Preakness sends a mixed message, but gets the right result

Ticket sales rise 17 percent as organizers court traditional racing fans and young people alike

May 10, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

Selling racegoers on the Preakness Stakes has been a tricky balancing act in the past few years.

The Maryland Jockey Club struck out in 2009 when it ended the bring-your-own-beer policy in the infield, driving away thousands of young people. It won many of them back last year with the suggestive "Get Your Preak On" campaign, but upset the more traditional fans of horse racing.

This year, race organizers have embarked on a delicate strategy to appeal to the race's rowdy and refined fans alike — and it seems to have paid off, with organizers expecting the biggest crowd since 2007.

As of Tuesday, overall ticket sales are up 17 percent from last year's total, and anywhere from 105,000 to 110,000 are expected to attend, Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said. It would mark an increase from the 95,000 that attended last year, and a vast improvement over 2009's record low of 77,850.

Chuckas said the marketing strategy was key to this year's increased attendance numbers.

"We run two ad campaigns because, why would we limit our ability to bring different kinds of people to the races?" Chuckas said.

He defended the race's new mascot, "Kegasus," against criticisms that the character promotes binge drinking. He credits the ad campaign, along with an improved economy and changes to the infield events, with the raised attendance expectations this year.

"Frankly, the controversy created a buzz and a discussion I couldn't have paid for," he said.

Attendance, purses and TV ratings for horse races has been on the decline for decades. At Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, losses equaled nearly $10 million a year between 2007 and 2009, financial disclosures from the Jockey Club revealed this year.

But even if horse racing were as popular as it was in its peak, the promotion of a race as old as this one would present several challenges — staying relevant, finding new audiences and dealing with competition, marketing analysts say.

"From a promotions standpoint, it's always trying to find a new angle that appeals to people," said Vicki Bendure, spokeswoman for the Virginia Gold Cup, which celebrated its 86th anniversary last weekend.

The race now competes with other major events, and in the last few years it also lost some of its audience and sponsors to the weak economy, Bendure said.

When a product has been around for generations, its marketers have to come up with a new use to prolong its relevance, says Leslie Kendrick, a marketing lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University.

Just as baking soda became a refrigerator deodorant, horse races have become entertainment spectacles.

Last year, the Gold Cup invited the Food Network and "Ace of Cakes" to film there; Duff Goldman made a cake in the trophy's likeness. This year, organizers had a horse cavalry unit perform a demonstration in honor of the Civil War sesquicentennial, Bendure said.

The Maryland Jockey Club began to focus on more family-friendly crowds in 2009, when it ended the popular BYOB policy at Pimlico, which had guaranteed them tens of thousands of fans eager to binge drink in what became an annual exercise in debauchery.

In 2007, videos of drunken patrons racing across portable toilets brought negative attention to the race and influenced the Jockey Club's decision to tame the infield.

To stave off an exodus, it created the InField Festival and invited ZZ Top and Buckcherry to perform, and it hosted a professional women's beach volleyball tournament. Beer was sold for $3.50 a pop. The crowds deserted it anyway.

Since then, the Jockey Club has tried to calibrate its marketing to avoid turning off young fans who want a party while still catering to older, more conservative fans.

With young people in mind, Preakness has been increasing its online presence. This year, 20 employees were hired just to handle traditional and new media outreach, including three bloggers and one person who takes care of just the Facebook and Twitter pages, said Jockey Club spokesman Mike Gathagan. Preakness has also added a free iPhone app.

As for the entertainment, the Jockey Club asked promoter I.M.P. for a headliner — like this year's Bruno Mars — that would appeal to a 21-40 demographic and drive attendance to the infield, Chuckas said. Tickets have remained under $50, plus $20 for the Mug Club, which gives attendees another draw, a bottomless beer mug.

This year's Kegasus campaign was made by the same firm, Elevation, LTD, that created last year's "Get Your Preak On" campaign. With its goofy twittering mascot and over-the-top slogans, the ad campaign was another, albeit less racy, attempt to appeal to young people.

Purists have been offended again. Tom Cooke, president of the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, called it sensationalistic, and Bendure said it's not something the Gold Cup would have pursued.

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