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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Rob Hartnett - 'Something is only impossible if you think it'
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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Rob Hartnett - 'Something is only impossible if you think it'
on 10 January 2020
Sport For Business founder Rob Hartnett talks to Daragh Ó Conchúir on how we can better 'sell' horse racing

RACING is laced through Rob Hartnett’s DNA. His maternal great-grandfather, Willie Barrett recorded the Irish Derby-Irish Oaks double in 1915 on board Ballaghtobin and Latharna, and Hartnett has a photo of the Barrett siblings Willie, Mick and Anthony, and Willie’s apprentice son Jack, Rob’s grandfather, contesting a finish to a race at the Curragh.

Jack would go on to ride in England before returning home to become Darkie Prendergast’s travelling head lad. He marked the 50th anniversary of his father’s classic feats by leading up Meadow Court for his Irish Derby triumph in 1965. “My parents were actually married in 1965. So I think the present, maybe not from Bing Crosby, but from a couple of the other owners helped to pay for my parents’ wedding” Hartnett reveals with a smile. A cousin, Tony Brennan was champion apprentice jockey and he went on to work for Mick O’Toole.

“My mother has a photo of myself and my brother, when we were around four and two, sitting on the back of Mick O’Toole’s hack out in Maddenstown. So I grew up in it and always had a real love and affection for it.”

After leaving UCD with a degree in history and politics, Hartnett was forced by lack of opportunity to London, where he had actually been born. Odd jobs were the order of the day before he became racing correspondent of LBC Radio. From there he got a job in Ladbrokes’ PR department in 1990 and quickly climbed the ladder.

Three years later he joined Coral as PR manager on the track, where sponsorships of the Eclipse and Welsh Grand National were standouts. After four years there, he resuscitated the Tote during a five-year stint when he was running a £2 million sponsorship budget, the feature being the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

In 2001, he was brought on board to be managing director of Betdaq UK by Dermot Desmond, at a time when the exchanges were a bit “Wild West”. Coming back to Dublin with wife Elaine and the family was the real attraction, as was the challenge, but by 2006 Hartnett was looking for a change of direction.

Connect leaders

So he joined O’Herlihy Communications and then set up Hartnett Public Relations in 2007. Four years later he established Sport For Business, aiming to connect leaders in the sports industry with those in the business community.

He has worked with Horse Racing Ireland and some individual racetracks including Leopardstown, Galway and the Curragh, which is where we meet up for a lengthy and intriguing conversation.

Given the breadth of the 52-year-old’s experience in both business and racing, and the absence of any agenda in his commentary, Hartnett’s views are interesting indeed. It is important to emphasise that he believes a lot of things are being done right in Ireland, but that there are a few steps that can be taken that would improve matters.

He was at Leopardstown over Christmas and noted the changing face of the clientele.

“Looking at the Leopardstown figures over Christmas, the Tote betting was down a third. And the Tote betting is generally the straight line you can draw to the new audience, the less committed. If I understand racing, and I am a racing person, I will go down to the bookies or increasingly I will just do it on my phone on my account. But if I am there for the experience of it and the social side of it, I am going to bet with the Tote.

“Given the fact that the audience has maintained its level, my sense is that the betting side of the raceday experience is in decline. It has become less important over the years.

“Racing is much less important for the bookmakers now than it was 20 years ago. I could see that, particularly in the Betdaq days, it was all going towards football.

Racing was invented in many ways, as a medium for gambling, but if it only defines itself as that then it is on the wrong side of the moral divide

“The idea of going along racing with your mates, particularly at Christmas now, it is still fresh on the mind, seeing gangs of fellas and girls coming up to the racecourse. I know because a couple of them are mine, and they haven’t got the money to be big punters out on the ring. If they have a fiver, it’s either a bet or a pint. It tends to be a pint that wins out.

“They are less interested in getting from one race to the next, and having a bet on every race. It might not be a bad thing to broaden the appeal. Racing was invented in many ways, as a medium for gambling, but if it only defines itself as that then it is on the wrong side of the moral divide in some ways.

