Hey, I saw a VISA commercial the other day that reminded me of a long-running argument among racing fans about the way our sport is marketed.
The ad in question is for VISA’s support of the NFL. It features the drama unfolding on the field of an NFL game intercut with shots of fans reacting in the stands. The tagline is “GO FANS”.
Since its inception, the NTRA has tried to show the fun of thoroughbred racing by showing on-track clips of (mostly generic) horses mashed up with clips of happy, winning-ticket-holding fans in the stands. The tagline is “GO BABY GO”.
Since its inception, fans have wasted no time registering their displeasure with the fan-oriented marketing. At the time, horse racing was the only sport that did not feature its stars in the ads, but the schlubs in the stands. The horses shown briefly in the spots weren’t Skip Away, Silver Charm, Real Quiet or Silverbulletday, the top horses of 1998/99. Nor did the NTRA use name trainers, jockeys or owners to promote the sport. How could people possibly understand the allure of the turf this way? Even the tagline, that I personally happen to like, was criticized: “Go Baby Go” was seen as low-class and unrepresentative of the glory of the game.
I’m not saying the NTRA was completely off the mark back then: actor Lori Petty was the first spokesman for the sport, and her ads actually made “Go baby Go” hip and sorta sexy. Sadly, the ads didn’t go over well with the longtime fans, most of whom didn’t know Petty and weren’t into the vibe she set, which was decidedly younger than them. At the time, Bill Finley called Petty’s ads “annoying” and her style “emaciated GenX type.” She was replaced by a more stereotypical racing fan spokesman: ancient Rip Torn.
In the 10 years since, NTRA ads have stayed safe and bland, everything that racing is not. The advertising Mad Men working for the league should have insisted on keeping the more aggressive, unconventional, contemporary style.
It is not difficult to market a product to 20-somethings in 2008. All you have to do is highlight how “authentic” racing is! This means celebrating our long, rich history and colorful traditions. It also means embracing that we’re a niche sport, not a big, uber-commercialized behemoth. Putting our top horses in the ads is a major start, but also making the top trainers and especially the jocks, in the post-Bailey/Stevens/Day/McCarron era, household names should be a priority. Make wagering easy & accessible: take advantage of modern technology! iPhone app, anyone??
The biggest advantage that horse racing has in the fight for the consumer dollar is affordability. A day at the track starts at only $3 for admission, and seats in the clubhouse on a weekend are only $4.50 at Oaklawn. Compare that to the NBA average of $49.47 — yes, you can buy cheaper tickets, but those are in the rafters! $3 general admission at the races lets you get right up to the rail, where you can see the sweat on the jockeys’ brows and feel the rumble of galloping hooves! Food and drink prices are also cheap compared to what they peddle at the FedEx Forum. Of course, it’s cheap because the tracks hope the fans place a wager or two. If you’re lucky and smart, you just may win back all of your admission.
I guess that is the point of the new VISA ads. With the money crunch forcing people to re-examine their spending, the pro sports leagues must concentrate more effort on the people they’ve taken advantage of all these years. But I guarantee that nobody will complain about this fan-centric advertising.