Twenty years ago, The United States Trotting Association, realizing the sport was in serious trouble, commissioned a study on the status of harness racing and what needed to be done to halt the decline of the sport. As a result of this decision, a study was authored by Doctor Joan Zielinski which outlined thirteen issues which needed to be addressed to pulling harness racing out of the doldrums. Last year, the USTA commissioned Dr. Zielinski to perform a strategic analysis of the sport, basically to provide an update to the study from twenty years ago; you could say a report card to see how harness racing is doing and where it needs to improve.
Well, the strategic analysis has been completed and to say things are not good is an understatement. For all practical purposes, the industry has squandered the past twenty years and finds itself in an even worse position than it was back in 1991. Back in 1991, the industry needed to develop a long-term strategy to reverse, or at a minimum, stop the decline to ensure the sport’s long term survival and it has failed to do so. The report is quite damning in where the fault lies, and it falls equally upon all the stakeholders in the industry. The report indicates, while things are worse than they were in 1991, all is not lost; there are steps which can be taken to ensure the sport survives as a “second (or third) tier sport”.
How did standardbred racing get to where it is? There are two main reasons the sport is in the shape it is. First of all, harness (and many of the issues outlined in this study applies to our running cousins as well) racing as a business is fundamentally flawed in that it is an industry which is concerned with what it wants instead of what its customers want. This is a big problem. Harness racing spends all its time breeding faster horses, developing new sulkies, and improving race tracks, all in its preoccupation with speed. This is because the industry is focused on what it wants. Despite all the ‘improvements’, racing has essentially remained the same; a series of one mile races with a huge amount of time between races with essentially the same wagering format. The public could care less if a race goes in 2:05 or 1:45; horsemen care. The bottom line is the racing product from 2010 is for all practical purposes, the same product we offered for the last forty years. The product needed to change to reflect what the wagering public wanted and the industry basically did nothing. Hence the fans and potential customers went elsewhere. It is time to stop focusing on what the industry wants and start focusing on what the customer wants.
Another major problem is the industry is divided. Breeders, horsemen, and track operators all looking out for their own agenda instead of what is best for the industry on the whole. The division is not just between these three groups; the division is across state lines as well. Industry participants in Pennsylvania worry about themselves but don’t look at the big picture (the industry on the whole). As a result, instead of moving the industry forward together, it has been every group for themselves.
Thanks to these divisions and the way the industry ignores what the customer wants, is there any wonder why basically nothing has changed since the last Zielinski report? Marketing Orientation; Product Design; Market Oversaturation in some areas; Poor Media Coverage; Competitive Management; Horse Breed Disputes; Lack of Industry Leadership; USTA Board Structure. All issues identified in the last report where no improvement has been made. But then how, could we tackle these issues with our fractured interests?
Now that we see VLT revenue starting to slip away and we are approaching rock bottom, attitudes have changed. I believe industry fractions will be more receptive to this second report from Dr. Zielinski and be willing to make changes. Over the next couple of columns we will discuss the report further with respect to where harness racing needs to go from here. One thing is clear, doing nothing is not an option and I believe the industry is now at the point where it is ready to change.
Yes, it is time to face reality; harness racing will never be the sport it once was. Harness racing’s future will be at best, a minor league sport. We can bemoan this fact but this will be a waste of time. When you got lemons, you make lemonade. It is time to start squeezing.
Friday Night Match Up
We would be remiss if we did not discuss Friday night’s tenth race at the Meadowlands. In the invitational trot, Lucky Jim, Enough Talk, and Arch Madness meet up for the first time this year. Hopefully, these three will be competing through the whole season. My pick for this week’s matchup is Enough Talk finishing on top, with Lucky Jim finishing second.