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Racing to win the millenials

Attracting younger demographics has long been the challenge for horse racing and Asian racing clubs are leading the way when it comes to ensuring they corner the hard-to-catch, but much sought after millennial market.

Baby Boomers, those born from 1946 to the mid-1960s, grew up in an era when horse racing was at the forefront of public consciousness and on the back page – or even front page – of newspapers. It was the sport of kings and jockeys, trainers and horses were household names and crowds crammed into racetracks to watch their heroes and, of course, bet.

Then began a sharp decline in popularity for the sport – at least in the west – with different gambling and entertainment options attracting the attention of Generation X (children born in the late sixties and through to the seventies).

Asian racing, with its gambling monopolies and structured administration, has been spared much of the damage done in the west but the challenges are still mounting as the internet facilitates the growth of sports betting and other online gaming options.

There is a sense that the generation born between 1982 and 2004, known as millennials – or generation Y – would rather bet on football or even eSports.

At least one expert believes that almost all of horse racing's marketing resources should be focused on attracting millennials, a demographic that by 2025 will represent three-quarters of the global workforce.

"Racing missed generation X, so I think we have to just forget about them, that was an opportunity lost, and make sure we don't miss the millennials,” said Singapore-based South African Gareth Pepper, a global racing expert and director of Pepper Equine Management.

Part of Pepper's mission is to bring millennials to the racetrack and have them enjoy the whole experience – and he believes it is more than just beer and music that is required.

"Those entertainment options are fine to get them to the track, but what about getting them to come back? Unless people feel like they have a connection with the sport and some understanding of what is happening then they aren't going to want to participate, either through placing a bet or horse ownership,” he said.

Of course the “beer and music” model has worked successfully in Hong Kong, where the Happy Wednesday promotion has brought punters back to the track in droves.

It helps that the iconic Happy Valley Racecourse is situated minutes from downtown Causeway Bay, one of the most heavily populated commercial districts in the world.

Happy Valley is now heaving with fans, live bands, cheap beer and a festival atmosphere. It has ensured that the “Beer Garden” is now packed every week, but it wasn’t always that way.

Getting the kids to the track is one thing but the Hong Kong Jockey Club has attempted to parlay the presence of youthful faces into betting turnover in a range of ways.

Themed nights have included “digital night” where punters were able to experience racing through the eyes of a jockey through a simulator that included a mechanical horse and virtual reality headset.

The Jockey Club also employs “racing experts” – many of them attractive young women – who can explain how to place bets and just as importantly, explain what is happening on the track.

“If people can't understand the sport, or develop a passion for it it, then why would they want to keep betting? Without that understanding, they are just as likely to play a casino game or bet on sport, something they have an emotional attachment to,” Pepper said.

As such, the Jockey Club has strived to improve the racetrack experience at both Happy Valley and Sha Tin, with its “customer segmentation” marketing strategies creating restaurants and whole sections aimed at younger fans.

This season the Jockey Club launched “Jump”, a cafe featuring upmarket decor, plus touch-screens and tablets that enable fast access to racing information on betting accounts.

Similarly, Sha Tin's “Digital Zone” is a space designed for younger, tech-savvy fans to enjoy the sport in space-poor Hong Kong, a town where cramped apartment living means watching at home might not be an option.

The Korean Racing Authority is restricted in how it can promote the sport, among other serious obstacles, in a country where anti-gambling lobbyists hold considerable sway.

At Seoul Racecourse the KRA has not only organized regular appearances from leading K-Pop groups and thrown the gates open for free at times, but provides a space for young couples to enjoy the races away from the smoke-filled public section.

Seoul's salubrious NOL Lounge, with padded sofas, desserts bars and spacious surrounds feels more like an upmarket shopping mall than a racetrack.

Customers are kept connected with super-fast wi-fi and tablets that are available to rent for free and provide information on the sport.

In fact the only way to bet in the NOL Lounge is through an app, there are no cash windows, adding to the modern “non traditional racetrack” atmosphere.

For those just starting out, the NOL Lounge also features 200 seat auditorium that holds “how to bet” lectures before each race, with each seat fitted with a tablet and betting apps.

In Japan, the Japan Racing Association has not only targeted younger customers, but made a special effort to attract female fans.

The JRA's UMAJO promotion which features female-only sections of the racetrack brought more than one million girls to the track in 2016.

The JRA is also big on educating inexperienced racegoers through the Umabi promotion and social media platforms, which provide detailed explanations of how racing works, but without an overt emphasis on gambling.

Asian racing expert Adam Lux from Asia Racing Hub says the JRA provides a family-centric atmosphere that is unrivaled in the region

“The JRA caters for each member of the family,” Lux said. “Dads can place their bets, moms can participate in UMAJO events while the kids are kept entertained at on-course amusement parks.”

Of Asia's “big four” racing jurisdictions, Singapore Turf Club may face the biggest challenges when it comes to promoting the sport millennials – or any age group for that matter.

Severe restrictions on signage and advertising mean getting the message out to the general public to raise the profile of the sport is almost impossible.

That's where Pepper's group have stepped in, working on a platform that aims to bring the sport to the masses.

"We can talk about and promote the sport in a way the club can't,” Pepper said. “We are also trying to create pathways to ownership for young people and when we bring them to the track it's about educating and helping people feel involved."

Asia Gaming Brief is a news and intelligence service providing up to date market information for worldwide executives on relevant gaming issues in Asia.

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