Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

The Generation Gap

Mon 13th Nov 2017, 09:28

Icantsay and Danny Mullins on their way to victory at Navan
©Hong Kong Jockey Club
Racing around the world is suffering angst about its declining appeal to the Millennial generation. There certainly seems to be a gap between old fogies dismissing Millennials as tech-obsessed snowflakes with tiny attention spans and acknowledging they are tomorrow's customer base. Even Irish racing, secure in its cosy financial incubator, has a stake in encouraging new generations of fans. Some things never change though and racing's bottom line attraction has always been actual racing. So it's vital the sport has the self-confidence to maintain its focus on that appeal.

That's not any sort of green light for smugness. But it is worthwhile pointing out that nothing dates faster than trendy. So while it may be fashionable to project everything through particular prisms, racing's core appeal still basically boils down to the spectacle of thoroughbreds competing against each other. You either get the drama, colour and beauty of that spectacle or you don't.

A recent Australian report pointed to racing having just 20 per cent of the vital 18-29 audience, the lowest of the major sports there. There has been even more alarm at how racing is capturing fewer regular punters in that 18-29 age group than AFL, cricket and NBA basketball.

Such a pattern is not a peculiarly Australian phenomenon. The gambling culture worldwide has been transformed in the last two decades. But it's not surprising that racing jurisdictions whose financial base are dependent on betting turnover are focussing on maintaining their market share. Just as unsurprising are some of the supposed selling points to young people.

The report paints a familiar if somewhat condescending picture of a youthful sporting audience with fickle attention spans for which nothing exists if it isn't on their phones, who are fascinated by floods of 'data' wrapped in a bright showbiz package full of digital bells and whistles accompanied in turn by trending celebrities supposedly engaged in lively audience conversation.

So sure enough Australian racing's prescriptive future is bound up with generating betting income through 'star power.' The reports asks why can't jockeys show their personality, build rivalries and create theatre like the UFC? They can become the F1 drivers of the racing world, a regrettable comparison since most racing drivers are famously credited with less personality than their cars.

Then there's the usual jargon about addressing product gaps with moments of consequence and greater interactivity, reducing downtime between races, turning race meetings into an entertainment package with the challenge of exploring and reinvigorating the punting experience by fast-paced, high stakes trading incorporated into the racing brand urged.

While it's easy to mock language being gelded of meaning like that - and fun too - there's a danger in dismissing valid points because they're submerged in corporate gibberish. There's also the middle aged conceit that because something is bewildering to them that it must be for everyone else too. But while tech may be a medium, racing's message is still rooted in old-fashioned sentiment.

Irish racing's singular financial structure means it is spared the realities of declining betting turnover hitting its bottom line. Nevertheless attracting young people is obviously in its self interest in any number of other ways. And the temptation always seems to be to simplify or ape other sports in an attempt to persuade the uncommitted to try racing.

So we get supposed 'star power' celebrity, various 'entertainment packages' in which the actual racing is almost incidental, artificial football-style formats unsurprisingly struggling for on-the-ground relevance, and all of it an attempt to try and hide the reality that you either get racing or you don't.

That's hardly some throwback reaction to technological innovation. Fighting that is like fighting time. But even tech can only impact on an audience prepared to pay attention. And such an audience isn't going to be persuaded by gimmickry. Racing is a marmite sport. It doesn't do lukewarm responses. People either love it or leave it and people still like to make their own minds up.

With betting available on every permutation of every sport the need to sell racing on its own merits rather than a strictly gambling basis has never been stronger. And reluctance to do so, preferring instead to pin other types of entertainment onto the package, speaks of a deep insecurity hardly confined to Ireland.

Every generation winds up predicting the old game's doom and yet it continues to get its hooks into sufficient members of the following generation to keep going. What's different this time perhaps isn't so much Millennial indifference as greater technical precision when it comes to totting up tangibles with an intangible like sentiment remaining unhelpfully incalculable.

What won't help at all however will be grisly exercises in people pretending to be something they're not. Frankie Dettori's image works because it's authentic. Ryan Moore pretending to behave the same way is a grisly prospect. After all an inbuilt bullshit detector capable of sniffing out the insincere from the genuine is common to all generations.

Racing should have the self confidence to root its promotion in what it has to offer rather than in gimmickry. The Australian report made a point of stressing how young audiences don't like their action rooted in the parochial but instead prefer a global outlook. Well, Irish racing's impact on the world stage is second to none as 24 year old Joseph O'Brien proved in last week's Melbourne Cup.

Rather than pandering, racing should work to appeal more to those who actually have got the racing bug. It has to do its best to encourage and maintain that interest by getting its house in order on fundamentals such as stewarding and anti-doping and having proper policies in place for substantial welfare issues and a host of other matters.

And when it comes to image the real issue is tackling hardly insubstantial accusations of it being a closed shop for insular insiders capable of telling the public to stay away from a shop-window event like the Derby. I don't care how old you are: the Curragh decision represents an epoch of bleary-eyed short-sightedness.

Australians shouldn't worry too much about the coming generations though.

How deeply the Melbourne Cup is rooted in the national consciousness was brought home when two nieces of mine in Brisbane - a thousand miles from Victoria - were encouraged in their primary school classes to make fascinators and paint them in the colours of the Melbourne Cup runners. Each member of the class got a horse and the winner got a chocolate. Try beating that for promotion. You wouldn't get that kind of 'buy-in' for the Irish Derby in Newbridge!

Finally, predictions that Rule 212 enquiries would be back in full swing once winter ground saw the emergence of horses good enough to not try very hard haven't been wide of the mark in recent weeks. But it's the less straightforward cases, and the necessary application of common sense to them, that are particularly interesting.

The latest came with Icantsay's all the way win at Navan on Sunday. Danny Mullins' enterprise saw the winner appear to build up a lead of over a furlong at one stage and to all intents and purposes the race was over before the turn in.

What was noticeable even then however was the apparent lack of urgency of those in the pack. So if the stewards hadn't all nine jockeys in afterwards they should have immediately been asked why not. This is the stuff Rule 212 is supposed to pick up because there didn't appear to be anyone too pushed about Icantsay getting so loose on the lead.

No doubt plenty will dismiss the argument many of the jockeys put up about trying to finish in their best possible position as rubbish. However the reality is that if someone set off after the winner down the back they would in all probability have shot their bolt early in the straight. No one wanted to be the patsy and everyone had their poker face on. All of it conspired to let Icantsay with a solo.

I'm not sure if that was worthy of wholesale suspensions. When you consider some of the blatant stuff going on this was a lot more nuanced. Ultimately it looked to come down to events, my dear boy, events.

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