Ditch the myths -- it's cool and hip to go racing, especially on the Flat

A couple of myths that tend to sit lazily, and largely unchallenged, on racing's debating table, have been exploded by the latest research released by the Racecourse Association (RCA).

Racing remains the second-best attended sport in the UK, behind only football.
Racing remains the second-best attended sport in the UK, behind only football.

One suggests that young people aren’t interested in the sport. The other is that Jumps racing is infinitely more popular than Flat racing. Neither theory is borne out by statistics on racecourse attendances, and the make-up of those attendances, that have been unearthed by the RCA.

More on the Jumps v Flat argument later, but how about this revelation to debunk the oft-held view that racing appeals only to those approaching retirement age? The make-up of British racing crowds is younger than the overall sporting average. This is being driven by impressive support from the millennial generation which is responsible for 44% of attendees.

By the ‘millenial generation’, I mean those born between the years 1980 and 2000, therefore aged now between 18 and 38. The country may be faced with an ageing population, but this has not directly translated into racing attendees. Although millennials comprise just 21 per cent of the population, they are visiting racecourses in record numbers, suggesting a bright future for the sport. The average age of racegoers in the UK is currently 45, compared to the overall sporting average of 47.

Young people, and women, are big supporters of racing, according to the new figures.

The research, produced in conjunction with Great British Racing (GBR) and carried out by sports marketing agency Two Circles, is based on advanced ticket purchasers and builds on racing’s already strong attraction as a sporting experience for all ages,

Stephen Atkin, the RCA’s chief executive, said: “This is positive news for the sport. It is encouraging that racecourses are finding ways to attract so many new people between the ages of 20 and 35 to the sport, complementing racecourse efforts to retain the support of our valued existing followers.

“Engaging audiences at an early stage is crucial for the future of racing and presents a huge opportunity for us over the next ten to 15 years as millennials continue to take a larger share of the leisure pound.

“Racecourses have done a huge amount in recent years to improve the raceday experience so that it competes with what is available on the high street as well as other sporting and leisure venues, and we are starting to see the results of the investment.

Young people, and women, are big supporters of racing, according to the new figures.

“We know millennials like to spend more money on leisure experiences than previous generations, so it is great to hear that so many are choosing to go racing against all the alternative options available.

“The ambition is to get them engaging with our fantastic sport, spreading the word and coming back more often. We hope they will go on to become lifelong followers and participate more in the sport through attending, betting and even ownership or working in racing.”

I must say that Atkin’s enthusiasm is supported by my own experiences. I go racing regularly and, contrary to what you might read elsewhere, crowds, particularly on Saturdays which, for most, are non-work days, are made up of a remarkable number of under-35s. And, contrary to popular belief, they are not just propping up the bars on stag dos or hen weekends.

For instance, at Newbury on Betfred Challow Hurdle Day between Christmas and New Year, young people and families could be seen taking an active interest in the racing, popping along to the paddock to see the horses, picking out their fancies and placing small bets. It was so refreshing to witness.

Rod Street, chief executive of GBR, said: “Growing racing’s younger fan base is critical to the future health of the sport and resulted in our largest-ever kids’ campaign during last summer.

“With U18s going free to the majority of fixtures, and the excellent facilities and entertainment at courses, racing has a unique offering for families and their children. Over the six weeks of the summer holidays, there was a 1.15% increase in attendance at family fixtures, triple the average growth, which demonstrates the allure of a day at the races for younger fans.

“As well as attracting a younger audience, it’s clear that racing also retains its broad appeal, with different groups of people attending for different reasons -– whether their interest is from a sporting, betting or social perspective. For example, 40 per cent of racing fans are female, twice the sports average.”

So, do we prefer to go to the Jumps or to the Flat? I have written countless times about the frustrating futility of this debate. It is the sport as a whole that we should be focusing our attention on.

But sadly, the debate rages on within the media, and it has become so one-sided that attempts have even been made to suggest that the National Hunt game is a different sport altogether.

To counter the bias, it does no harm to point to the evidence. The total attendance number for British racing in 2017 was 5,953,749, almost the same as the 2016 figure of 5,987,167. This is the fourth best figure in the last ten years and the third best in the last 15 years when minimising the impact of free racedays.

The average attendance across the 1,463 fixtures held in 2017 was 4,067, compared to 4,175 in 2016. But when broken down for Jumps and Flat, it becomes clear where our preferences lie. The average for a Jumps fixture in 2017 was 3,660, down by a worryingly long way from the 2016 figure of 4,081. On the Flat (Turf), the average was 5,850.

Now, even allowing for the crowds of some summer meetings being artificially inflated by associated music concerts, that represents a sizeable differential (2,190 in fact), particularly given the massive popularity of the Cheltenham and Grand National Festivals.

Delving into the reasons is for another time, but the summer months of June, July and August received a notable boost, with a total of 2,617,046 people going racing, up from 2,596,002 in 2016, despite consistently wet or indifferent weather from Royal Ascot onwards.

Advance ticket sales increased by six per cent last year, while 2017 also saw a five per cent increase in new customers compared with the previous years, and retention rates increased by two per cent.

Atkin added: “The overall attendance numbers for 2017 were stable and comparable to 2016. This is offset by several major racedays, where big crowds would be expected, being abandoned, including the whole the William Hill Gold Cup meeting at Ayr, Coral Welsh Grand National Day at Chepstow and Ascot’s Clarence House Chase Day. If just those three had gone ahead, the overall figure would probably have been up on 2016.

“The increases in weekend crowds and over the summer are positive news and highlight the importance of holding fixtures at times when spectators can attend. We know the majority of racecourse attendees are very local and so the more we can do to get fixtures into customer-friendly slots, the more likely we are to increase crowds.

“Clearly, we would like to see the overall number increasing and we are working hard with all racecourses on the next steps of our data project in conjunction with GBR and Two Circles.

“While we have made great strides to increase the percentage of advance ticket sales, which bring benefits to racegoers and racecourses, there is more we can do in this area. We are also continuing our work to improve the raceday experience for customers in order improve retention rates and get people going racing more often.”