Sunday, December 13, 2009

Winning fans online, at track key to sport’s growth


Looking at things from the viewpoint of fans and bettors is a winning approach, according to experts on both social networking and sports facilities.

The experts presented their ideas on Thursday in Tucson, Arizona, during the final day of the Symposium on Racing and Gaming, presented by the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program.

In a panel on social networking, Holly Kruse, Ph.D., assistant professor of communications at the University of Tulsa, encouraged tracks to keep social media “social,” as opposed to just a tool for marketing, sales, or information. She said building communities online can help spark actual interest in the sport, noting online groups often form outings to racetracks.

“Let fans and patrons have and use your content,” Kruse said. “Encourage fans' involvement.”

A racing fan, Kruse would like to see more development of online games and media that puts racing fans into the action. She noted a video of Zenyatta on YouTube filmed from the rider’s perspective has proven popular with racing fans, as well as people not familiar with the sport. (For the video, click here)

Kruse said racing has developed interest groups through social media but she rarely sees much crossover and attraction of new fans. She said interactive games and unique content could bridge that gap, noting that when she posted video of Zenyatta’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) win on her Facebook page, her nonracing friends were drawn to it.

Kruse said the playing of various Internet games shows that racing may be losing out on potential bettors if it assumes women are only interested in racing, “for the hats and the pretty horses.”

“Why not cultivate women as gamblers?” Kruse asked. “Do not patronize women as only being interested in what hats to buy.”

Aaron Smith, a research specialist with the Pew Internet and American Life Project, started the panel discussion on social media by outlining the typical users, which he said has become more representative of the overall Internet community, which is slightly more female and slightly younger than society as a whole.

Smith noted that social media users are more likely than most Internet users to actively participate in real-life actions, meaning groups focused on racing would likely organize trips to actual tracks.

Once those patrons take the step of attending the races, it is important to have an inviting facility waiting for them. In a panel on facilities, Russ Simons encouraged racetrack executives to walk into and through their facilities and see things from a patron’s perspective.

“If your facility does not meet the standards the customer has come to expect in their everyday lives, they’re not coming back,” Simons said. “They’re going to go where they feel like they’re appreciated.”

As the director of facility management for global design practice Populous, Simons visits and critiques sports facilities throughout the country and the world. He realizes not every track is in a position to renovate its facility but he provided good news by saying the most important factors for customers are service, concessions, and cleanliness.

Simons said little things such as taking credit cards at concession stands, regularly emptying trash containers, keeping the facility spotless, and improving signs and lighting can have a huge impact. He also said workers who smile and go the extra mile for customers make a big difference.

Other presenters on the facilities panel outlined renovations and new construction at racinos that have made the tracks and casinos destination properties where people spend several days. One approach is to constantly add new features.

“Prairie Meadows continues to build attraction, after attraction, after attraction,” said architect Don Dissinger, a senior vice president at EwingCole Inc. “It’s just like an amusement park. You have to generate excitement in your customer base.”

Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino President Gary Palmer said despite the recession, the racino enjoyed its most successful year in 2008, and while it will fall about 3% short of that mark this year, it should set an attendance record.

Since starting with a racetrack, Prairie Meadows added slot machines in 1995, added table games in 2004, renovated the paddock in ’05, added a convention hall and restaurants in ’06, and is building a 200-room hotel.