03/29/2017 8:00AM

Gisser: If curling can do it, why not harness racing?

Email

It’s March and the Madness is upon us. The first weekend of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament may be my favorite weekend of the year (since the Little Brown Jug is on a Thursday). But as much as I love the tournament, by 8 PM on Friday, after 20 hours of basketball and approximately 26 games, I needed a break. There is no harness racing on TV to speak of, so I watched The U.S. Women take on powerhouse Scotland in the World Curling Championships from Beijing, China. That’s right. I said curling.

A while back, I wrote a column expressing my belief that with the segmentation of sports broadcasting – The Fox Sports Networks; the ESPN-ABC family of networks and CBS and NBC each running their own sports channel, there had to be a way to find a regular niche for harness racing, even if it meant buying the time and producing the show ourselves. I was widely called out of touch and behind the times, totally unaware of the current marketplace. “Nobody watches TV anymore.” “With Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime (Wasn’t he one of the Transformers?), who needs cable or satellite?” “It’s all about Social Media,” someone else explained to me.  As Bobby Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle character on Saturday Night Live would say, “Yeah? Well Twitter me this.”

I was introduced to curling back in the late 1980s while doing stand-up in Alberta, Canada. Whether I was in Lethbridge, Edmonton, Calgary or Fort McMurray (a good indication of the success of my comedy career), the cities stopped in the afternoon to watch something that was at the time called the Labatt Brier. Now sponsored by Tim Horton’s, it is the Canadian National Championship, with teams from each province competing.  It is a sport that involves sliding 42 lb. hunks of granite down ice which can be swept with a broom to speed or slow or curl the rock. They are aimed at what looks like an archery target painted on the ice. It was a fun way to spend the afternoon, eating French fries with brown gravy and drinking Labatts, cheering every time Team Alberta curled hack weight to score three in an end with the hammer, but in the 30 years since, I have pretty much ignored curling, except at Winter Olympics time (And if you think you need to run to a translator, think about a curling fan trying to decipher, “Advanced three-wide with a quick brush under a left-hand drive before getting steppy).

A couple months ago, while flipping through sports channels, I saw NBC Sports offering something called Curling Night in America. It turned out to be an International competition, made for TV, that was being aired in weekly segments.  I started watching. And I enjoyed it. There was competition, there were decent personality pieces on the athletes and there were short tutorial pieces on how the game is played. In other words, curling was doing exactly what I think harness racing should be doing. So I did some research.

The United States Curling Association sponsored the event, which I learned is in its third season on TV. How popular is curling? Well, this item from the press release of the host Duluth Curling Club makes you wonder, “Draws are 9:15, 1pm, and 6:30pm each day. Club members are encouraged to come down and fill the 324 seats set up on the ice. The night-time games need the most help, as daytime ones will have students from around the Northland filling them.” 324 seats? Certainly Yonkers could rival that on a weekend night.

The programs are produced by World Curling TV and then packaged by Carr-Hughes Productions, a company out of…wait for it…Saratoga Springs, New York. How popular is the show?  “With nearly 2 million viewers for season two, almost double the audience from the first year, the ‘Curling Night in America’ series has developed a rabid following and serves as a significant promotional vehicle for curling clubs across the country,” said Rick Patzke, chief executive officer of USA Curling, in an article on worldcurling.org.

So let’s compare and contrast. Both harness racing and curling have their own, sometimes confusing, lingo, something Curling Night in America has clearly overcome to reach 2,000,000 viewers. Both sports require highly specialized equipment that may seem odd to most people.  Both sports require strong-minded strategy, either by the harness drivers or by the skips, who captain the curling squads.  Both sports have the equivalent of the photo finish, although curling uses what looks like a giant compass from geometry class to measure winners when needed. Both sports have a small, but rabid following that needs to grow. But there is one huge difference.

Curling simply doesn’t provide anywhere near the action or excitement that harness racing does. Harness horses regularly exceed 35 miles per hour. A curling stone reaches a speedy top end of nine miles an hour.

A curling draw lasts two hours, with eight or 10 ends of 16 stones each. There is lots of down time. A harness racing card contains 10-14 races and takes three to four hours. Certainly an entire card of eight to 10 races could be edited easily to that two hour window, still allowing time for personality pieces and background on equipment and so on.  Would the United States Trotting Association take a chance on producing such a show? Or would a private producer? Have representatives of Carr-Hughes ever been to Saratoga Harness? I have no idea. What I do know is that while our sport has bemoaned the lack of television viewers and determined it is the wrong medium for the sport, another niche sport has come to the opposite conclusion and done so successfully.

Or perhaps we combine the two, finding  a way to fill the down time between races. Now go sweep. Err, cash. See you next month.