Where to next?
In fact, Where to next for the entire future of the sport?
With the rapidly ageing captive market talking a different language and using tools of communication provided by racing industry administrations that are obsolete, how does racing (really) attract the new generation of racing fans who are yet to be convinced that investing in the sport is a smart betting- and business- proposition?
Being a horse owner is not exactly inexpensive and, at least in Hong Kong where “face” and aspiration are all-important, it’s always about having a “sure win”- and never losing “face”.
This consumer group whose defining feature is that they are cash rich, wouldn’t think twice about opening a restaurant or buying a Ferrari or Lamborghini. But investing in a horse and supporting the sport comes with a very different set of priorities and objectives- and very different thinking to how their parents and uncles and aunts approached the game. That was part of a very different and distance era.
Here, as we have said many times, the racing industry can learn so much from the foibles and arrogance of the much bigger, far more popular and technology-driven music industry.
When, instead of partnering with it, the music companies decided to sue peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing service Napster, and won that battle, all this hollow victory did was open Pandora’s Box.
Soon, there was YouTube, Facebook, Google, and in more recent years, Spotify, hundreds of other streaming sites- legal and illegal- along with much greater file sharing.
Meanwhile, online copyright laws have come into play that remain shades of grey- with the handcuffs- with content now owned and controlled by the new music fan who believes everything is there for the taking for free.
Looking at the present and future of horse racing, if it’s not already king, content, content, content must be king- and content made available through an Alternative online racing channel aimed at the new racing fan.
The diehard racing fanatic is fine with what there is. Old dogs don’t need to learn new tricks. It’s the new pups that need to be convinced that the sport belongs in their buffet of choices.
What exactly could this new content be other than the ‘live’ streaming of horse racing? And if anyone seriously believes this content isn’t available in Asia where any televised race meeting in Australia can’t be watched- for free- through the magic of the “black box” that can be purchased for HK$2,000 from Macau, Mongkok or Shenzhen, and plugged into their computer or television has been playing with the fairies for too long.
Let’s also not forget that until a little less than a year ago, an iPhone app called AUS Racing offered anyone outside of Australia and New Zealand the opportunity to view almost any race meeting in Oz- minus the commercial breaks- seven days a week, for free.
We remember showing the app to Bruce Mann during his early days with TVN, who was totally in the dark how this content was made available. How? It’s called technology mixed with consumer demand and the usual grey online laws.
The “television” industry is changing and has changed, and as Cora Yim, senior VP of Fox International Channels, recently explained to Vivienne Chow of the SCMP, content production is no longer tied to a single channel’s platform and pointed to Netflix, the game changing on-demand streaming channel that is yet to be launched in Asia, but has 57 million subscribers worldwide and which grew by offering other broadcasters shows on demand. Netflix has since branched out into original content. And creating, producing, and owning original content is what the racing world should be looking at with the near future in mind.
For the time being, however, let’s look at the streaming of races, the time between races, and how this can be supported by sponsorship and advertising revenue.
Then look at other ways of attracting advertisers like YouTube and Facebook have done in recent years, and those racing clubs led by people with vision will be in a position to build a new revenue stream to include something as obvious as product placement and, with it, offering added value to new sponsors of the sport other than naming rights.
In this day and age of convenience, speed and the inter-activity of iPhones and iPads replacing computers whereas television has gone the way of the compact disk, finding and creating and producing new racing content means looking beyond the obvious.
Can racing clubs- rarely magnets for attracting creative talent- produce the relevant goods to satisfy the voracious appetite of today’s content-driven world?
Just as Indie labels took over from the majors in music with music fans finding the former to be more credible, racing clubs need “indie” partners who can work with them- but not for them.
There must be that freedom to create without the Kunta Kinte shackles and endless red tape that comes out of board and bored meetings.
Visit any racing club’s official website and what do you see? Information overload as one navigates their way through a badly designed dog’s breakfast.
Will this attract the new and next generation of racing lifestyle fans for return visits? What’s in there, and out there for them other than hard facts and figures that, to many rookies to the sport are as confusing and irrelevant as reading a totalisator board before the results have been posted?
This is not a one-dimensional consumer market that lives 24/7 for “the punt”, certainly not in Hong Kong. That’s part of racing’s past.
These are consumers who might enjoy their racing as much as they enjoy fashion, movies, online gaming, music, and everything today’s technology-driven world offers them when they want it, how they want it and where they want it.
Again, the HKJC is ahead of the curve in this area with its Happy Wednesday brand, a brand that one can only guess, will evolve through its online and on-course strategies into other areas of business, which can bring the excitement and socialising of a day or night at the races to a bigger consumer market in different ways.
Already, ongoing partnerships with music companies, local and international brands like Samsung, Bose, Gibson and g.o.d- goods of desire- and media partners producing content that shows consumers new ways of looking at racing that gives the sport some swaddling new robes, bear this out.
All the fun and colour and people meeting people at Happy Valley’s Beer Garden being shown ‘live’ through this Alternative online channel? Why not?
Everything going on at other venues like Adrenaline and Gallery and also shown ‘live’? Why not?
Getting to know the sports main attractions- the jockeys and trainers- along with new members, new owner syndicates and all those bringing entertainment to the races? Why not?
Documentaries on Hong Kong racing’s favourite son Tony Cruz, thirteen time Champion Jockey Douglas Whyte and on champion miler Able Friend? Why not?
A Happy Wednesday Musical along the lines of “Glee”? Why not?
Just as music companies’ most valuable asset these days is it back catalogue, repackage and release the HKJC’s vast content of “Racing Memories.” Nostalgia sells to all ages.
Like Robert Johnson’s great blues classic, horse racing is at the crossroads trying to find its mojo.
It can plod along by feeding its captive market with more of the same and try to force-feed those still to be convinced that the sport is for them with the same recipe thinking they’ll bite. They won’t.
Horse racing must evolve and adopt a horses for courses strategy as one size no longer fits all.
The racing club that truly understands this and creates a brave new world will take the sport away from those clinging to a past when we’re in the present. And when it comes to backing this winner, we know which one we’ll be betting on.
Hans Ebert ©