“Part of the show is the quality of the racing that is actually out on the track. But you also have to keep them entertained because there is a half-an-hour between races. The more you get interested in it the more you want to see the horses in the pre-parade ring.

“You don’t get that opportunity anywhere else. You don’t get to get into the dressing room in the Aviva Stadium or at the RDS or in Thomond. But you can actually see Willie Mullins or Gavin Cromwell actually putting on the saddle. But that is just one part of it.

Back to the bar

“For most others they will either go back to the bar, they will go and get a box of chips, there might be a bit of music, comedy or whatever takes your fancy… We don’t give them action on the field of play for that three hours but we have to keep them entertained.

“We also need to get across better to people that kids under 18 go free. When you have got kids, you are always multiplying things. I have four kids so I have to multiply things by six. Now if I go to the zoo it is going to cost me four adults and two kids. If I go to the races I still only have got to pay for four adults.”

Seeing non-traditional professional firms with no connection to racing like Savills and Matheson emerge as feature sponsors at Leopardstown over Christmas is a positive development in Hartnett’s eyes, though he makes the point that dispensing with long-time supporters is not the way forward either.

This discussion is currently ongoing regarding attendances too but Hartnett does not see why chasing a new audience should impact negatively on the retention of the existing core.

“Something is only impossible if you think it is. You have to be brave. You have to define what you need to do. We have got some really smart people working in racing. Say I am going to devote 25% of my resource towards maintaining the sport and the appeal of the sport amongst this particular audience over here. They are my bedrock. They are the ones that will come. I don’t want to upset them to such an extent that they won’t come anymore.

“That doesn’t mean that you can’t do things differently. If you have got 25% there and then 25% towards an audience of people that have never heard of racing before. And you might only get 100 people that will come out of that. Then you devote 50% of your time to saying these are the people that are with us already.

“Let’s spend money trying to persuade them that they should come back more themselves or expand their circle of friends outwards by virtue of syndicate incentives and things like that. Talk to them in a language they understand and want to hear, and talk to them at a time they want to hear it as well. And in a means where they want to hear it.

“It is brilliant having The Irish Field and Racing Post but I have to go and find them. You really want it to be a little bit wider than that. We don’t have three pages of race cards in the national newspapers anymore. Did that ever really serve much of a purpose?

“I would much rather be reading features about Faugheen or Rachael Blackmore or Willie Mullins. Give me the narrative over a longer period of time than just a list of 20 horses. I can only love it if I understand it better.

“I am not sure we are doing quite enough of that, or in the right way. I love some of the partnerships that Horse Racing Ireland has drawn up. You see the lads in Off the Ball, they are mad into sport of all kinds but Johnny Ward is a key member of the team. They talk about racing now not just in a little hour spot on the Friday.

“Racing runs through all of their programming, so their target audience of young men looking for entertainment or of older couples with kids, you are getting that message out there that racing is kind of cool. You can talk about Rachael Blackmore alongside Stephanie Roche or Johnny Sexton.

“You have got digital organisations like Her.ie that is sponsoring the Best Dressed over in Galway. You are reaching out to media sources that might not be the old traditional Irish Times or Irish Independent but these are where people are actually consuming their cultural reference points.”

Incentives

He feels that more direct promotional offers, incentives for a variety of memberships, should be utilised, using the modern technology and strategic partnerships.

“I went to the IMC Cinemas on Sunday night in Dun Laoghaire, On my phone, through Three, I have a long-running offer from IMC Cinemas, two for €10, Sunday through to Thursday. Whenever you want to see something you just tap on this, download the code, book your tickets and away you go. Five of us went to the cinema for €25. Did we spend money on popcorn and drinks? Of course. You have got all this infrastructure around to make extra money once you have got them in the door.

“The Curragh did a great promotion, because they had to, free entry in the last couple of days. I am not sure about free; free gives people the opportunity to just say yes and then forget about it. Even if it is €5. Get me involved. But we don’t have enough of those. Get people in and spend money when they’re in.

