01/18/2012 3:10PM

Building a Harness Fan Base

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A while back I read a report that suggested horsemen donate a small percentage of their earnings to put towards drug testing. Well, I’m not going to comment on that matter, but I have a more innovative use for the horsemen’s hard earned dollars.

Over and over we hear about the aging of our fan base. The baby boomers are still attending, and quite a few from the Generation X era (born 1960’s through early 1980’s) can be found roaming the track apron or simulcast rooms. That is generally where the participation comes to a halt. Generation Y (late 1980’s though around 2000), those that are old enough to legally attend, have been a no-show at most racing facilities.

Ideas have been bandied about for years. One that I have heard quite often is the possibility that a sports club or night club at the track would help. Concerts have proven a decent one-night-only approach to drawing a younger audience. Discounted admission and drink specials for those that show a college ID is also a popular marketing tool.

Those are all good ideas that could help to draw a new fan or two for life. But I want more!

I’m going way outside the box to lure a younger crowd to my favorite pastime. I submit for approval the Harness Racing Scholarship fund.

The fund will be supported via a 1 percent donation from all total purses at every track and every enrolling college student in the country will be eligible to receive a piece of the pie. Assuming $400 million in purses is being distributed (a complete guess on my part), $4 million in scholarship money would be available.

Here is how it will work:

• Each year 80 scholarships in the amount of $50,000 will be distributed.

• Applicants must submit an essay detailing how they would improve harness racing. The best essays would be chosen as scholarship winners.

• Students must sign a legal document stipulating that they will attend their local racetrack on at least 50 occasions between the time the scholarship is granted and their 30th birthday. This will be tracked through a special card which must be presented at each track so they can get credit for showing up. They must check in before the 4th race and check out no earlier than race 9.

• Failure to live up to the contract will result in default and the scholarship money must be repaid to the scholarship fund.

You can call me crazy if you want, but this seems like a win-win idea. The worst case scenario has all the kids defaulting and not showing up at the track. Even if that happens, at least hundreds of our nation’s youth will have received a college education. The best case results in the creation of a new young fan base for our sport.

It does not have to end with that basic plan. We could have an annual night at the races for all scholarship winners. How about a rewards program for winners? You get a $20 betting voucher for every friend under 30 that you bring to the track.

I’ll take this one step further. If you are lucky enough to get a scholarship but do not know the first thing about handicapping a race, I’ll donate my services in the New York Metropolitan area to teach these potential budding newbies the ropes.

I admit that this idea is way out there. But new ideas are needed to break racing out of this cycle which will surely lead to a continued decline in handle and attendance over the next decade.

Tossing out another thought, perception is one of the major parasites eating away at harness racing. Like it or not, the general public does not have a positive image of the standardbred game.  They may think the racing is fixed, or they feel too many horses are drugged.

From my point of view, the solution to the perception issue is obvious: transparency.

We need to get the drivers and trainers into the public’s eye. Let’s erase the lines between the grandstand and the backstretch. That means daily autograph sessions and informal chat sessions where fans can visit the paddock before the races.

Fans feel closer to the other sports because information about the participants is much better. From football to hockey, players participate in post-game interviews, and coverage in daily papers, on television and on the web is wide. Harness racing is barely talked about in in any medium. That is why the industry needs to make an effort on-track to meld the horsemen with the crowd. Let the people who attend see that the drivers and trainers are everyday people just like them.

While watching a recent bowling telecast I was intrigued by the fact that the bowlers competing wore microphones. While this is not a new concept in racing (I recall watching a great video of Herve Filion driving while mic’d), wouldn’t it make for an interesting documentary on the sport.

Better yet, how about putting a microphone on all the drivers in a race and during the replay let the public hear the sounds of the race. Wow, that would be cool! Though, maybe I just like the idea because I am a harness junkie.

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