May 17, 2010

Horse Racing fans in Baltimore "Get their Preak On"

Last year, Preakness officials, eager to put an end to the "Freakness" party in the track's infield, banned patrons from bringing in their own coolers and beverages (read: alcohol).  The result?  A 30% drop in attendance for the 2009 race compared to 2008, the biggest one-year drop in Preakness history (from 112,222 to 77,850).

Fast-forward to Saturday's race, where Preakness officials launched a massive ad campaign to bring those patrons (and their money) back to the track by publicizing the return of the drunkenness and debauchery to the infield at Pimlico.  Entitled "Get Your Preak On," the campaign was met with more than its fair share of controversy.  One columnist from the Baltimore Sun called it an "embarrassment," "sleazy," and "pathetic."  On the opposite side, Baltimore sportscaster Scott Garceau called it edgy and well-targeted at 20 year-old, potential horse racing fans.  Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas insisted that the campaign's volatility was a great marketing tool in and of itself:
"Let's look at it real simple.  People like it.  People don't like it.  One thing's for sure, (the media) is doing a lot of stories and a lot of articles about it, which keeps the Preakness and racing at the front of everybody's minds."
Controversial ad campaigns for sports and sports figures help to get people talking - no matter where they stand - as the old saying goes: any publicity is good publicity.  And since the campaign made its way into the USA Today and the front page of Washington Post on Friday, no one can argue with the campaign's success in drumming up media attention.

All this notwithstanding, was the campaign effective in selling more tickets?  Well, coolers were still prohibited in the infield but organizers eased up on the previous year's crackdown and even offered some all-you-can-drink and $1 beer specials.  As a result, attendance increased by 18,000 people over last year for a total of 95,760 (about an 18% increase over last year), - but remained well below the attendance records during the "bring-your-own-cooler" era.

The question that remains, however, (and asked by Baltimore Sun blogger David Zurawik) do any of the people in the infield care about horse racing?  Or, in other words, can the marketing scheme and resulting media circus actually bring fans to Pimlico on any other day of the year?  If the answer is no, then who cares how classy the infield party is at the Preakness?  Let Missy Elliott run wild.  It's simply a separate, but simultaneous event to the second jewel of horse racing's triple crown.

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