By Hans Ebert
We never undertook The Passage To India that would have taken us into the bowels of Mumbai, the home of Bollywood, and this year’s gathering of ARF- the Asian Racing Federation- for ARC, the Asian Racing Conference. Reading some of the twittering coming outta Mumbai, we were reminded of that line the great Quincy Jones used before producing all those megastars for the We Are The World recording: Leave your ego at the door. Perhaps we were reading some of these 140 words or less incorrectly, but there was the occasional whiff of showboating. Thankfully, there was the SCMP’s Andrew Hawkins who kept things simple, to the point, and was almost the ARC’s designated communications person.
Thinking about this racing conference, our minds went walkies as we thought to ourselves, Has it already been one whole year since the ARC landed in Hong Kong where much was said and discussed, where there was a “healthy exchange of ideas” and everyone returned to home base and got back to emptying out their various In trays? Time flies, but how much do conferences like these, where many are caught up in the moment and believe they are in the midst of something that’s going to rock the world, really accomplish when everyone is back on terra firma and away from running up the hill with the blissed out tribe of junket revellers? Just asking.
We’re sure that, again, this year, much was discussed at this ARC, many presentations were made and racing administrators communicated with other racing executives on various racing matters and tackled many industry problems that need tackling. And why not? This wasn’t, after all, some hootenanny, but a meeting place for the sharing of individual insights, the priorities of different jurisdictions, and the combined thinking of its leaders to right the wrongs and map out the future of the horse racing industry.
The problem we have are racing people talking to other racing people about things like customer engagement, and how new technology is being used to attract different customer segments- but with nary the presence of customers. What happened to getting answers straight from the horse’s mouth? Galloping off alone without some form of feedback from those the sport needs for it to survive, and also reinvent itself and grow can often mean going around and around in circles.
The music industry learned the hard way that talking to itself and trying to second-guess music fans paved the way for Napster, the peer-to-peer file sharing service, to sneak in. And though winning that battle through a successful lawsuit, the victory was hollow and short-lived. The floodgates opened and other new technology services watching from the sidelines were allowed in to introduce illegal file sharing, illegal downloads, grey online copyright laws that to this day cannot be enforced etc until the industry is where it is today: a pliable and obedient content provider to nearly every technology company led by the likes of Apple, Facebook, YouTube etc etc. All those music industry “visionaries” didn’t, refused to, or couldn’t read the tea leaves, and did not notice the Trojan horse being wheeled in. Smugness was their undoing.
As we have said umpteen times, the much smaller horse racing industry can learn so much from the foibles of the music industry with its huge customer base in the world of entertainment. Racing IS entertainment, after all, but are those leading the sport willing to learn? Can it see the similarities with the music industry other than the group America recording “A Horse With No Name”?
Today, a music company is somewhat of an oxymoron as it has nothing much to do with music per se. Music fans rely on the tech companies for new ways to feed and satisfy their appetite for music. Unknown artists have embraced the DIY world whereas the bigger artists have expanded their careers to include everything from merchandising and sponsorship to the big money to be made off the back of touring. The horse racing industry must surely learn something from this? It must wake up to the fact that it cannot be customer-anything without speaking directly to the customer- its diverse current customer base, and, as a business, the urgent need to communicate effectively in order to expand this base to include those who, in 2016 have a buffet of choices, and view wagering and gaming- and horse racing- very differently. No?
Again, not being in Mumbai, we can only assume that much was discussed and sirens went off about changing landscapes, “parasites”, illegal bookies, integrity issues, vets, trainers, content, new delivery platforms, new customer segments, the Mainland China market, etc. - everything the music industry discussed at all their annual worldwide gabfests. Counterfeit product- the CD- was once the music industry’s version of the illegal bookie just like illegal file sharing and music downloads are today. What the music industry learned a decade ago was that it was behind the eight ball- in fighting piracy despite knowing exactly where the culprits were- Malaysia, Indonesia and Mainland China- and, seeing how quickly things were changing, but ignoring the wants and needs and increasing power of music fans. Music companies suddenly realised that where they had gone horribly wrong was in the hiring process and structure of their organisations. Nothing had changed internally while the world and business around them had, and has kept evolving. Playing catch-up never works. Ask any punter.
