Learn From Las Vegas

Ron Parker’s Learn From Las Vegas originally appeared in The Thoroughbred Record issue dated 9/8/1973.  In those primitive days when there were no ways to wager other than going to the track or with a bookie, the approach of this article was to attract people to the racing facility.  Over the years on-track attendance has been the victim of satellite facilities and advance deposit wagering on the internet, but we reprint the article here because some of the thoughts remain relevant even in today’s marketplace.

Last year, in these pages, I dwelt rather facetiously on ways in which the racing industry might garner more front page headlines for itself, mainly by encouraging the horses and the people associated with them to act in the manner of a Duane Thomas or a Bobby Fischer, the personalities who were commanding all the 96-point type.

At least one reader, while apparently appreciative of the satirical intent of my effort, took occasion to point out the necessity for some seriousness in the matter, noting quite accurately that “the American population is not hard to sell if fed the right kind of publicity.”

The question arises, of course, as to what exactly constitutes the “right kind of publicity” and, applying my own definition as any promotion that favorably presents racing to a large segment of the population and increases interest and attendance, I noted down several thoughts all bearing directly on the theme of racing publicity.

To begin with, it is quite fashionable these days to fault newspapers and the television media for relegating racing to an “also-ran” position in the sports world.

Newspapers are blamed for either not devoting enough space to racing or, if the coverage happens to be adequate, for shuffling it back to page eight of the sports section.  Only a Secretariat, it seems, can claim the coveted first page coverage.  It would be easy to blame the writers for this situation, but the vast majority are dedicate, hard-working journalists (which, I guess, you have to be in this business) who can only hope that their better efforts might be editorially moved up to the seventh page.  Placement is dictated by management decision, not journalistic worth.

Television is constantly castigated for its failure to cover racing unless the attraction, like the Triple Crown, is irresistible.  With all due appreciation to CBS for its coverage of the Whitney, would this race have been accorded national exposure in any other year?  I think not.  All too often, as I review a listing of the weekend television sports roster, I find that I can be entertained by not only football, baseball and/or basketball, but such other diverse activities as sky diving, roller derbies, ice skating, international marble championships and, of course, a few celebrities pumping shot into fleeing birds.

To be sure, all these activities have their followers, but can one seriously suggest that more people in this country would prefer to watch the hula hoop finals than the Hollywood Gold Cup or the Wood Memorial?

Unfortunately, there are moments when television coverage can be as bad as no coverage at all.  The classic example of this is the 1972 Washington D.C. International.  Other commitments prevented such capable groups as the Hughes Sports Network and Washington D.C. station WTTG from producing this classic.  In a laudable desire to give the race the national coverage it deserved, the show unfortunately ended up in the hands of a small local company thoroughly inexperienced in the qualitative production of major sporting events.  This was all too evident in the disjointed, almost laughable telecast that was presented to the public.

To a large degree, I am inclined to blame the weaknesses of the printed and visual mediums on the doorstep of track managements in general.

It strikes me that the majority of tracks are either unwilling to provide a reasonable publicity budget or, having done so, seem totally unaware of an effective utilization of the funds provided.

The fault of managements that fail to provide these funds is obvious; the fault of those that do provide it seems to be a failure to realize the enormous power of the advertising dollar.  I doubt if there is a newspaper or television station in this country that would fail to be more sympathetic towards the exposure racing needs, once realistically approached by a concerned racing executive in search of an effective outlet for his advertising budget.

In television, commercial sponsors are a necessity for complete broadcasts of events, and I think the same rule applies in this area.  On a national scale, how many influential people in the sport have seriously sought out their friends in the corporate world who are in search of a maximum exposure for their advertising dollar without blowing the whole budget on a thirty-second spot during the Super Bowl?  On a local scale, aren’t there advertisers whose interests would be far better served by a Race of the Week on a Saturday afternoon than the Late, Late, Late Show?  (I grant there are some “hard sell” sponsors who should be classified as objectionable in such a consideration, but certainly the more tasteful ones in search of better exposure do exist).  Even a partial sponsorship on the part of the track itself does not seem unreasonable in light of the potential gains to be derived from “whetting the public appetite” for racing.

It is, in short, the responsibility of every racing executive in this country to exert his influence, and money, towards a greater interest by the major media, rather than weakly lamenting their apparent disinterest in the sport.

