(Courtesy of http://www.fasttrack.hk)
By Hans Ebert & Jenny Bridle
Someone half-jokingly mentioned last night that if horse racing was to be cool, then, like God drives a flying chariot, the late martial arts expert, legend and actor Bruce Lee should have also been a jockey. His huge popularity that lives on today would have helped put the sport smack dab in the middle of everything that matters. And made horse racing cool. Has horse racing ever been cool? Should it? Could it?
What those given the responsibility, the opportunity, and the challenge to market a sport so many see as being something they can easily live without, refuse, or fail to understand, is whether there is a need for horse racing to have The Cool Factor. And here, it’s about how big and appealing one wishes the sport to be. If for all this talk about “fan engagement” and dangling hotline bling blang Fiddy Cent carrots, the end game is to “simply” attract/lure/cajole a new market to bet, that’s relatively easy. It doesn’t need “social media”, and all the souped-up bells and whistles and dog and pony shows that particular caravan brings to the party. Just offer up a menu of new betting options and promote the hell out of this buffet of choices.
During that honeymoon period between newbies to the sport and racing clubs where both sides try to find if this could be a marriage that goes the distance, nothing works better than to have this newbie customer segment meet the sport’s main attractions, up close and personal. It’s what makes going racing at Happy Valley racecourse so unique. They get to “know” the jockeys on a first name basis, and so enjoy following the rides of Joao and Zac and Douglas and Karis and Neil etc. It’s interaction at its best and these jockeys genuinely enjoy making the time. It’s also a vital and simple first step in making that initial bet- and it’s an app waiting to happen.
Along with making the jockeys approachable, racing in Hong Kong offers the Cool Factor at every Happy Wednesday. Here, thousands of fans turn out each week to enjoy racing, ‘live’ music, and various special events in the world’s coolest and most unique racing location. How many racing clubs in the world work with YouTube and YouTubers? Where else in racing can fans experience the best racing in the world, bond with James Bond’s Aston Martin and Bond Girls, and two of the most popular Youtubers in Dan and Phil, and their 7 Second Challenge?
While many in the sport talk about “fashions in the field”, the HKJC’s Happy Wednesday brand is different because it doesn’t impose its own “hats and heels” style on fans. Instead, it’s all about what the fans say about their style. And currently, all Happy Wednesday fans have the opportunity not only to share their own style, but also to vote on the each other’s in the #MirrorMirror Fashionista contest. It’s real and authentic and very cool.
The big question, however, is whether racing clubs and their racing executives, whose KPIs are turnover-driven, need or bother to think further than feeding those hunger pangs with new betting options as part of racing’s very own Hunger Games? Do they really care about bringing the Cool Factor to the sport? When some racing executives try to bring the cool factor, which they sometimes dub “innovative thinking,” all they end up doing is talking to themselves and the racing industry. It’s often wobble heads time- and it becomes dreary.
For example, just this week, at Woodbine Racetrack, the CEO Jim Lawson announced that the track would card 25 races in the opposite direction in 2016. “We think fans will love it,” he said. “Owners will get more chances to run their horses on the turf and newcomers may think about getting into ownership.” Huh? Really, Jimbo? One response that stood out was a comment on Twitter that this would make Woodbine play like Longchamps. From a marketing and fan engagement point of view, the question is, would new or potential fans have even the faintest clue what this reference means? And, maybe there’s a piece of the story missing but, as it stands, it’s difficult to understand how running races in the opposite direction will create new horse owners. But maybe ….
And, seriously now, how many racing executives you know are actually “cool” and would know Drake from Sir Francis Drake? That’s nothing personal, it’s only business, and the core business of horse racing is all about getting as big a slice as possible of the wagering pie.
In his home town of Toronto, Drake – and not your Sir Francis — is so cool that the City’s NBA team, The Toronto Raptors, had a “Drake Night“ this week and Drake was there, meeting fans, just hanging out, doing impromtu interviews. There was even a Drake booth so fans could put themselves into their own version of his Hotline Bling video.
One of Drake’s biggest supporters is a 74 year old City counsellor named Norm Kelly and, you know what, Norm is cool. Norm became better known in the City after he stepped in to be Deputy Mayor when the previous Mayor, Rob Ford, was stripped of his authority following the infamous crack-smoking video. He is so cool Drake calls him #SixDad #6Dad. Ask any young person why Norm is cool and they will tell you it’s because he’s average and real and hilarious.
