Last week, figures released by the Levy Board revealed that, once again, attendances at racecourses in 2019 dipped from what they were the year before. The average attendance had slipped to 3,898 from 1443 fixtures, whereas in 2018 this figure was 3,924 from 1,471 fixtures. It doesn’t sound a lot, but it merely continues a general trend of attendances dropping off slowly.
As ever, plenty of things outside of racing got the blame – bad weather, other sporting events – but given that the World Cup had taken place in 2018, which inevitably keeps people away from the racecourse, it seemed remarkable that they dropped form the 2018 figure rather than went up.
It would also appear that the target audience is aware of racing but simply choose not to make it part of their leisure activities. What the actual target is could be open to some debate – midweek, presumably the retired with a bit of money to spare, and at weekends, a younger crowd with paypackets from a Friday – but whatever they are, they ain’t coming racing like they used to.
Racecourse now put on concerts throughout the summer in order to boost figures, but it would seem that, with the really big names aside, even these are starting to lose their novelty value a bit. I’ve frequently attended concert days/nights where the crowd is a fraction of what they were hoping for. Plenty of times last year I was offered 2-for-1 tickets on the Monday for a concert on the Friday. That doesn’t happen if ticket sales are good. And too many tracks are overly-optimistic about walk-ups on the day too. People simply don’t decide to go to a concert night “on the day” – they are planned events, plain and simple.
What can be done to try and stem the tide? The answer seems simple enough to me, and plenty of others, and yet…
Firstly, admission prices. Charging people £20+ for a load of Class 5/6 handicaps in the winter is hardly going to entice people to come. £10 all-in fee that includes a racecard should be the norm in January and February for a start. Food and drink – still ridiculously expensive at many tracks. Give people somewhere to eat (and sit down) for a reasonable price. Ludlow and Southwell lead the way here, both offer some solid lunch options for not that much money and the chance to have a seat whilst you do.
The supposed midweek audience – the OAP’s – need to be enticed away from garden centres where a couple of lunches and a handful of pot plants take up their £50. Get them to come racing and offer them a better experience for the same money.
The weekend racing is a different kettle of fish. Many older racegoers are actually put off by the fact that a younger, and generally more boisterous, crowd will be in attendance and as such, I always seem to think you get a crowd less engaged with the racing and more engaged with the bar. Having visited Sandown again on Saturday, this was pretty much the impression I left with again, with many groups of lads simply shouting at each other whilst the actual races were on, and had no interest in what was going on in front of them. So, unless you’re a hardened racegoer (like me) and you’re used to it, you’re not going to go.
How you reverse this situation is a tough one, as really the racecourses have already put their eggs in one basket, with alcohol sales being the driving factor. I’d love to see a racecourse brave enough to try a Saturday without selling alcohol. Announce it well in advance, get loads of national press coverage. Would you then get a different, more family-orientated crowd turning up, as well as wooing back a few of the older brigade? I don’t know. But something radical clearly has to be tried if we are to start getting the crowds to increase, and maybe this is worth a try.
Newmarket’s Silver Ring is often a vibrant atmosphere in the summer, with families rocking up with food and drink and the kids are able to play on their large playpark in a safe atmosphere, and within vision of the parents. I’d like to see more racecourses provide spaces like that too.
Whatever racecourse try, it’s clear we need a big shake-up. There’s only so many years on the trot you can blame the rain and the Olympics before the excuses run dry. Racing is becoming less relevant to people – if we are to make it relevant again, then a change is going to have to come.