Racing has come up against a number of challenges in recent months, with cuts to levy contributions, racecourse closures and – most recently – a complete halt of the sport due to the pandemic.
Yet, Wiliam Woodhams, CEO of Fitzdares believes that now is the perfect time to re-engage with those punters which may have drifted away from the sport.
Speaking on the ‘Racing line – time to innovate’ panel on day one of Betting on Sports Europe – Digital, Woodhams explained that with ‘more eyeballs on the sport’ as people spend more time at home, now is the time to build more excitement around racing.
He said: “It would have been nice to get punters ‘crazy mad’ for international racing, or at least to develop a taste for it. But ultimately, people love to bet on things they know, so that’s going to be a narrative and information play for a time. But yes, I do think that it has reinvigorated the market. In the UK, terrestrial TV has renewed their contracts.
“I come back to this every single time, but racing is the perfect product for gambling on. You have to play around with other sports sometimes, especially with in-play and weird markets to bring them to life in a gambling sense. But in racing, it’s just all there! The product is perfect – you have narratives and heroes, glamour and ‘rough and ready’ racing. It’s all there.
“I know that our average numbers have increased 30% on day-to-day racing, so this is the die-hard racing fans watching on a Tuesday afternoon. That has increased. But that’s been a perennial challenge for bookmakers because it’s a certain type of person that bets at that time of the day.
“But as a product, having that mid-week exposure, excitement and reengagement has been phenomenal for us. I suppose, and dare I say it, we’re still in a bit of a lockdown mentality which probably means that there are more eyeballs on sports in homes, albeit less people physically at the races. But as I said, the product works really really really well on TV.”
Woodhams was joined on the panel by David da Silva, CEO of EasyOdds, Simon Fraser, SVP International at XB Net and the panel’s moderator, Paul McNea, Director of iGaming Performance.
Disagreeing with Woodhams, da Silva stated that while horse racing does offer a number of betting opportunities, it needs to do more to engage with its audience.
Suggesting that racing could draw upon influences from US sports by delivering a more ‘holistic experience’ when it comes to entertainment, he argued that there is still a long way to go to ensure that bettors are engaged and energised.
He responded: “We’re really open to sports taking the initiative and bringing what they provide and growing the appeal that they have, especially for the younger audience. Horse racing definitely has the potential to be much bigger than it already is. More free-to-air terrestrial access is going to help that significantly. I don’t think that there are enough narratives, I don’t think there’s enough creativity or enough done to make racing more inclusive for the minorities or even to bring a contemporary edge to horse racing.
“With the way that some of the US sports work by creating a more holistic entertainment product, horse racing certainly still has to go quite some way to evolve and challenge some of the other sporting groups. We’re all equally trying to grab the same share. We’re really open to working with other sports, bookmakers, data providers – anything that makes it more engaging for our users and gets them excited and energised is great.
“We believe that betting is the highest form of engagement with the sport. It’s all well and good sitting back and watching it on your sofa, but if you actually had a small bet behind the outcome then you’re really going to pay attention. Gambling responsibly and doing everything the way that we do is a fantastic addition to the experience. We consider gambling as a conduit to that engagement and heightening the overall experience.
“If horseracing wants to do more to attract that audience, it’ll have to work with other industry stakeholders to work out different ways to do it. Data is a big thing, as is information and overlays. From our experience, our biggest feature is our horse racing alerts where punters are notified of when their favourite horses are running. Data is key, but engaging punters really has to come from the industry.”
Echoing a similar sentiment, Fraser turned discussions towards the US market observing that the industry can sometimes have difficulty when it comes to engaging with those that see racing primarily as a gambling product and not as a sport.
He explained that TV coverage on major networks can be a key driver for boosting both engagement and bettor’s understanding of racing as a whole, while also having the potential to be a vehicle for discussing issues surrounding racing inclusivity.
Answering a question on whether the pandemic has presented a new opportunity to engage with bettors, he said: “This is absolutely an opportunity, both in the US and outside the US, we’ve been presented with a great opportunity. So many of the US sports and the major leagues closed down.
“But the first big sporting event which returned after lockdown was the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in New York. It was covered on NBC, as it always is, but the coverage this year was absolutely exceptional. That promotion of bringing the sport to a new audience has been very successful in the US. Working with FOX Sport and various other channels too to show racing was really an opportunity to engage those who wouldn’t typically look at racing, as well as those that don’t even consider racing a sport.
“For some people, racing is a gambling product, they don’t understand the sport because it isn’t necessarily explained that well. From a US point of view, there is a really good opportunity.
“When we’re coming into international markets, we’re fishing in the pond that is already there for local racing. It’s difficult for US racing to expand to non-racing punters. If you can’t get people to bet on Cheltenham in the UK, it’s going to be very difficult to get them to bet on US races. What we can do is to expand the betting day by having more time for when UK racing has finished to give punters more product. When they do then become engaged with it, there will always be something for them to bet on.
“US racing has a very different demographic to UK racing, the jockeys are from more varied parts of the world, more people from ethnic minorities and BAME backgrounds in US racing. Racing is a worldwide sport, but the industry seems to have dropped the ball on that slightly because it does have opportunities to highlight issues around inclusivity.”