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Preakness goal: Grab them young

Organizers of the 137th Preakness Stakes won’t yet say if “Kegasus,” the half man, half horse, beer-drinking mascot of last year’s event will return, but when it comes to selling tickets, that may not be as important as the Grammy-nominated InfieldFest headline musical acts.

“Imagine you’re 23 and you’ve never been to the Preakness before. These are the kinds of acts that will bring you there, and you want [spectators] to keep coming back for the next 10 years,” said Blair Johnson, marketing professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School.

The most important thing is to keep investing in the Preakness brand, and give younger people a reason to show up on race day, he said.

The Maryland Jockey Club announced two of those reasons on Friday: Pop rock group Maroon 5 and rapper Wiz Khalifa will perform on the infield’s main stage.

“You want to make it a destination, not just any other day,” Johnson said. “The Preakness wants to get people at a reasonably early age so that they can then become patrons for a substantial amount of time.”

That means musical acts that appeal to the infield’s 21- to 40-year-old target audience, said Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club.

“I know [Wiz Khalifa’s] music is a little edgy,” he said. “I’m trying to get a younger demographic in there. I can’t play Lawrence Welk.”

Starting in 2009, Preakness officials began booking musical acts for the day-long festival while banning alcohol and other beverages from being brought by patrons into the infield. The new festival rule hurt attendance that year, but things have steadily picked up for the iconic race held at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course.

In 2009, attendance fell 30 percent to 77,850, after 2008’s race drew 112,222. It was the smallest crowd for Preakness in more than 25 years and fell below 100,000 for the first time in nine years.

But the crowd has grown. In 2010, attendance was at about 95,000, and last year the event drew more than 107,000.

Singer Bruno Mars and adult contemporary band Train headlined last year’s Preakness InfieldFest.

The goal is “to continue the energy and continue bringing back the brand, not only of the Preakness but certainly building the brand of the InfieldFest,” said Jimmy Learned, president and founder of Washington, D.C.-based Elevation Ltd., the advertising company that has been running the Preakness’ campaigns for the last two years.

Learned, whose company was behind the 2010 “Get Your Preak On” campaign and last year’s Kegasus, said this year’s marketing campaign will launch in late March or early April.

Though previous campaigns were controversial among racing traditionalist, Learned is not worried by that.

“The risk was not creating controversy, the risk was creating vanilla work,” he said. The pushback “was certainly not from the target [audience].”

Last year’s mascot “provided a face for the organization, and I don’t think it detracted from the prominence of the race,” Johnson said. “If I were them, I would probably seriously consider bringing him back.”

Using the same mascot builds “a level of continuity and momentum,” Johnson said.

So far, things are moving in the right direction for a large turnout at the May 19 event.

Chuckas said ticket sales for this year’s Preakness are up 6 percent from the corresponding time last year, and he’s hoping attendance will be at least 110,000.

“I think we’re heading into a very positive Preakness 137,” he said.

Tickets prices for the infield and “Mug Club,” designated areas that gave the public unlimited refills of beer, increased by $10 this year. Infield tickets will be $50 through May 12, and then go up to $60 the week of the event. Mug Club tickets will be $70 and $80, respectively. (However, the Jockey Club offered a 72-hour sale from the time of Friday morning’s announcement, dropping prices for both types of tickets by $10 until 7:30 a.m. Monday.)

“As we’ve tried to elevate what we’ve put in that infield, specifically for music acts, it’s cost us more,” Chuckas said.

Past InfieldFest features, like the “Mug Club,” designated areas that gave the public unlimited refills of beer for an additional $20, a morning beer garden and a professional volleyball doubles tournament will return.

As for the centaur, “We’re working diligently to find him,” Learned said. “He sent a tweet. I think he was in the West Indies last time we heard.”