In my early years, a summer in Ontario was never complete until you made your annual trip to ‘The Ex’ (The Canadian National Exhibition at the CNE grounds in Toronto). Things like The Flyer - an embarrassingly rickety roller coaster by today’s standards - The Zipper, The Alpine Way, Tiny Tom Donuts, horribly overpriced games (most that were basically un-winnable) and the Food Building were all annual rites of late summer.
Even when Canada’s Wonderland - a much better option to most - came along, my friends and I still always spent one day at The Ex well into our teen years. The goal of winning a giant stuffed animal with our parents had turned into one of meeting hot girls from Toronto maybe, but the real reason we still attended was because it was a tradition that we had all grown up with. The trouble for the CNE though, that wasn’t going to necessarily be the case with future generations.
With the opening of the aforementioned Wonderland in 1981, as well as many other entertainment opportunities that have continued to spring up, the CNE has struggled. Its attendance figure of 3.6 million visitors in 1978 has since shrunk to a yearly average of approximately 1.5 million - even though the population of the GTA has soared over that same 45 year period. The Ex is still a solid revenue generator for the city and province, but its glory days have definitely come and gone.
Does this story remind you of anything?
Standardbred racing in Canada, like The Ex, was pretty much the only game in town back then - speaking in our case, about when it came to the gambling dollar. Unfortunately you’ve heard this song before, but unfortunately as well, it’s true. Since other opportunities to gamble have arisen, interest in our product, attendance and revenue numbers have dropped. The CNE has done things to try and save themselves, as have we… but in either case, is it enough?
We still do have some tracks that do a great job promoting the on-track experience, and we still do have people attending the races and gambling on our sport, just like people still go to The Ex. That’s today however. Without nearly as many opportunities available though, to win people over with a fun, on-track experience, what are we doing instead to attract tomorrow’s customers?
I interviewed mega horse owner Eric Cherry for a TROT feature just a few months ago, and in it he stated that our future didn’t depend on getting people to the track, but instead, exposing them to our product online. He said that although 75,000 people may attend an NFL game live, tens of millions watch it online or on TV… and he’s right. But here’s the catch: People are exposed to football in so many more ways than we’re exposing people to horse racing. We don’t have 75,000 people attending any one of our events, let alone doing so once a week at 16 different venues. So if we’re not still concentrating our efforts, to some degree, on getting people to the track, how is it that we’ll ever get them watching and wagering online one day in the future?
My friends and I still went to The Ex annually for many years, even after more enjoyable options such as Canada’s Wonderland appeared. As mentioned, that was because of tradition more than anything. ‘The Flyer’ didn’t compare in any positive way to Wonderland’s very worst coaster, and we did in-fact realize that there were pretty girls at Wonderland too. Tradition still brought us back to The Ex however… for a while at least.
We still have people attending our tracks, but many of them, such as myself, are only still doing so because we were originally drawn in by the incredible on-track experiences that we were spoiled with in our youth. Experiences that are hard, if not impossible, to come by today.
Recently, my son and I attended a concert at The Budweiser Stage, near the CNE grounds, in Toronto. Our walk from the Go-Train to the venue was detoured a bit from the usual path as they were setting up for the 2022 Ex. As we headed down the fenced off walkway towards the concert venue my son surprisingly announced to me that although they were deserted at the moment, this was the first time in his life that he had ever seen the rides, games and food stands of the infamous CNE.
When he first uttered these once-impossible words to hear from a twenty-something who had grown up just outside of Toronto, I immediately assumed that he was mistaken. Was I really that bad of a parent that I had never taken my child to The Ex? Then it hit me… of course he was correct in that he had never been there, because he had been to Wonderland almost every year of his younger life instead! His fond childhood amusement park memories were from Wonderland, and therefore that is now more than likely the place where he’ll eventually take his own children one day. Why would he take them to The Ex when the place means nothing to him?
The ability to stream our product properly and allow people worldwide to bet on it is obviously a huge part of our future. Out-of-sight out-of-mind is real however, and we cannot allow the tradition of going to the racetrack to die. If we don’t continue to put on a top-notch live show and encourage people to come and see it for themselves, who do we really think will be watching our livestreams 30-40 years from now?
Dan Fisher - [email protected]