Recently there has been a lot of debate regarding what harness racing is. Is harness racing a sport or is it a gambling product? At the recent Standardbred Wagering Conference, Moira Fanning, a Director of the Hambletonian Society reportedly indicated that harness racing was not a sport. "It's a gaming product, so let's call it what it is."
Let's not delude ourselves. Without gambling, harness racing would be at best a fringe sport, racing at some small county fairs for minuscule purses. However to market harness racing as purely a gaming product is destined to fail as we can not compete against other gambling products financially; it costs too much to produce the harness racing product versus other forms of gambling and these costs must be paid for. This is done via the takeout.
Let me state this now. The takeout in harness racing (and other forms of racing) is much too high and needs to be reduced. How much the takeout should be is a topic for another time but for our discussion, we need to acknowledge the takeout will never be close to other gambling games as the expense involved in putting on horse races is far higher than pushing a button on a slot machine or having a game of 21. If you try to lump us in with slot machines, 21 or poker we are destined to fail; those people looking for a straight gambling experience will play the games with the lower costs and that leaves out harness racing.
Harness racing needs to recognize it's success is tied to being identified as a sport first with a gambling component similar to the NFL (yes, gambling is a big part of the NFL's success). Once we strengthen/develop our brand name, then people will be willing to gamble on racing and pay a takeout which will support the production of the harness racing product. It's called product differentiation.
Later columns will discuss things we can do to improve this sport but I want to leave you with one item we can take from the NFL to improve the sport; it is called a season. People bet on the NFL because they play a relatively short season, their fans (and gamblers) do not get fatigued. How racing can adopt a seasonal approach will be discussed in a future column.