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Posts Tagged ‘Future of racing’

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about the trend for sports to try to stay alive by making their “product” more attractive to the mobile, easily distracted, entertainment focused younger generation.

In New Zealand, our big national sports are rugby, cricket, rugby league and netball, and 3 of those 4 have made big efforts internationally to provide shorter versions of the game packaged in a way that suits the modern restless audience in an environment where there are many alternative forms of entertainment competing for their attention. I say “audience” (could say “consumer”) because we are not just talking about attendees at an event.

Rugby has the very popular Sevens version, with an international circuit and a party atmosphere. Cricket has 50-over matches and now Twenty20 cricket. Even netball has recently experimented with a 5-a-side team format.

You can see and hear those in charge of those sports and those following them debate the pros and cons fiercely. They are tampering with traditional formats and in a very real sense trying to reinvent the game.

But racing, our other big but shrinking national sport, has a huge advantage over these others. In fact two big advantages.

  • Firstly, we are not constrained by cumbersome, politically tangled international governing bodies.
  • Secondly, we already have one of the shortest, most exciting formats in any sport. It’s called a race.

Recently two different columns in the New Zealand Harness Racing Weekly – one the McCarthy Files of October 10, and the other JC’s I’ve Been thinking column of October 3 – have been stirring my little grey cells. JC was talking about the omnipresent mobile phone and how betting via cellphones and smartphones is already changing the way punters get information and place a bet. David McCarthy was discussing the lack of on-course crowds an how to make our races more attractive to younger people who seem to have much shorter attention spans. More mile races with shorter time between races were a couple of his suggestions to make race meeting attendance more exciting as events to attend.

Both make some very good points. Perhaps it is time to accept that, ever since the advent of radio, we have audiences who experience racing in different ways. At a very simple level, on course/off course. Or perhaps serious punter/those wanting entertainment.

OK – if you have got this far, you might be thinking…what has this got to do with breeding? Lots. Breeders, like all participants in this industry, need to be part of discussing future solutions to keep it alive and well.

Let me say again: We (racing) have a really tightly packaged product – a race – which is short, sharp excitement for (in harness racing) about 3 minutes. And yet we are in danger of losing sight of that advantage because of the way we organise and market our events. We just line up races one after another, and call it a programme.

Think of a race meeting (say, 9 to 10 races spread over an afternoon or evening) as a cricket match.  The race meeting would be like watching one over of cricket being bowled full on, then having to wait 30 minutes before the next over to be played.  Would the crowd stay engaged and excited? Probably pissed and bored before the 3rd over !  I am comparing harness racing to cricket, one of the strangest, slowest games on earth!, and yet coming away thinking the Twenty20 cricket match might be a more entertaining option to go to this weekend.

Yes, I know all the problems and costs involved in trainer and driver commitments, steward reports, warm ups and post race vetting etc etc.  (I do attend meetings).  But if something as intrinsically long-winded as cricket can invent an internationally acceptable short form of the game, then surely harness racing can come up with some fresh ideas, given it has the advantage of nice 3 minute ‘bites’ as the basis for promotion.

The TAB betting agency has jumped ahead of us. In the absence of more exciting race products, they have come up with ‘virtual’ races between individual drivers (the drivers challenge), head to head betting on two horses in the same race, and first 4 betting. This is telling us what appeals to an important section of the public – and may give us ideas for how to present our races more attractively and imaginatively.

Perhaps it is time for us to think outside the square in terms of what type of racing we offer and how we deliver it for our very different audiences.

Here’s some ideas, just throwing them into the wind – and some of these are borrowed from the traditional racing formats…

  1. Head to head challenges in reality, as they used to do, perhaps with 2 or 3 horses over a sprint distance and with bonuses for those racing within a certain time as an incentive not to dawdle and sprint. Imagine Gold Ace vs Terror To Love, with no excuses over 2000m? Two gladiators, one winner! Stakes get split 80/20, so there would be a good incentive to race (and win) even if stake money tightens further.
  2. Heat racing, where 4 or 5 horses race against each other 2 or 3 times in the course of a meeting, from separate draws over shorter (mile or thereabouts) distances. This takes the “bad luck” out of races that you can get with larger fields and poor draws (which can put punters off) and also addresses the issue of smaller fields when you try to match like against like. It also brings back the concept of soundness and heart into our horse racing. And it provides interesting betting options over the sequence of heats.
  3. Time incentive bonuses to help prevent races being a boring spectacle.
  4. Shorter race programmes that are properly designed to combine with additional forms of entertainment for those attending.
  5. Clearly identify race meetings and venues that are designed for best remote electronically-delivered action for punters versus  meetings and venues designed for on-course participation and entertainment. The two are quite different and too many of our venues end up in a compromise that pleases neither. Money needs to be invested in more sophisticated electronic systems for remote viewers/punters, with only small sophisticated areas for those who wish to attend on course or monitor particular horses ‘in the flesh’. Some of the “punter product” racing venues are more likely to be associated with a new era of on course training tracks, either public or private. The business venues compared to the entertainment venues.
  6. Improvements for remote viewing might involve GPS tracking devices on horses/drivers so individual punters can select and follow a horse’s position through a race (it is often not easy to see what is happening during a race, which can be a factor in viewers losing interest), but it could be even more personalised so a remote viewer (via smart phone or live streaming) can view the race in several different modes simultaneously to follow their horse/s’ progress. The race caller and cameraman are good, but could be combined with today’s technological advances.
  7. Much improved camera angles – the high wire camera at Flemington on Melbourne Cup Day blew me away – I got a much better understanding of the early part of the race, distance between runners, interference etc than I ever had from a side on or head on camera. Yes, putting overhead cameras on courses would be horrifically expensive, but what a selling point, what a product!
  8. Developing some very cool apps for smart phones might include packages where you can place a bet and order the product (race) to be delivered to your phone live or recorded. No need to interrupt what other entertaining you are doing, you will be reminded at the time and the race sent to your phone in the format you selected – “GPS overhead view plus voice commentary with results/time/dividends.” Or whatever suits your needs. Subscriber services could have a field day – perhaps this is already available somewhere?
  9. If a track is going to be an on-course entertainment venue – and I see fewer and fewer fitting this category – then it needs to offer a real night or afternoon out, so that the gaps between races are not just filled with an endless stream of alternative racing product on TV screens (this audience has not come to watch Wagga Wagga dogs or Singapore gallops) but with true hospitality and entertainment options. Alexander Park has headed in the right direction, with restaurant, betting, cafe and viewing facilities that meet a range of needs.
  10. Design boutique areas into racecourses – take a leaf out of the cinema book, and see how they have reinvented the movie goers experience in the face of competition from DVDs and TVs. I can go into a comfortable lounge, watch a movie and order a glass of wine and cake which is brought to me in my seat.

We can – have to – adapt and use new technology and smarten up our use of “the race” to maximise the excitement of involvement in harness racing and keep it as a competitive entertainment and betting option.

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