“I am a big NFL fan so I have got three or four apps on my phone that are feeding me news and information constantly. If I sign up and give somebody my email, they will send me offers so I can get merchandise at a reduced rate. I can get pre-booking access to NFL games in London, which is going to help me spend money with them. They are giving me the narrative of the story for free and we need to do more of that. Set up a club.

“HRI have a big database at the moment and maybe this is already happening but find me something that will feed me information and will tease me every now and again.

“Because I am a member of the club I actually feel like I am getting something a little bit extra. You might just throw me the free ticket every now and again. Or a chance for a dozen people to go down to Willie Mullins’ yard two weeks before Cheltenham.

“Racing has a lot of target audiences. It is actually evidenced in the ad they have at the moment. Moments that each individual has had... Some people might prefer the gambling side of it and they might dismiss the other side of it altogether, others will be more attracted by the fashion and others by group discounts and actually getting a gang together.

“You can’t rely on the fact that a clash between two great champions is going to be enough. It might, but chances are it probably won’t.”

What would help in the latter regard is the order in which races are scheduled.

“I was lucky enough to go to a few Breeders’ Cups and the facilities and venues were nothing like what we have at Leopardstown and the Curragh. But there was a sense of theatre that the day was building and building and building.

“It happens to an extent with the Grand National in England because they moved it later. It actually created a sense where you were building up to the big event.

“If I go to the All-Ireland Football Final, there is the minor match that takes place and then there is the senior match. There isn’t another game after it. So why not do that at racing, building up to the big race at the end? If that means people aren’t necessarily getting there for the first two races that is okay.

“If there was one thing, in terms of horse racing that would potentially transform it, it is the growth of syndicates."

“They are actually going there for the sense of theatre. You are in the business of creating a show. There isn’t anything else in the world of sport where you have got your big marquee event that takes place in the middle.”

Extending the ownership is a long-standing target.

“If there was one thing, in terms of horse racing that would potentially transform it, it is the growth of syndicates.

“Over the last few years, you have to applaud Horse Racing Ireland and Amber Byrne for what she has done. We took out a small syndicate (as part of the Owner For a Day initiative), we had a horse with Paul Deegan.

“I had brought together some of the Sport For Business people and we are going to do it again. But getting down to have breakfast down in the stable, to see the horse. People’s eyes were lighting up. “If you can translate that from a promotional exercise, the benefits are considerable. It was great in terms of opening the racing world up. It might take three or five years but there are still people who have done that, that might remember having the sausages and having the craic with the jockeys and finding out that little bit more.

“That behind the scenes, real, experiential thing. If you can translate that into getting groups of 100 and selling them a stake in a horse for €100 or €200, that is the way forward. The experience you get for the price of little more than a couple of trips to the cinema or a lunch can be really transformational.”

Exclusive content

Hartnett echoes the sentiments of Naas chair Dermot Cantillon when it comes to the dissemination of its own exclusive content and perhaps having its own TV channel.

“Our media now is just so fractured and diverse across so many different streams. It is great RTÉ still cover as much racing as they do. Would it be better if they covered every single horse race that takes place? I’m not sure. The media rights deal is one of the biggest sources of funding coming into racing and it is really important.

“But there will come a time where we might decide it’s better controlling the media ourselves. Ten years ago watching horse racing on your phone, that was never going to work. Now that is what we do. In certain territories around the world people can pay to watch a match live as an individual customer. You are not selling the rights to a media company, you are selling the rights individually to a customer. It may come to the point where we decide to do that. GAAGO is available all around the world and those numbers are growing. Maybe racing can do that as well.”

There is so much more in a thoroughly engaging conversation that is always enthusiastic and positive but space has run out. So time for a final message.

“I really think you need to push rewards around being a member of a club. Give little benefits. It works everywhere else, in retail, in hospitality. Just talk to people. Give them a reason to actually come and experience what is a great day out. And don’t be afraid that they might not like it.

“Half of them won’t like but half of them will love it and come back again. Then it becomes worth your while.”

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