Fans from around the world gathered in Louisville on May 6th to witness the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. Long called “the greatest two minutes in sports,” the derby never fails to provide an unforgettable fan experience – and this year was no exception.
Over the past seven years, the race organizers have invested roughly $70 million to improve the facilities, the amenities, and the overall fan experience. From the general seating to the private clubs, no detail has been overlooked inside the venue. Improvements have been made to update seats and sightlines, concession offerings, and the digital infrastructure of Churchill Downs.
Turning Attention to the Outside Fan Experience
When considering all aspects of the fan experience, focus should be turned to the infield tailgating party experience. The infield tailgating fan experience has an infamous reputation, nude mud wrestling and drunken fueled fights, we’ve heard it all. John Asher, Vice President of Communications for Churchill Downs defends the image by saying,
“I think the track over the years has certainly tried to improve the image of the infield,” Asher said, “and I think to a large degree now it’s viewed as a very family friendly place. You see people of all ages, and I mean all ages, generations of families. I would think at this point … it’s viewed as maybe a long day but very much as a family friendly, safe activity.”
Improving amenities such as, adding large TVs with race day coverage, digital interactive racing games and trivia, increased fan engagement, and premium luxury restroom facilities will bring the family-friendly image to the infield fan experience Churchill Downs is looking for. Offering WIFI, coupons and discounts via the mobile app, and brand ambassadors only sweetens the experience. By bringing worldly sophistication, premium amenities, and a fun environment, the experience goes from chaotic to the posh traditions of Churchill Downs.
Modern Updates to a Classic Fan Experience
One of the most noteworthy improvements to this year’s Derby came from mobile app developer VenueNext, who also developed the mobile apps for Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX, and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, NY.
The Churchill Downs App, available on iOS and Android, was intended to streamline the race day experience for everyone in attendance. The app allowed fans to locate the best route from their current location to their seats, restrooms inside, concession stands, betting windows, and more.
Users of the app had access to exclusive behind-the-scenes video content, online profiles for horses and jockeys, and expert analysis and race picks. The iOS version of the app even included the ability to place a bet straight from the user’s smartphone.
While everyone had access to the mobile app, and the wireless data access points that Churchill Downs installed to support it – more exclusive aspects of the “Run for the Roses” were available to those fans willing to pay for the premium experience the Derby is famous for.
How the Rich Experience the Run for the Roses
The Kentucky Derby is widely known for its ability to attract celebrities, foreign dignitaries, and elite leaders from business and industry. Last year, Churchill Downs unveiled an expansion of The Turf Club, a private seating area, available with annual membership. The recent expansion increased the capacity of the club from 1,800 to 2,660 – an increase of approximately 40%.
Fans looking for a VIP experience can enjoy the race from a private suite that comes with professional attendants, a private bar, and an unparalleled view of the race. The private suites at the Kentucky Derby are infamously well appointed, and infamously expensive – with price tags ranging up into the tens of thousands of dollars per suite.
Exclusive meals prepared by famous gourmet chefs were found in dining rooms at The Skye Terrace and Millionaire’s Row. Table reservations for race day startied at $27,200. To accompany their meals, 50 elite fans purchased a special edition mint julep – served in a gold-plated mug with a silver straw, at the price of $1,000 per drink.
Striking a Balance Between Technology and Tradition
The history and tradition of the Kentucky Derby are unmatched in American horse racing. Initially organized by the grandson of the famous American explorer William Clark, the race has been held on the first Saturday in May each year since its inaugural run in 1875. Over its 143-year history, the race has accumulated a strong set of traditions – including its own traditional foods, drinks, songs, and celebrations.
Today, race organizers face a unique challenge to compete with the modern fan experience provided by newer sporting venues, without disrupting the sacred traditions that define the Kentucky Derby experience. We think that they’re doing a very good job so far. With great updates like venue-wide data access and the Churchill Downs mobile app – they have managed to improve on an American classic without changing the underlying traditions that make it the most famous event in American horse racing.