The packed stands at Epsom and Royal Ascot are just the images a sport wants beamed worldwide but away from the prestigious meetings racing faces a challenging time in attracting new spectators.
Worryingly for the ‘Sport of Kings’ the crown seemed to have lost a bit of its lustre with disappointing crowds for both the York and Chester festivals in May with high quality racing spread over several days.
At Chester attendance over the four days was 35,000, down 35% on the 53,500 that were at the corresponding fixture in 2019.
Ordinary midweek meetings are suffering too as racing like other sports and entertainment venues battle to attract footfall with the public ever more wary of spending money due to a cost of living crisis.
Rod Street, CEO of Great British Racing (GBR) which is the sport’s central promotional and marketing body tasked with increasing engagement with and participation in horse racing, told AFP the decline in attendances is a concern.
“The cost-of-living crisis is certainly a factor,” he said.
“Also following two years of extended lockdown periods (due to Covid-19), every sporting, leisure and entertainment offering is competing at once.
“We also believe that, after two years, people have got out of the habit.
“As ever, it is rarely one factor that affects the trend but rather several.”
Street had laid out at the beginning of the year in GBR’s manifesto they would target the 25-34 age group, though he concedes delivering the killer argument to persuade them to come racing is not easy.
“It is a considerable challenge,” he said.
“Our consumer research informs us that the 25-34 year-old market demonstrates the best opportunity for growth, as this demographic consistently expresses an appetite to consider racegoing.
“Consideration is the stage that follows awareness and precedes purchase, so this insight is important.
“We will target broader ethnic groups in this age category that better represent society, making our catchment as wide as possible.”
William Woodhams, CEO of Fitzdares bookmakers, says much needs to be done to make going racing more attractive to the public.
“It does feel lacklustre at the moment,” he told AFP.
“Apart from key meetings we don’t seem to be getting the right cross-section of the public.
“I do think the food and beverage offerings are pretty dire and attempts with bands etc don’t really land well.
“The sport is entertainment enough and we just need to make the whole experience better.”
‘Excitement and drama’
Woodhams, drawing on his experience of six years with luxury goods firm LVMH, does not believe that racecourses offer value for money.
“For the very best experience you pay well over the odds and there should be more value at the entry level,” he said.
“People under 30 should be paying £20 ($24) for entry, a free bet and a drink.”
Entry fees vary — the vast majority of racecourses offer free entry to Under-18’s — but extras quickly add to the costs.
Goodwood for example is £12-26 entry but a bottle of water is £2.50 the cheapest pint is £6 and a hamburger £9 as cited by The Racing Post.
Goodwood, York, Ascot and other high profile racecourses push the boat out to welcome spectators but that is not the case for other racetracks according to Woodhams and Qatar Racing’s manager David Redvers.
“Several racecourses do a good job but many smaller ones are concentrating too much on the fact they receive a great majority of their income through media rights,” Redvers said.
“For them it is actually a pain to have crowds and they would far rather have fewer bums on seats and not worry about infrastructure and expenses and get their money through TV rights.”
The Jockey Club — which owns 15 racecourses including Aintree and Cheltenham and puts on 340 racing fixtures a year — would not fit into that category as they spend £7 million a year on marketing to attract spectators.
Indeed in the first four months of 2022, paid attendance across their racecourses was up by three percent on the same pre-pandemic period (2019).
For Street and Woodhams the future for racing is not a gloomy one — for the latter it is “100 percent the most premium sport”.
“Challenging but potentially rewarding,” says Street of the future.
“It is unrealistic to think that everyone that comes through the gates will become a more engaged fan, but the more we do to get people closer to the excitement and drama of the sport and its tremendous characters, the better our chance of developing more lifelong fans.”