The horseracing industry, plagued by declining attendance or falling revenue in countries including France, the UK and Germany, was hoping to learn from the NFL, far and away America’s favourite sport, at the Leaders in Racing conference in London this week.
Marc Reeves, the NFL’s international commercial director, outlined the league’s 365-day promotional build-up, joking that the actual 16-game schedule, a prelude to playoffs and the Super Bowl, is “arguably the most boring part of the year”.
The NFL has even managed to turn its annual draft of promising college players into a spectacle, he said.
“It’s really just our commissioner standing up on a podium like this opening an envelope, and yet we’ve turned that into three days of prime-time live TV,” he told more than 100 racing executives.
The games themselves are an average of only 11 minutes of action in events that last about three hours and six minutes, Reeves said.
Making that sliver of activity into a world-shaking clash of titans is a challenge that could inspire the horseracing industry, where a whole days’ worth of activities may build up to a race that lasts maybe two-and-a-half minutes, one executive noted later.
In contrast to American football, US horseracing is maybe the country’s 49th favourite sport, according to a downcast George Strawbridge, owner of Augustin Stables, a Pennsylvania steeplechase horse operation.
“I think it’s behind poker," he said.
Some European racing executives are trying to bring some pizazz to the industry in a more modest fashion.
France Galop is looking to cut back on free admissions as part of a plan to create premium brand names, according to deputy managing director Jean-Christophe Giletta, a former live-events executive who joined the governing body of French racing a year ago.
“We did not take care of our customers the last 15 years,” he said. “When you don’t take care of your customers, they go over to other sports.”
In 2003, average attendance was 500,000 per year, with half free admissions, he said.
That year, it added another 250,000 free tickets and, from then on, paid admissions declined by 5 percent a year, he said.
Average admission prices have been €5 (£4.20) for years, but now the organisation is looking to charge €10 to €15 for the top 20 events, and more for reserved seats, Giletta told GamblingCompliance.
“For the Premier League, we want to charge premier prices,” he said.
Reeves of the NFL suggested that racing industry executives use data to learn as much as possible about their customers.
They should also use technology to connect with those customers.
They should make sure to make the event itself appealing enough to lure customers who might otherwise be tempted to watch on television, he said.
“You’ve got too many races, too many events, too many tracks — you need to restrict," Bernie Mullin, chief executive of Aspire Group consulting, and a former National Basketball Association and National Hockey League executive, told the racing bosses.
The NFL, however, is unlikely to embrace gambling, the business that is synonymous with horseracing.
American football is fighting New Jersey in court over its vote to approve sports betting, and it bars its players, coaches and employees from endorsing or appearing in advertisements for gambling.
“We’re very highly controlled by our ownership, and they’ve made it very clear that’s an area they’re not comfortable with," Reeves said.
One racetrack executive agreed that the NFL was the master of marketing, but he needed to ponder what the lesson was for his racetrack.
“There’s got to be a couple golden nuggets in there; we just don’t know what they are yet," said Mark Spincer, managing director of Doncaster Racecourse.