Monday 8 March 2021 1:20 pm

Horse racing must embrace innovation to build a prosperous future - and this is the perfect time to start

British horse racing is facing financial challenges and, as with many sports, has suffered a heavy toll during the pandemic. As the country’s second biggest spectator sport, the exclusion of racegoers has cost around £300m, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) estimates. 

A review of the Betting Levy is seen as one way of addressing Covid-19-induced austerity, with suggestions that reform could increase annual revenues by £40m. However, reliance on Levy income as the principal source of revenue does not provide long-term security, particularly with a review of gambling laws underway.

As the Cheltenham Festival approaches, it is crucial for authorities to consider the wider challenges linked to the sport’s ties to tradition and reluctance to embrace the future. 

With 53 per cent of horse racing fans over 55 years of age, an obvious question must be how to attract a younger audience. 

Racecourses have attempted to broaden their appeal by tagging concerts on to race days or offering student discounts.

However, while this may sell extra tickets at the time, it isn’t shaking up the fundamentals of the sport to enhance the racing experience itself and therefore fails to provide a long-term solution. 

Authorities must consider how racing is positioned to appeal to the next generation of millennials, and beyond that, Generation Z. 

Vast differences exist in the interests and media habits of over-55s and under-35s. For example, specifically within existing horse racing fans, only 33 per cent of over-55s show an interest in the latest technology products, compared to 62 per cent of 18-34 year olds. 

Similar disparities appear when it comes to digitalisation, consumer behaviour and technological engagement.

Consequently, what has worked in the past for the existing demographic of horse racing fan will not have the same appeal to future audiences. 

Consumers want technological advancements

There is no better time for racing to address this issue. Covid-19 has already driven the sport to adapt and make changes, which will have long-term repercussions and benefits. 

The pandemic has provided the opportunity to become a more efficient business and introduce technological developments, for example a move to digital ticketing. 

As a sport which has been reluctant to relinquish traditional procedures, it has been forced into embracing modern techniques, and authorities should capitalise on this to push boundaries further. 

Confidence can be taken from recent broadcast successes that there is consumer appetite for innovation. 

ITV Racing’s coverage, which has sought to demystify horse racing and make it more appealing to a wider audience, has seen significant increases in viewers during its tenure.

That includes younger generations, with 2020 ratings 45 per cent higher than in 2016 when Channel 4 last held the rights.

Additionally, with almost five million viewers tuning in to watch last year’s Virtual Grand National, it’s clear that technological advancements and modern adaptations of the sport can work.  

With acceptance of the need to revolutionise how horse racing is consumed and keep up with modern fans’ demands, there is huge potential for opportunity around digital activations and enhanced race day experiences. 

Catalyst for change in horse racing

Consideration of wider digital trends can provide guidance and inspiration. For instance, it is well documented that the adoption of augmented reality (AR) can increase engagement with fans and attract new audiences.

Sporting entities including BT Sport and NASCAR are making AR integral to their customer outreach strategies. 

Within horse racing, this could mean viewers placing the live racecourse on a surface in front of them, as has been done within Formula 1; using smartphone-based headsets to bring a new dimension to data visualisation; or even an immersive racecourse experience allowing participants to view the live race as an overlay of previous years’ races for comparison. 

Racecourses have tried staging concerts after race days to attract younger crowds
Racecourses have tried staging concerts after races to attract younger crowds

There is also the use of AR filters on social media to drive online engagement. Similarly, with 84 per cent of horse racing fans aged 18-34 interested in gaming, this must also be seen as an avenue to pursue, as done by AS Roma’s sponsor New Balance.

With cost rather than tradition the biggest barrier to action, the key will be to generate interest among potential sponsors by selling-in a picture of what could be possible, rather than dwelling on the past. 

If racing can secure the right brands, who will be able to implement targeted activations aimed at younger generations and attracting new audiences through enhanced experiences, commercial deals will not only provide funding for current stakeholders, but will be a catalyst for change that will benefit the sport for years to come. 

Niki McEwen is an associate director at global integrated sports marketing agency rEvolution.