While mysteriously circumventing what seems to me the most obvious, I must concede the ingenuity of various tracks in their attempts to attract new fans.

Bumper stickers, widely distributed, represent one inventive approach.  Florida Downs, in a tourist-oriented state, has tried this and, while too early to tell, who is to ay that they might not one day be as well known nationally as Mammoth Cave?

Drawings for prizes for the fans ranging from money to, at least in the case of Charles Town, a thoroughbred, have had reasonable success.  Everybody wants something for nothing, even if it costs them a fortune to get it.  Canadian tracks in Alberta and Vancouver have even required that contest submissions be written on the back of losing pari-mutuel tickets.  If nothing else, they have noted that the track grounds are cleaner as a result of this, and have even considered recycling the tickets.

Postcards are another consideration but, as with bumper stickers, distribution is the necessary key.  Huge posters usually are a luxury for this reason, since few people are willing to give them the display space they deserve.  Granted that a true racing fan would stand in awe of the beautiful poster of *Cougar II that Hollywood Park produced, and rave with great justification about the continuing series of excellent posters that emanate from the NYRA, the fact remains that these are items mostly seen only by the aficionados of the sport.

I am, for the moment, thinking of ways to lure thousands of new faces, not merely a few hundred.

One of the more interesting ideas I’ve seen lately was produced by the Boise Fairgrounds in Idaho.  It was a 20-page tabloid size newspaper insert, with articles and information about the track and advertisements by local supporters.  It was the type of thing one might normally encounter for a dam opening in Oklahoma or a shopping center dedication in Indiana.  But, in this case, it concerned the 1973 season of a race track.

Even without the advertising support, such an idea has several strong points:  1.) It is the type of leverage needed to influence better editorial exposure, as I proposed earlier;  2.) It automatically reaches everyone who buys a newspaper, which is just about everybody; and  3.) A separate section, attractively produced, is less likely to be immediately tossed out with the rest of the paper and, quite possibly, may be left around the house for later study.  It is the type of publicity that may cause an entire family to pick it up and, lacking other diversions for the day, decide to give the track a try.  This, to me, is effective publicity.

In all my observations, however, one method of attracting new fans to the race track stands out above all others in its success, and that is the lure of money.

Not the lure of money to be won at the track, as you might suspect, but the lure of not having to spend it to see the horses in action.

One of the big secrets of such successful gambling spas as Reno and Las Vegas is the fact that they offer sizable expense refunds to patrons who are willing to go there.  They long ago realized that any person who gambles pays little attention to his gambling money.  But that same person oftentimes objects violently to the expenses involved.  And, as Arnold Kirkpatrick has previously noted in these pages, racing must realize it is not a sport, but a business upon which legal gambling is conducted.

I have a good friend who figures he has the Reno/Vegas concept beaten.  Every time he spends a few days at one of these resorts, he systematically cashes checks up to his maximum limit at several gambling establishments, whether he needs to or not, on the theory that he will receive free invitations from them when they review their records.  Quite as expected, he receives these invitations (in fact, he looks forward to them), and takes full advantage of the free food and lodging they provide.

Also, as expected, he usually returns from these trips somewhat poorer than when he started.  “But I got a free trip,” he proudly boasts, ignoring the fact that he gambled away far larger amounts.

I believe the Reno/Vegas concept has a definite application in racing.  The biggest single complaint of most race track patrons is the expense involved in even getting to see a horse and, of course, bringing members of the family only amplifies these expenses.  Parking, programs, admission expenses, additional charges for seats–all shape up as a systematic series of monetary outlays that thoroughly frustrate the people who wouldn’t mind spending their money at the windows if they could afford it by the time they get there.

It can be argued that these expenses accrue in the attendance of any sporting event.  I would similarly argue that racing is unique in that track admission generally doesn’t include seats (unless one likes to sit in the vicinity of the far turn).  For the most part, getting a decent seat is simply another step in the endless process of separating the fan from his money.  And, in any comparison with other sporting events, don’t overlook the fact that they seldom cost their supporters much more than admission fees, parking charges and maybe a bottle or two of beer.  That makes quite a contrast when compared with the expense of pari-mutuel wagering.

