The title of this blog will no doubt make some people cringe. The debate as to whether harness racing is a sport or a gaming activity has been going on for a long time. Most of our whales and serious gamblers, wagering from the comfort of their homes, consider harness racing a gambling activity and could care less about harness racing as a sport. The fans we have consider horse racing a hybrid activity; a sport with a gambling aspect. The lack of fans in the stands suggests we are not doing a good job with regards to racing as a sport.
The reason why we are not developing fans is, with the exception of county fairs and the rare event such as the Gold Cup and Saucer, harness racing has become almost exclusively a gaming activity, which has forsaken the sporting aspect of the sport. The key to the long term survival of horse racing is to make horse racing once again a true hybrid; for sure a gaming product first but a significant focus on the sporting aspect.
Some would argue why spend any resources on making horse racing a sport? After all our wagering handles continue to shrink and our gamblers are not being replaced. These people would argue any money being spent should be used exclusively to increase gaming activity.
The problem is how do you think you are going to replace the aging gamblers as they move on? Forgetting about issues such as takeout and the like, horse racing is a difficult game for a gambler to learn. Why should they invest their time and interest in horse racing when there are easier, and in some cases (slots) mindless games available for a gambler. We need to develop our future horse racing gamblers from fans, to get them excited enough in the sport so they are willing to invest their time to learn the game and its intricacies to become our future gamblers. Our lack of willingness to develop real fans is one of the reasons why racinos are full of slot players, but virtually devoid of horseplayers.
Nicole Kraft suggests in her blog some ways for racing to become more fan friendly; to gain the interest of people. She cites her experiences at Mid-Ohio Raceway as potential ways for racing to become more of a sport. Making drivers the stars so they develop a following, changing the format of our races (the constant mile dashes being boring), and cutting back on race days; the very things which can make racing fresh, exciting, and engaging will assist in developing future fans who are invested in the sport. Sure, fans may not wager initially but if they are hooked on racing as a sport, the transition to a gambler is almost inevitable. More importantly, while they may not all become heavy hitters, we will be developing a farm system of future gamblers whose emotional investment in the sport will help get people into the stands, silencing those who say horse racing has no interest amongst the public.
Make no mistake; we have plenty of issues to address in the gaming aspect of the sport which need to be dealt with now. However, if we have no farm system to get our future gamblers from, it all becomes a moot point. Being we don't have people knocking down our doors to gamble on our sport, can we afford not to develop new gamblers?