Having heard soccer 'has arrived' in the United States before (typically, during each World Cup since it was played in the United States), I am skeptical of this claim (and I am a soccer fan), but I must admit this time, the experts make a compelling argument and with it, there is something the standardbred industry needs to pay attention to and in many ways emulate.
First let's manage expectations. When they say soccer has arrived, no one is saying it has reached the level of the NFL, far from it. What they are saying is it certainly belongs in the category of the NHL and even the NBA; meaning the Big Four sports should now be called the Big Five. Reality is this is what standardbred racing should be striving for, to be a niche sport. Granted, we want it to be a big niche sport but it never will catch up with thoroughbred racing and possibly not quarter horse racing when it comes to wagering. With the proper re-tooling there is no reason why the sport can't enjoy a spurt of growth to both increase 'audience' participation and handle.
So why is soccer 'here' this time? The younger generation likes it. First of all, they have been exposed to it at the recreation and school level as participants or friends of those who played the game. The rules of the game are relatively simple, making it easier to understand.
Most importantly, the game fits into the Millennials' schedule. Game starts and is over in two hours (and that includes intermission). Despite all the jokes about low scoring games, the game is continuous. No timeouts for commercial breaks except during halftime. Millenials, with all the entertainment options and commitments they have, don't have time for a dragged out activity.
Then there is technology. Not at your local watering hole or home to watch the game? Pull out your laptop, tablet, or smartphone and log on to your 'TO GO' app and watch the game of your choice wherever you are (don't let your boss catch you). Like many sports, soccer has learned to take advantage of the available technology to make the games more accessible.
So how does this relate to harness racing? Millenials don't have the attention span or time to spend three hours or more to attend or watch a sporting event. Clearly, harness racing needs to compress the time it takes to get their day's slate of races over in two hours or so. Where are you going to get the time back to shrink the window for the races to take place? The time between races. You don't need fifteen to twenty-five minutes between races anymore. Let's face it, with the exception of three to five days a year in the entire standardbred racing calendar, the number of people at the track doesn't call for more than five or ten minutes to get their bet in and for those wagering at home, the line is pretty short for getting their wagers in. There is no reason why a race can't go off every 10 minutes, meaning 12 races can be completed in two hours.
Which brings us to post times. If Millenials don't have the attention span to spend more than two hours on a recreational activity, we better learn one thing. Post time is when the race is scheduled to and will go off. Post time is not five or ten minutes after the listed time. If a race is scheduled to go off at 7:15, it needs to go off at 7:15 because if you play with post times, those Millenials will be walking out the door or turning off their tablets.
The really knowledgeable soccer fan knows their rules inside out and can explain to you what a 3-4-3 is. The casual fan could care less and are satisfied with knowing the aim of the game is to get the white ball past the goal keeper into the goal. To be successful in harness racing, you need to learn how to read the program, watch replays, make trip notes, learn money management skills, etc. Where is harness racing's entry point for the beginner? "Pick a number between 1 and 10 and play it" doesn't cut it. The USTA has developed a beginner's program which would be helpful but the only track I am aware of which makes it available is Tioga Downs and it is not available at all to those who are inclined to watch/wager from home via their ADW.
Which brings us to making programs available to the masses, for free. I am not suggesting we make advanced programs like Trackmaster or the DRF's Harness Eye programs free but there should be a 'basic' program available on each track's website available for no charge to the consumer; certainly the introductory program the USTA has developed should be available on the web at no charge. If you want the Millenial to get involved in racing, you can't expect them to bet without any information and they are not going to want to pay to bet, especially as they start out.
Lastly, let's talk about making racing available using modern technology. Racing is available at many track's websites and at ADWs (assuming they have a contract with the track which is another issue). We need to get more of racing's events on cable and online but just as important, we need to get better camera views of the racing action. Soccer has better views this time around to improve the viewing experience, and while I am not an expert on television production, rest assured the traditional view from the top of the grandstand is not going to cut it.
Soccer has arrived. Let's learn from soccer's acceptance in America and grow so one day we can say "Harness racing has returned".