Attracting New Horse Racing Fans with Creative Marketing Strategies

Thoroughbred horse races at Horsemen's Park in Omaha. (Photo courtesy Horsemen's Park)
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March 16, 2018 - 6:45am

With fewer live horse racing days at Nebraska tracks, the wagering handle dropping, and increased competition from neighboring states with more gaming options, track operators are getting creative with marketing strategies designed to attract new fans.


It's a blustery, Friday afternoon at Grand Island's Fonner Park as the horses sprint from the gate for the second race of the day. 

Carlin Engert of Aurora points to the bet he made on his racing form as friends Joni and Rich Denny look on. They stand at the same pillar in the Fonner Park grandstand every week during live racing. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News)

Next to the track, Carlin Engert of Aurora watches intently. He’s been to all the tracks in Nebraska, but Fonner Park is his favorite.  Engert stands at the same pole, with the same friends, and bets $20 to $30 most days; usually two dollars at a time.

"Well, being an average race ran, I look at the book and I pick," Engert said. "But if I was like a newcomer, I’d pick my favorite color, the horse with the longest tail, the name, my kid’s birthday."

But as a seasoned fan, Engert studies the data in the program -- past performance of both horse and jockey, medications, workouts, and track condition.

Fonner Park has been entertaining horse racing fans like Engert for 65 years. The park is re-thinking its approach to entertainment, though, in order to attract new fans.

STIFF COMPETITION

Eight years ago, $90 million was bet at Nebraska tracks. Last year, wagering fell to $68 million.

Bruce Swihart, Fonner Park’s executive director, practically grew up at the track when his father Al Swihart was managing the business.

An official 2018 racing program. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News)

"In the good years we were expanding and growing, the mutual handle was growing; there was no competition to horse racing," Swihart said.

Today, Swihart says the competition between neighboring states is fierce. Breeders are more likely to race their horses in Iowa and Minnesota because those states offer extended gambling and longer racing seasons.

"It’s been very difficult for the Nebraska-bred program. It’s a matter of economics. They’ve got to go elsewhere to make their money," Swihart said. "Rather than drop all these foals in the state, a lot of them have taken them and dropped them in Iowa at Prairie Meadows. What does Prairie Meadows have? Casinos. How are the purses? Bigger. You go up to Canterbury. What do they have? Casinos. What’s Remington Park have in Oklahoma? Casinos."

Mike Newlin, general manager of Horseman’s Park in Omaha, agrees the competition from other forms of entertainment is hurting racing across the state.  Newlin says Nebraska’s handle – the overall money wagered -- could continue to decline with the rise of other gaming options.

An Omaha native, Mike Newlin is general manager of Horsemen's Park in Omaha. (Photo courtesy Horsemen's Park)

"The additional variety of gambling—lotteries, casinos, on-line wagering, fantasy football, football wagering: there’s just so many other things to bet on these days versus the 60s and 70s when horse racing was in its prime," Newlin explained.

So, how will the Omaha and Grand Island tracks combat these challenges?

CREATIVE MARKETING APPROACHES

Both Newlin and Swihart have already implemented new approaches.

Newlin says being smart about targeting different audiences and creating programs to suit them will ultimately keep fans in the stands.

Horsemen’s Park – which opened in 1998, two years after Omaha's longtime track, Aksarben, closed -- now features a beer garden and live music for adults on Friday nights. Some Sunday afternoons there's face painting and pony rides for families. Also, music, t-shirt giveaways, and raffles keep fans engaged between races.

The starting gate opens at Horsemen's Park. (Photo courtesy Horsemen's Park)

"When we do run, we have a great turnout as long as the weather is good," Newlin said. "Two years ago we had 13,000 people here on Preakness Day. On a decent day, Omaha can average 6,000-9,000 people. This year with us running during the final two legs of the Triple Crown we’re anticipating huge crowds."

While traditional hard-core fans may not like all the distractions between races, Newlin says exploring new marketing ideas is worth a try.

And increasing the number of live racing days from seven to nine this year should also add to attendance.

"The only way you get new people really involved in horse racing again is if you have live racing," Newlin said. "That's where new fans come from and that's what creates interest in this business. That’s what creates new owners."

Fonner Park has the most live racing dates in the state – 31 days. Swihart, though, tries to take advantage of Fonner and nearby facilities all year long to earn entertainment revenue with events like musical concerts, animal expositions, and trade shows. 

Thousands of birds take flight from the infield at Grand Island's Fonner Park on a blustery day in early March. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News)

"With the relationship with the State Fair and the Events Center, Fonner’s Keno operation, we kind of spread things around a little bit, and of course, we’re still in operation 65 years down the road," Swihart said.

And many fans at Fonner keep coming back year after year, like Carlin Engert. It doesn’t take a special marketing effort to get him to spend a day at the races.  Although, there was one special non-race event that brought him to the track nearly 20 years ago.

"I got married to my lovely wife Chris in the winner’s circle in 1999," Engert explained. "Because that’s the place to get married when you love horse racing."

Nebraska tracks like Fonner and Horseman’s are searching for that kind of lifelong commitment from more racing fans to make this industry profitable into the future.

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