What stands out about Drake and Norm’s relationship is that there is no artifice here or, if there is, it is not overt. They are really just being themselves and both are funny, creative, smart and likeable people and that’s why we love them. They have what most horse racing organizations — what most corporate structures of any kind — lack: likeability and personality. And they behave in ways which suggest they have empathy for, and truly like their audience.
Racing organizations don’t seem to care whether people like them. The JRA is an exception: they seem to understand their fans better than any racing organization in the world. And, they want their fans to be proud, to care, and like what they’re doing. Yes, they want their fans to bet, but they also seem to genuinely want them to have faith in their product, to really believe.
Cool is timeless and ageless. Just ask Keith Richards. He goes with the flow and the world loves him for that. What makes many things come undone are intense and self-absorbed people. It makes them not likeable. And if they represent the sport, this lack of likability can be a huge turn-off factor. Who wants to be part of an industry where you don’t like many associated with it? It’s what happened when music fans discovered why they should not like — nor need — music companies. It resulted in a paradigm shift that’s still shifting.
As for the JRA and Japanese racing fans, they make the sport hip to the rest of the world by demanding and being fans of “their” racing club and everything it does. There is no feeling of Them and Us. The marketing and promotion of racing in Japan is beyond cool. It’s surreally cool and so niche it’s commercial — if that makes any sense. Many think all this to be “very Japanese”. Maybe. And, instead of admiring from afar and wondering how and why this happens, it’s time to understand what can happen when one works with an open mind and a deft understanding of customers today.
Understanding customers and potential customers is doable, but there are some barriers to doing this well and achieving the Cool Factor. One is that you cannot understand customers by merely looking at the metrics of their past behaviour. These numbers do offer clues as to what people want and like and are looking to invest their loyalty in but . . .and this is a bigger but . . . it is challenging to measure likeability with any exactness because so much of what is likeable was only just made so by a gazillion people voting with their feet through likes and shares. Trying to repeat such “events” is not possible, even though many have and continue to try by developing something “viral” and being “sick.”
Second, the lack of empathy is a problem. This is not just a problem for racing but there seems to be inability to put themselves in the shoes or POV of others. Everyone these days is stuck on the idea that their thoughts (cognition) guide their behaviour — change your thoughts, change your behaviour. Change your thinking/change your life as, for example, the 12 Steps programs.
And, yet, we all know that many times we change thinking and just replace one not-so-great behaviour with another. Why is this? None of this is confined to racing, but many people talk about Emotional Intelligence and that it is clearly missing in much of our interactions in modern culture from the organizational/governmental to the one-on-one personal and intimate.
When people genuinely, naturally have a high EQ, they “get” other people; when someone or a company “gets” you, you love them back because you feel this person or that company understands you. This immediacy makes people believe they are cared about, that they matter. Racing doesn’t do a very good job of this. It’s a numbers driven game. Fans and bettors are looked at statistically…horses are looked at statistically. Customer metrics and past performances are the be all and end all. Where’s the Emotional Intelligence in any of that? Where’s the empathy in the racing organization-customer relationship? How can a racing executive or a racing organization be emotionally intelligent when the bottom line is what it is? Those are the questions to answer. There are several steps that could be taken to help resolve this, but perhaps the first thing that needs to be done is to help the sport understand that it needs to seriously chill and stop taking itself so seriously.
And that doesn’t mean going down the road of sarcasm and cynicism to the point of death. Clearly, the JRA doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Look at some of their promotions such as Sumo and Attack on the Titan at The Japan Cup. And yet, we can all agree that the JRA is one of most professional racing organizations in the world. And, the most successful. Clearly, they “get” their customers and give them what they want.
The bottom line- and even the top line-is that for any industry to be relevant, the Cool Factor must come into play. It attracts new customers, it attracts new business partners and it helps make the consumer pie grow.
Horse racing is in an unenviable position as when the Big Guy was handing out Cool, he somehow missed the sport. Maybe it wasn’t cool enough? But here in 2015, and 2016 just a shot away, it’s not too late to even making the numbers look cool by packaging all this in brand new swaddling clothes instead of laying in that manger thinking things will happen through divine intervention and immaculate conception.