What do virtual reality, touchscreens and social media have to do with the future of racing? According to experts, it’s this type of technology that could be key to ensuring the "old fashioned" sport of racing keeps up with the times, and as usual the Hong Kong Jockey Club is leading the way.
On any given Wednesday night at Hong Kong's iconic Happy Valley racecourse, horse racing seems anything but a sport in decline. As a band belts out a cover of Uptown Funk, thousands of 20- and 30-something’s groove along. While the Hong Kong Jockey Club's Happy Wednesday promotion has been an amazing success – midweek crowds of about 20,000 are the norm - a quick look around tells you there are still more beers than betting slips in the hands of the younger spectators.
Engaging a younger demographic remains perhaps the biggest challenge for a relatively arcane sport that, unlike other popular team sports like football and basketball, relies almost entirely on betting revenue for its funding and therefore survival.
“It's a worldwide problem for the sport – that the demographic that follows racing is getting older,” said Tony Kelly, the Jockey Club's executive director, Racing Business and Operations. “And now everyone is chasing the same pot of gold – and that is “how do you engage young people?”
So what are the answers? The Hong Kong Jockey Club leads the way in initiatives aimed at getting young people to bet on their smartphones and ensuring that cutting edge technology is put to use in the battle to keep racing relevant in the 21st century.
Above the Beer Garden, in Adrenaline nightclub so-called "racing specialists" stand by, to explain to young professionals how to place a bet. Making the task easier is the "ibu" – a billiard table size smartscreen, which the Jockey Club claims is “the world’s largest multi-touch table.” The "ibu" allows users to acquire information related to horses, jockeys, trainers and races as well as to place bets with a stored value electronic card.
At the reception iPads are freely loaned out to use while at the races with the tablets containing pre-loaded, easy-to-use apps. The apps include Racing Touch – a form analyser that connects straight to the Jockey Club's betting pools – and Racing Simulator, which creates a life-like and interactive display of how a race might play out tactically.
Recently the club even deployed virtual reality headsets in the Beer Garden - allowing fans to feel what it might be like to ride a horse in a race and help them relate to what is happening out on the turf.
“The jockey club tries to stay at the forefront of technology to stay connected with young people,” says Andrew Hawkins, an expert who covers racing for the South China Morning Post. “That access at the track means all of the information you need is at your fingertips, but just as importantly, it is all represented in a graphical and easy to understand way. And with young people having a short attention span, the club does a great job of keeping young people engaged when most raceclubs around the world aren't doing that.”
Hawkins also pointed to the use of social media such as Twitter or Facebook.
“They have been exceptional for racing, because firstly racing is a community, and is very niche in its knowledge, and because racing has always thrived on rumour and innuendo – talking about what is happening behind the scenes. It has opened that up to a new group of people that perhaps before didn't have access to that.”
One Australian race club that has been proactive in its moves to create a more accessible product is the Melbourne Race Club, whose Racing and Media Executive Josh Rodder has travelled to Asia's biggest race tracks in search of ideas.
He says fresh ideas, like the use of virtual reality headsets,used at Happy Valley, could be used in numerous ways.
“We could do virtual stables tours, where people get an up close look what goes into training a horse – anything that can help educate people about the sport in a new and exciting way, that's what we need,” he said.
The MRC's famous Caulfield Racetrack is in the process of developing a multimedia room in conjunction with its betting partner Ladbrokes and the MRC also offers an extensive Young Members program, with tours and marquees on big race days.
Rather than seeing racing as a strictly wagering product, Rodder believes racing needs to do a better job of marketing itself as a sport and educating potential fans.
He has also travelled to racetracks in Japan and witness firsthand the almost religious devotion of fans there. “You get 50,000 fans surrounding the parade ring before a big race like the Derby – the horses are the stars, as well as the trainers and jockeys. This is where we have lost our way in Australia I think, at least from a marketing perspective.
“I understand we are a turnover model but if we want to connect the younger audience we can't be ramming the betting in their faces, we need to connect them with the sport.”
The Jockey Club's Tony Kelly, executive director, Racing Business and Operations, provides an interesting perspective on the sport, having arrived just over 12 months ago from England where he was managing director of Arena Racing Company (ARC), the biggest operator of racetracks in Britain.
While Hong Kong has its advantages – and Kelly is the first to mention the “M” word, monopoly, and doesn't dodge the fact that his organisation has access to funds other racing clubs can't dream of – he does bring up a formidable challenge that is virtually unique to racing in the former English colony.
“One of the biggest obstacles we face here is that you can't come into our racecourses until you are 18 years of age,” he said. “In Australia, Japan or the UK, people can start to get involved with racing through family members, or by experiencing racing live, it's already creating an affinity with wagering. When they can legally bet, they are already familiar with the place and the sport itself. Here, by the time someone turns 18, the challenge we face is that other things may have taken their interest. They have learned to “get” other sports and that creates different draws on their time and attention.
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