How Woodbine is attracting new fans

Since as long as anyone can remember, horse racing has been trying to attract new fans -- trying and failing. Rock concerts, t-shirt giveaways, "Go Baby Go," marketing campaigns, dollar beers, new bets, nothing, really, has worked. At Woodbine, they grew so exasperated that an expensive television production was producing so little in the way of results that they were ready to pull the plug on the show.

But, first, Woodbine management was willing to start over and give it one more try. Their idea was a simple one: make the show all about gambling and portray betting on horses as the exciting cerebral exercise that it is. No longer would they pitch the beauty of the sport or show features on the circuit's top jockeys, trainers or drivers. They would, however, teach you how much a $1 six-horse superfecta box costs.

The results have been nothing short of remarkable. Though ratings are not yet available for all of the shows, which are called "Bet Night Live," one recent broadcast attracted 60,000 viewers or about three times the size of the average audience before the new format was put into place this year. Just as significantly, the new show is producing a significant amount of new customers for Woodbine's on-line wagering site, HorsePlayerInteractive.com. The amount of new sign-ups increased four-fold once the new show started airing.

A show airing on Mondays takes place during live harness racing. The Wednesday show runs during a live thoroughbred card.

Woodbine's Vice President of Marketing and Communication Andrew MacDonald oversaw the creation of Bet Night Live, which airs twice a week on The Score, a Canadian cable sports network. MacDonald realized there were a lot of people out there who both liked sports and betting and couldn't figure out why so few of them gravitated toward horse racing. So MacDonald set out to attract people who fell into that group but were largely ignoring racing.

In a refreshing break from racing's misguided insistence on going after the youth market, Woodbine also figured out that the best shot they had of getting new customers was to target a demographic that consisted largely of males, 35 and older. That group includes a lot of people who like to wager and have the disposable income to do so. Nothing on the show is geared toward the average 22-year-old because the average 22-year-old is usually broke.

The new format was tested and MacDonald learned that the potential horseplayer was having trouble with the learning curve. So, much of the show is educational. The hosts and analysts do more than just make picks; they explain the nuances of the sport, how to configure bets, how to read the past performances. If someone doesn't understand what a claiming race is, how can they be expected to bet with confidence on that type of race?

"(Potential new customers) felt like they needed an edge," MacDonald said. "They weren't comfortable with horse racing and wanted to be educated in it. We put those principals in mind when we devised the new show. We rely a lot on graphics. We may not be Monday Night Football, but it doesn't look like some cheap horse racing show from the '80s."

One of the co-hosts, Laura Diakun, knows relatively little about racing, which MacDonald sees as a plus. When the talking heads who are well-conversed in the sport start getting too technical, she reels them in and makes them explain what it is they are talking about in terms anyone can understand.

"She's the voice of the novice," MacDonald said.

At the same time, they are careful not to turn the show into something along the lines of a classroom lecture. Educating the customer is important, but the education process has to include showing them that betting on the horses is fun. To that end, they have incorporated contests into the show and gimmicks that no doubt seem silly to the core player. On one show, Diakun was pitted against one of the expert handicappers and made her selections by throwing darts at the program page. Guess who won?

That's exactly the sort of thing that racing insiders cringe at, and MacDonald admits that a lot of established customers, as well as most horsemen, don't like the new format.

"The good thing is that everyone agrees that racing has not done a good job attracting new customers and that it is a problem we need to address," MacDonald said. "When you reveal what the strategy is, getting new customers, and show them that we have been successful, that negates a lot of the negative comments."

MacDonald realizes that neither he nor Woodbine has solved all of the sport's problems. But he also thinks they're on to something. When it comes down to it, racing's greatest asset is that it is, if presented properly, a terrific gambling game. Sell that and maybe people will discover the sport.

"This is not a magic bullet that's going to change everything for us," he said. "But it is a step in the right direction. I love racing, but I fully believe that without a healthy revenue side coming from the betting the sport could cease to exist. That's why I believe this is absolutely the right place to put the focus on. It's early, but we've seen that this is successful. We all want to grow new customers. If this continues to work for us, I hope it will work for everyone."

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.