I’ve lived in Baltimore for 17 years and I’ve never been to the Preakness Stakes. I know, I know. I’m basically a traitor to the state of Maryland. Over the years I’ve had a few opportunities but it seems there was always something standing in the way – in high school my parents probably wouldn’t allow me to go, and in later years I would blame expense, lack of transportation, heat and humidity, or any other number of small factors. But in all honesty these were mostly excuses I used rather than real barriers to my attendance. The truth of the matter is that any one of these factors alone would never have prevented me from going if I really wanted to go… I’ve just never really wanted to go.
I’d like to first state that I consider myself to be a fun-loving person who enjoys getting out and doing things. My friends and I plan our weekends around concerts, outdoor festivals, vineyards, restaurants, and more. We get big groups together, document our excursions with pictures which we then post on our social networking sites, and spend money on food and drinks. We’re old enough to have jobs and salaries but young enough to spend a Saturday afternoon drinking beer outside without worrying about children or other responsibilities. In other words, we are a prime demographic the event managers should be targeting.
But I’m still not entirely sure what the Preakness is about, and I suppose that’s why I’ve never felt particularly compelled to experience it. I get a sense that over the years the event planners have been somewhat guilty of attempting to make Preakness all things to all people, and this combined with a disjointed and bizarre ad campaign have confused me to the point that I’d rather stay at home than risk wasting a whole Saturday on it. Sure, it’s a horse race, and I know that there is the option to wear a fancy hat and go sit in the grandstand. From what I’ve gathered though, that’s not really what the race is known for. If you want to have a classy afternoon sipping mint juleps, go to the Derby. If you want to wear jean shorts and dodge intoxicated patrons hurling trash at you, go to the Preakness. A simple Google image search of “Preakness” yields more results of people dancing on top of port-a-potties than it does actual horses.
Further confusing my understanding of the event is its marketing campaign. The mascot for the past few years, a horse named Kegasus, is cheesy and juvenile but at least confirms my belief that the event is about beer and debauchery foremost (and also has something to do with horses). But this year I heard radio ads featuring a leprechaun and the Easter Bunny telling me to come to Preakness to see Maroon 5 and Wiz Khalifa. Um, what? Now it’s a concert? And the Easter Bunny is going to be there? Do you see why I’m a little confused?
Additionally, while mud and kegs are not really my thing, I’d be willing to step outside my comfort zone if I thought it would be a safe and fun experience. I’ve heard first-hand horror stories of friends getting hit in the head with flying objects (read: beer cans), being pushed into puddles of mud and human waste, having phones and wallets stolen, and more. I’m aware that the planners attempted to improve the infield experience several years ago by eliminating the BYOB factor, but I don’t necessarily believe this is the solution. More security and cleaning crews throughout the day is a better place to start. Perhaps the money spent on recruiting Wiz Khalifa to perform would be better spent on this?
If I was in charge of marketing, I’d get rid of the silly characters and provide a clearer message of what the event actually is. They could stay with the party theme, but highlight improved safety and convenience features for those who choose to enjoy the infield. The campaign doesn’t need to be “serious” but if the creative is going to come from a humor angle it should at least be witty. Additionally, I’m shocked that marketers haven’t capitalized on the historical and regional legacy of the Preakness to promote the event, promoting it as a “don’t miss” spectacle that the area prides itself on. Take a note from the aforementioned Kentucky Derby: horses aside, a unique cultural experience that happens once a year in a specific place sells better and generates more press than a debaucherous infield party.
As of this moment, however, my odds of attending are still slim to none. The Preakness has a lot of potential, but I’m simply just not sold on it yet.