Racing in Md. called stagnant Industry must market itself aggressively to compete, study warns

November 18, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Tom Keyser contributed to this article.

Maryland's horse-racing industry has to do far more to sell itself to survive in an era of fast-paced competition from other gambling and sporting attractions, according to a study released to state lawmakers yesterday.

Despite a deeply rooted tradition and higher-than-average interest among Marylanders, horse racing is stagnating here as elsewhere in the nation, the study commissioned by the General Assembly concluded. Fewer fans go to the racetracks each year, and while wagering at off-track parlors has become increasingly popular, overall revenues have remained relatively flat.

"We believe the industry lacks a strategic marketing plan," said Wayne Rhodes, chief author of the report by the University of Maryland's Center for Applied Policy Studies. "It's fine to sit back and say the industry is changing, but we believe a reasonable objective is to compete more effectively."

Until now, Rhodes told two legislative subcommittees, the often-fractious industry has relied on "ad-hoc marketing." Thoroughbred and harness tracks have advertised independently -- and chiefly to their traditional fans, instead of trying to attract new ones.

The study, which included a telephone poll in August of 1,020 Maryland households, found many people who expressed an interest in racing rarely go to the tracks.

Only 4 percent of those surveyed listed racing as one of their favorite sports, compared with football's 60 percent and baseball's 53 percent. Many first-time visitors said they were reluctant to return because they found the tracks uninviting.

Racetrack owners and other industry representatives agreed that they have to unite to get more people to the tracks. They have been meeting over the past few months to develop plans to share revenues and to market the industry as a whole.

But the plans have not been completed yet, in part because of an ongoing dispute between the thoroughbred and harness tracks over simulcast broadcasting rights. Track owners and racing lobbyists also said that they do not have the same advertising and promotion resources as the State Lottery -- and suggested they would seek more state aid.

"We're looking in the long run for a partnership with the state to put the industry on display a bit better," said Timothy T. Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

Racetrack owners are also still pushing ahead with their quest to win General Assembly approval for slot machines at the tracks. But they suffered a major setback in the recent election, when anti-gambling Gov. Parris N. Glendening defeated Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who had said she would consider legalizing slots to help the racing industry.

Several lawmakers warned that racing interests would receive a chilly reception, in part because of the campaign efforts of the state's leading track owner.

Joseph A. De Francis, the majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park racecourses, gave $250,000 to the Republican National Committee, just as the party launched a major ad campaign on Sauerbrey's behalf. De Francis also aired television ads highlighting the amount of money Marylanders are spending on Delaware slot machines, which some Democrats saw as an attempt to defeat Glendening.

"I think [racing interests] can put their hands in the same pockets where they got all the money for that other advertising," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate's Finance Committee. "If the racetracks could afford that kind of money to affect a political campaign, they can spend that kind of money to influence the public to come to the races."

In the past two years, the state has allocated $21.7 million in

direct aid for the industry. A large share has gone to support purses, but money also has been earmarked for marketing and promotion. Racing groups will be able to collect $1.5 million in marketing aid once they put a marketing plan into effect.

The governor has appointed Stuart S. Janney III, a leader in state and national thoroughbred organizations, to head the state's study commission on horse racing.

The 12-member panel, composed primarily of legislators, is studying ways to improve the industry's financial viability.

Janney said the commission would likely meet three times before the Assembly session begins in January. The hearings will focus on how to help the state's thoroughbred and harness racing industries next year. Later hearings will address long-term concerns, he said.

The commission had been chaired by former state labor secretary Eugene A. Conti Jr., who resigned this year to become a transportation official in the Clinton administration.

Janney, 50, of Butler, owns racehorses, including Coronado's Quest, one of the nation's top 3-year-olds.

Pub Date: 11/18/98

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