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FLOCKING TO THE RACES; It's not all bad news as racecourse attendances rise - and that's taking into account the atrocious weather: Boost for tracks as crowds increase.

Byline: David Carr

RACING may be in the midst of a funding crisis, with prize-money cuts across the board, but it is still big box office after figures released yesterday showed that the popularity of a day at the races rose again last year.

A record number of television viewers tuned in for last weekend's King George VI Chase, and racecourse attendance statistics for 2010 released yesterday show an increase for the second year in a row.

A total of 5,769,381 people went racing in Britain in 2010, a rise of 0.9 per cent on 2009, despite the bad weather that wiped out much racing in December, including all of the traditionally well-attended Boxing Day programme, but for which figures might have been the best since 2004.

There were actually 35 fewer meetings last year and the average daily attendance of 4,145 represented an increase of 3.4 per cent on 2009. Racecourse Association chief executive Stephen Atkin said: "It is a shame about December as we would have been on course for very good numbers. I think it is encouraging. Racecourses have been working hard, with some help from us and Racing For Change. "When we had our racecourse showcase seminar last November, what was apparent was the sheer weight of effort that racecourses were doing in marketing, both traditional and also new forms like viral marketing, using Facebook and Twitter. There is still a lot of work to be done, I am sure racecourses would admit that, but they are working hard." The average daily attendance rose by 2.7 per cent, up on 2009 even after deducting the 40,000 customers estimated to have taken advantage of Racing For Change's week of free admission, which may be repeated this year. "In the long run it may be better to switch it to different weeks and not have the same week every year or you lose the novelty effect," Atkin said of that initiative.

"It works as a promotional tool, getting people interested, and if it is a week it has a fair amount of publicity. I t also gives racecourses an opportunity to highlight to newcomers what good value racing is compared with other sports in certain areas, such as children coming in free and car parking being much more freely available. We regularly compare ourselves against the cost of other leisure activities and we stack up well." Assessing 2011, Atkin said: "I think the economy will be more of a pressure on non-racing revenue - exhibitions and conferences will be a difficult market, in part because the public sector has been a big buyer of that product. "We're in a challenging economic environment but that can have a two-way effect - people have less money to spend but we can highlight the value we offer in comparison with other sporting activities and that is where we have some big selling points. Often it is the quality of the day out that is important and we are focusing much more on that now. "There are a lot of challenges for the year ahead, but I am cautiously optimistic."

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Stephen Atkin: "cautiously optimistic" about 2011
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jan 20, 2011
Words:531
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