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Preakness Stakes sells its renegade soul, benefits long-term

In 2009 the Maryland Jockey Club made a decision to clean up the Preakness. It's paying off now.

(Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports)
(Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports)

From 2003-2008, I attended every Preakness Stakes. It was a tradition among me and my college buddies; perfect for an end of the school year hurrah. The draw was simple: The infield at Pimlico Race Track (home of the Preakness Stakes) was the biggest party on the east coast. Over 100,000 fans attended yearly, with the bulk of the infield attendees 18-25 year-olds. The infield was anarchy. Attendees could bring in coolers with as much food and beverage as they’d like. Coolers were mostly filled with beers and not much food.  It was part of the Preakness charm. A YouTube search of Preakness pre-2008 gives a pretty good idea of the antics of the infield. Go ahead, open it on another tab. . . . I’ll wait.

Related: Top 5 Preakness TV Viewerships

That all changed in 2009. The Maryland Jockey Club decided it may not be a great idea to let a bunch of east coast college age kids have free rein in their infield. They barred fans from bringing in their own beverages. Instead, the Maryland Jockey Club decided to sell beer ($3.50) and hope fans would come to the track for extra entertainment (Buckcherry and ZZ Top headlined the first Preakness concert). My first reaction was, “Well looks like I am not going to Baltimore this year,” followed by the immediate thought that the second leg of horse-racing’s Triple Crown would never be the same. Preakness, the shortest race of the Triple Crown, lacks the pageantry of the Kentucky Derby and doesn’t have the excitement of seeing a Triple Crown winner like the Belmont Stakes.

In 2009, it looked like I was right. Attendance dropped from over 112,000 in 2008 to only 77,000.  The charm was gone, and there was a real fear that the Preakness may even leave Baltimore for another venue. “Freakness,” as it was sometimes referred to, was dead. It had “sold out” to the people in the grandstand, politicians, and a judgmental Maryland Jockey Club. However, the evolution of the infield may have actually saved racing at Pimlico.

Attendance has grown steadily since the dip in 2009, and is back up to record levels. According to the Baltimore Sun, Preakness sales will equal and possibly surpass the 117,000 mark of last years Preakness and challenge the overall mark of 121,000. The Preakness re-brand seems to be working. It’s still a party, as attendees can purchase bottomless mugs, but there is more of a sense of control than pre-2009. A different demographic of fan feels comfortable attending the infield, and the age range has not only widened but seems to be trending upward.

This makes the venue and race seem more stable, and stability is something a sponsor puts at the top of its wishlist when deciding where to throw money around. Preakness has been able to increase involvement from sponsors with tents in the infield. This exposure has brought more sponsors, including Under Armour, Wells Fargo and Deloitte. Which, in turn, has led to more money for Pimlico and the Maryland Jockey Club. The re-brand has been a success, and benefited the Preakness in ways that were unimaginable five years ago.

The major lesson is that sometimes tradition for tradition’s sake no longer works. There were too many complaints to count after the Preakness decided to clean up its act. The immediate short-term pain was worth the long-term success. The Preakness may have “sold out” in 2009 by creating new rules. Now it is just plain selling out.

Michael Colangelo is Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute. 

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