I suggest that the most effective method of increasing track attendance is through the medium of free passes.  All tracks have some form of pass program.  To some folks a pass seems to mean that you are, if not exactly a member of the elite, at least eligible to marry the President’s daughter.  In other cases, various service charges on the pass approximate the normal cost of admission.  These methods are hardly conducive to attracting great masses of new fans.  What is needed is some way to offer the public a genuine savings, in order to obtain the maximum wagering dollar, without giving the store away.

Maybe Ellis Park offers the best compromise in this area.  They widely distribute passes that let you in for 75 cents, which includes the cost of parking.  If I were a member of track management, and concerned about attendance, I think one of my first acts would be an adaptation of the Ellis Park idea, except I’d probably make it an even dollar and throw in a program with the admission and parking.  By combining these various expenses into one modest sum, I would be certain that an ample supply of these passes reached every person in the surrounding area.  Bartenders, waitresses, and even newspaper coupons would be my medium.  Unused passes would be just that, and redeemed passes would unquestionably result in increased attendance, handle and concession revenues.

A radical approach?  Perhaps.  But consider some related examples.

When Sunday racing in California became a reality this year, Hollywood Park immediately announced various cost reductions in an attempt to lure new patrons on Sunday.  It was an unquestioned success.

Northern California brought forth a slightly different story.  Golden Gate Fields was caught, if I may coin a new phrase, with its saddle unstrapped.  Pressured to institute Sunday racing in the middle of a meeting, with all the associated re-scheduling problems; plagued by disastrous weather and beset by myriad union difficulties, the track made the mistake of trying to met additional expenses by increasing Sunday admission costs.  This is no way to lure new fans, which Golden Gate soon learned.  Taking a chance on their closing day, a Sunday, they slashed admission and concession charges.  Almost 20,000 people swarmed into the track (earlier Sundays were averaging 14,000 at best), many of these people taking advantage of the reduced price to find out what racing was all about.

Golden Gate General Manager Dick Murphy, one of the bright young executives that racing could use more of, was properly pleased with the big turnout.  “The one encouraging aspect of it is,” he noted, “you see a lot of new faces.  You wander around the crowds and you hear questions you just can’t believe, again indicating you have some people who’ve never been here before.”

Ideally, maybe Golden Gate proved that the biggest boon to racing since the domestication of the horse might be the  35 cent beer.

Another interesting example, if not perhaps the best one, is the 1973 Sonoma County Fair, a two-week summer meeting in Santa Rosa, California.

At the Sonoma Fair, grounds admission is $1.50.  This entitles you to wander freely everywhere except the race track, which costs another $1.25.  Forgetting for the moment the related expenses for parking, programs and seats, the average fair attendee who wishes to see a race must spend a minimum of $2.75 for this privilege.  This may seem to be a modest sum, but it is prohibitive to some and there is a great psychological distaste for having to shell out money at various geographical locations.

The Sonoma racing directors, noting the success of such track programs as Ladies Day, Senior Citizens Day and, quite possibly, Left Handed Accountants Day, decided to carry this concept one step farther.  On their first Wednesday, they elected to have Everybody’s Day.  Everyone who had paid the initial $1.50 to get on the grounds would be entitled to wander into the track without having to pay the additional $1.25.  No hidden service charges, no other inflated prices, just a case of giving the public an opportunity to walk in and see what racing had to offer.

As it turned out, 12,107 people wandered in to see what it was all about, wagering $596,832 in the process.  Granted the per capita wagering is lower than you might expect at Aqueduct, but that’s a fact of life on the fair circuit.  What was significant was that both the attendance and wagering figures were all-time weekday records for the Sonoma County Fair.  This simply by eliminating that $1.25 track admission.

An additional benefit that I attribute to Everybody’s Day was the following Saturday.  This time 17,482 people showed up at the track, with normal admission charges in effect, and wagered $1,005,324.  It was the first million-dollar day in the entire 37-year history of the fair.  That hardly seems like mere coincidence.

If racing is to enjoy the prominence in the sports world it verbally seeks, some people in the industry are going to have to loosen their purse strings and give the fan a break.  If we have to sponsor our own productions, and let the fans in free, then we should do it.  Isn’t the wagering dollar really what it’s all about?

Las Vegas seems to think so.