Preakness sales surge with new strategy

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When Tom Chuckas, president of Maryland Jockey Club, announced the death of the BYOB era at Preakness Stakes, the crowd revolted.

The Preakness Stakes of May ’09 simultaneously proved to be the most scantily attended (by the numbers) and least scantily attended (clothing per attendee) Preakness event since the early ’80s.

Noticeably missing were the drunken port-o-john “races,” the onslaught of missiling and oft-full canned Natty-Bohs, and the urine-soaked aluminum graveyard that was once known as the Infield.

Since recreating this classically dangerous Infield experience is quite impossible without lifting the ban, to claw back some of the party-minded attendees, Chuckas did precisely what was necessary: he hired a burgeoning DC marketing firm, Elevation Ltd., to reclaim the crowd.

In 2010, with the help of tagline “Get Your Preak On” and mascot “Kegasus,” Elevation Ltd. marketed the entertainment leading up to the race as “Infieldfest.“ The revamped, less hazardous event featured volleyball tournaments, scavenger hunts and Grammy Award winning musical guest Zac Brown Band.

Perhaps its biggest draw in the eyes of those feeling ostracized since the ban was the option of the $20 “Mug Club” ticket offering Infield attendees access to unlimited beer.

Though Chuckas and Elevation Ltd. caught some flak for developing a mascot with the conspicuously narrow focus of promoting alcohol consumption, when ticket sales numbers were revealed, the marketing strategy aimed at “making a 136-year-old tradition appeal to a younger crowd” seemingly worked wonders. Of the 40,000-plus fans that dropped off in ’09 post-ban, about half as many returned for the 2010 festivities.

Due to the success of its prior campaign, Elevation Ltd. was rehired in 2011. Eliciting a similar strategy resulted in similar success as an additional 20,000 year-to-year boost in sales occurred. In fact, in 2011 Preakness drew the sixth-largest crowd in its history with more than 118,000 spectators.

While the focus remained on recapturing the youth by promoting the event as more of a party than a genteel tradition, Elevation made efforts to retain and draw more traditional race fans with the new, “International Pavilion, the Preakness’ premier destination for Washington, D.C., International A-Listers.”

The resurgence in attendance to pre-BYOB-ban levels appears to have vindicated Chuckas’ heavily debated 2009 ban decision. It could not have been a decision easily made given that Pimlico management had been in financial straits prior to the ban, but it has paid dividends in the form of a steadily growing (albeit tamer) crowd.

The evolution of event and crowd has undoubtedly been a savior for ticket sales, but what implications does it have for horseracing as one of America’s favorite pastimes? This year’s pre-race entertainment and all-day party will indisputably be the lone draw for thousands of attendees as it features yet another solid musical offering with Grammy-winning crooner Adam Levine of Maroon 5 joining rapper Wiz Khalifa.

With or without the culminating 2-minute horserace, the Infield would arguably brim with young, non-traditional race fans — which begs the question: how much longer will the time-honored race be the main event before it has been eclipsed by its pre-game … if it hasn’t already?