Letters to the Editor roundup: Marketing, passing lanes and video

by Dean Towers

My favorite day of the week at Harness Racing Update is always Sunday, because it’s letter to the editor day. Most of the letters are well-thought out and come from both the everyday folks like me and you, to the movers and shakers, and I always find them interesting. The only thing I don’t like is we don’t get enough of them.

Last Sunday was a pretty good day, though, with letters from Joe Faraldo and Phil Langley about – in part – marketing, along with Alan and Bob’s thoughts regarding free track video and a passing lane being added at Hoosier Park.

I’d like to spend some time discussing them.

Joe and Phil’s encompassing back and forth about the USTA, transparency, TV, social media and several other issues had a lot of inside baseball, but was quite eye-opening. During the marketing portion of the discussion they did make some good points, but as a marketer I did disagree with some of the premises.

“Marketing” is a word that sends shivers down the back of anyone who works in the ad or marketing industry, because it’s a word that really has no meaning. Or even worse, it has about 10,000 meanings.

I am sure you’ve all heard of the ride sharing service called “Uber”. It has disrupted the taxi industry in dozens of cities worldwide and is getting more and more press (some negative, some positive). Uber is in a unique position. It’s a nascent company that needs to do what every other business has to do (promote itself to customers) while navigating political foes, existing business laws and regulations, along with entrenched forces.

Uber’s weapon of choice is “marketing” of the 10,000 meaning variety.

Uber is not allowed to serve Calgary, AB, due to local laws. So they offered free rides to Calgary residents for a $5 local charity donation.

When launching in Australia, Uber was being attacked by some politicians and the complaints were resonating with the general public. They decided some good PR was in order, so they created #uberkitten day on social media, where shelter kittens were transported to potential adopters by Uber drivers for free.

They’ve offered Pedi-Uber, for peddle cars, which they lost money on, but generated some buzz

They’ve injected themselves into popular culture, paying to play on shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Notice what the above is, and isn’t. It is not television ads, or digital marketing, or billboards to solely attract customers. It is public relations, grassroots marketing and reputation management. Their audience is not only the customer, but governments, politicians and others who hold their survival in the palms of their hands. They are trying to get everyone on side, because they are going to need everyone in their quest to succeed.

You can’t measure that marketing with fancy metrics or high-priced software. You can’t say the $50,000 cost of free rides in Calgary brought in revenue, because it didn’t. But, according to Uber it’s all good.

Harness racing needs “marketing” but perhaps not in the sense people think of the word. Harness racing in many ways is Uber, because it depends on more than customers to survive.

We might hear complaints about face painting, pony rides and wiener dog day at the races; we often hear spending marketing money on Twitter or Facebook is impossible to measure and wasteful. But, in my view, it is not.

I have personally heard how a government employee who has some pull said, “it was neat to see that horse trend on Twitter.” I have heard one high-up official go giddy over “bouncy pony races” when he was at the track, seeing where slot money he has a say in, was going.

People having fun on Facebook or Twitter talking harness racing, slot money looking like it is doing something positive, is all marketing. It does not have a return, or an ROI, but like with Uber, it does something.

It’s similar with television. Sure we know that it doesn’t bring in revenue, but someone somewhere that will make a decision regarding the sport might see it. John Kasich might be running for President, but he’s also Governor of Ohio, and when he sees 40,000 people jam-packed into the State Fair with the CBS Sports Network televising an Ohio horse racing, it means something. It means, “hey, that slot money seems to be working.”

I am in no way saying marketing spend in this sport will all be perfectly effective, that money should be just thrown against the wall, or that measuring it properly isn’t something the sport needs to be very good at. I am in no way saying this replaces the outreach the sport needs to do, to attract new owners and new bettors. What I am saying is that harness racing marketing is public relations, government relations, relationship management, PR, digital and just about everything else. All together it means something for the future of the sport, from the shedrows, to the grandstand, to the state houses. It is not unimportant and it needs to be invested in.

Bob Emery of Florida is not a fan of the passing lane, and made that abundantly clear in his letter last week. Bob, you are not alone. I could not agree more.

Passing lanes were, in my view, created from someone in power walking across the grandstand hearing people complain that their horses get boxed in too much. To make them happy, a passing lane was invented. Guess what, like most policies adopted this way, it didn’t work, and even worse, people still complain.

Passing lanes encourage less movement in a sport that demands more movement. They encourage lower mutuel prices in a sport that demands higher mutuel prices. They might be okay on half mile tracks, but for all others, they tend to do the opposite of what’s intended.

At the end of his letter Bob asks if it’s not too late for Hoosier to reverse the decision. I hope so Bob, I hope so.

Allan Gatto of Jersey really took issue with the Meadowlands eliminating free video from its website come May 15th or so. He believes the sport should offer free 24/7 video of harness racing, because the sport needs all the help it can get.

I understand what you’re saying Allan, but I find myself disagreeing.

At one time, like Allan, I think this was important, because advance deposit wagering companies were not yet fully melded into the landscape; a lot of people still would make bets at the track or off-track venue, and go home and watch. Free website video was important. It’s not that way anymore. Most tracks have an ADW arm, and all ADW’s have free video for anyone who wants to watch at home. It’s a different world.

I think it’s much more important for the Big M to position itself with HD, because only one other major harness track — Woodbine – has HD. As well, this ensures the Meadowlands a spot on the racetrack television network, which (I believe) will make them the only harness signal broadcasting on RTN in HD. In addition, the Big M will be able to stream big races in HD for everyone, right on their website, including all of Hambletonian Day. In the past it has only been streamed in standard definition.

So, I understand the complaints, and in an ideal world where satellite time, etc is owned by this industry, full HD, free, streamed 24/7 would be great. As far as the Big M – or any harness track – goes, that time is not here yet.