Commentary

Does racing know its audience?

Updated: August 16, 2012, 6:42 PM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

Twice a week, Amelia and Juan Rojas journey 40 miles from Waxahachie, Texas, to Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie. At the racetrack's renovated simulcast facility known as the Bar & Book, they typically spend the entire day. Seated comfortably at their carrels, they watch the action on individualized television monitors and bet on races from New York to California. This time of year, they follow the sport from Saratoga to Del Mar, with simulcast excursions to various racing locales in between.

Some racetracks lavish thousands of dollars on popular musical performers that can be magnets for youngsters who, in some cases, aren't old enough to bet.

They might not seem very unlike many of the sport's most devoted fans, except for one thing. She's 102, and he's 101.

When he says that before moving to Waxahachie he lived in El Paso for a hundred years, he means it. That was where they first went to the races, in 1960, although the racetrack, Sunland Park, which had opened a year earlier, actually sat just across the New Mexico border.

Since then, they've been to racetracks all over the country, they explained, and to a few in other countries. When they travel these days, because they need some assistance, family members accompany them -- they have seven children -- but they still plan vacations so that they're never too far from a racetrack or a simulcast venue.

And so why doesn't horse racing want more fans like Amelia and Juan Rojas? They're perfect fans, aren't they? They're reliable and loyal: Two days a week, every week, they're at the track. Knowledgeable and experienced bettors, they have money and time to spend, and they bring others with them, usually a daughter and a son-in-law, either Veronica and David Ybarra or Amelia and Willie Henderson.

Yes, they're perfect fans, but aside from nugatory gestures, such as half-price-admission-for-seniors day, the sport does little for them. Instead, horse racing, as you've probably noticed, has been trying, with almost maniacal obsessiveness, to attract an entirely different kind of fan: The sport has focused many of its marketing, advertising and packaging efforts on reaching a young audience. The efforts seemed to intensify last year after the Jockey Club Round Table at Saratoga, where the ballyhooed McKinsey Study suggested that the sport's fan base isn't just getting old but is, well, dying.

And so the sport Twitters and streams and podcasts, gives away T-shirts and ball caps and koozies. Advertisements plug parties and concerts more than stakes races or horses. It's just a matter of time before racing figures out how to co-brand with vampires and American Idol. Some racetracks lavish thousands of dollars on popular musical performers that can be magnets for youngsters who, in some cases, aren't old enough to bet.

Such efforts may be worthwhile, even if, as I suspect, they won't pay off for years. The sport, after all, can't allow itself to become flatulent, and racetracks have to make every effort to welcome potential fans, even those who might require years of nurturing and might confuse a superfecta with a Super Bowl.

But even while they can't be neglected, these potential fans aren't the sport's natural, or indigenous, audience. Because this is a pastoral and cerebral game that requires patience, horse racing's natural audience is an older one, and that's a reality the sport shouldn't evade. The nearly 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964, the so-called Baby Boomers, for example, would seem to be a much more receptive audience for the sport than the Twilight crowd.

Because this is a pastoral and cerebral game that requires patience, horse racing's natural audience is an older one, and that's a reality the sport shouldn't evade.

Boomers remember when horse racing had a place on the front page of the sports section and can recall many of the great horses of the last century. When they talk about Secretariat, they're not talking about the movie, but about a glorious moment in sports history. Moreover, the Boomers are retiring. Perhaps introduced to racing years ago, when they had neither the time nor the money to become serious fans, they now have both. Why doesn't horse racing focus its efforts on attracting the Boomers?

At most major sporting events (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL), the largest cohort in attendance is the over-50 group, according to an article in Sports Business Daily. More than 43 percent of the fans at a typical Major League Baseball game, for example, are over 50. And for good reason: They can afford the tickets. But why does everybody in racing go around wringing his hands when the McKinsey Study says the typical horse racing ran is 51?

Newspapers responded similarly years ago when they realized they weren't reaching young readers. Newspapers reacted by changing their content in ways that came to be known as a "dumbing down." But instead of reaching a new younger audience, newspapers only alienated their traditional audience, the general, educated reader. Horse racing can't afford to make the same mistake.

Racetracks should send representatives to every retirement center within 20 miles to hand out invitations. The sport should focus its efforts on attracting Boomers. And 30 or 40 years from now, if they're anything like Amelia and Juan Rojas, they might still be going out to the track twice a week, every week.