Music companies were out of step with reality, and never ever imagined they would not only lose the loyalty of the music fan, but, also make an enemy of them. Despite music and artists and tastes changing right in front of their eyes and ears, music companies continued to be Tommy, that deaf, dumb and blind kid who played a mean pinball. But the leaders of these music companies didn’t even know what a pinball machine was and know what the hell The Who’s Peter Townshend was writing about. They couldn’t be bothered.
Musicians- Radiohead, McCartney, White Stripes, Jay Z and the burgeoning Hip Hop generation with its entrepreneurial leaders saw this internal corporate lethargy and disconnect with music fans as a weakness and opportunity. They joined the lunatics who had taken over the asylum, and, together, they morphed into a powerful independent force and changed the face of music forever.
To make up for lost time, every major music company tried hiring armies of “new media” executives from companies like Yahoo, and anyone who could spell the word “internet”, and navigate their way around a website. Suddenly, there were a spate of worldwide “New Media Digital Days” for dumbed-down music executives, but it was all too little, too late. The “New Media people” hired in panic were clueless about music, and clashed with the traditional music marketing teams. There was no place for them in a music company. Just as quickly as they had appeared, these new hires returned to from whence they came leaving music companies today to pick up the crumbs and with the tail- the tech companies- wagging the dog that’s happy to get on its hind legs and beg.
For racing clubs, not only the challenge, but the future, is in creating teams that are a balance of experienced racing executives with open minds, and those who actually work with and understand today’s different customer segments- those who know the difference between promotions and marketing and the creative use of what is loosely called “social media”. And here, when four key executives with Twitter suddenly resign, as they did last week, even this landscape is changing. Twitter might have a voice, but for all the tweeting, nothing resonates more than touchy, feely content. Everyone can tweet, few can create. And in horse racing, often, creating relevant, original product and actually moving the chess pieces is lost in the din of everybody trying to be heard over each other. Clamouring for those 15 minutes of fame in 140 words or less can often create confusion with much lost in translation.
Someone like Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, CEO of the HKJC, is well-known for his inquisitive mind. He is someone with a genuine interest to get out there and really engage with customers, with business partners, and with anyone who might have questions about this sport called horse racing where, trust us, many have no patience to come to a race track to do maths. Many also believe that the same horses run in every race. These people- these future customers- shouldn’t be turned away at the door because they lack understanding about the rudiments of the sport. They need to be communicated to in a language and tone they understand. The question is, do racing clubs have the people who can do this? And if they don’t, why not?
“EB” is a rarity in an industry that is often seen by those outside of the sport as being insular, or else, is ignored altogether- an industry often over-populated by racing executives, who, even if young, offer nothing new as Human Resources has gone to the same old well, and found more of the same- the sons and daughters of the Stepford Wives.
Where are horse racing’s young lions- people like Jared Vennet from “The Big Short” with the charisma, creativity, chutzpah, and people skills to sit down and speak with ease and confidence to someone like a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg? Or a Taylor Swift?
Are there other “EB’s” in horse racing- people who knows the business side of horse racing to the last decimal point, but can also converse knowingly about everything and everyone from the movies of Tarantino and the songs of Amy Winehouse to art, culture, politics and breeding and integrity issues? Doubt it.
As for ARC, for this annual racing conference to grow, and not only be a tugboat for Noah, it needs to expand its “customer base”, or participants by actually engaging with different racing fans and also bringing in global game changers from the very wide world of entertainment- Apple CEO Tim Cook, Simon Fuller whose X1X Entertainment manages the careers of Brand Beckham, Andy Murray and Lewis Hamilton, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki- to not only share their vision of customer trends, but also to have them understand how horse racing works as a sport, and as a business. Invite their views on how they might do things differently.
The feedback could be priceless food for thought. The mainstream media attention their presence will generate, also priceless. For a sport that’s a game of chance, and leaders navigating and shaping its future, what’s there to lose? The ARC needs to be jet-propelled to reach and interact with a wider audience. It can’t be a closed shop, where what happens in Mumbai, or anywhere else, the ARC next puts down anchor, stays in Mumbai or its next port of call.