by Trey Nosrac
We were driving 30 miles to a clinic for virus tests. We felt fine, but David’s mother was 83 and recovering from heart surgery. For six weeks, I had not gotten beyond chatting with her through the screen door of her front porch.
I began the nonsense, “Some may say my previous gig as a part-time Lyft driver gave me an excellent opportunity to observe human behavior. Some may say that my riders were white rats in a lab experiment, and some may say my backseat was a cage designed by a psychologist.”
He chuckled. “Some may say you are delusional, but I do remember meeting you on such a ride, unaware that I was under your microscope.”
“My research revealed five distinct types of passengers who hopped into my car. I sorted them into the gabber, the braggart, the brooder, the intoxicated, and the thinker. Right off the bat, before I knew you were a maven in the tech world, I pegged you as a thinker.”
“And I thought you were merely transportation.”
I got serious and said, “Put some of your experience to work. The sport is restarting. Casinos may be losing juice, so this may be a great time for reinvention. Give me some thoughts, big ideas we haven’t heard a thousand times.”
He paused for 20 seconds, and then said, “I’ve touched on this before, you need to put on more of a show, and lack of conflict is one of the reasons your sport struggles to step to the next level.”
He nodded. “People need conflict. I never realized how much until social marketing and producing content became parts of my world. Movies, books, politics, websites, the simple reality is that if there is no conflict, there is no story. Most sports are blessed, they have various levels of inherent conflict; Yankees vs. Red Sox, Mike Trout vs. Justin Verlander, Ohio State vs. Michigan. Creators understand they need a villain that gives eyes and ears reasons to engage. Developing animosity for opponents is difficult for horse racing.”
I gave a small sniff and said, “We ain’t gonna start rooting against horses. We love and admire them.”
“And you should love them. Horses are assets, not adversaries,” he said.
“What about money as motivation? After all, we are a betting game where handicappers are motivated to win money.”
“That’s true to a degree, and for an aging demographic share of the gambling market. However, wagering on horses is not as much fun, not as motivating, not as engaging as… people.”
“You’re saying we need to start disliking some drivers, trainers, and owners?”
“No, characters in those ranks are too far removed to grab and maintain animosity.”
“Well, who else do we have?”
“You don’t have them, but you need them.”
“You lost me.”
He asked, “What is between the horse race and the customer?
“The camera and microphone?”
“Yes, it is the only place to insert any semblance of conflict. I think everybody realizes presentations in your sport are a problem that ranges from bland nothingness to smooth and serious. Nowhere is there controversy and conflict. Your sport needs some faces and voices that excite people. More specifically, action with a protagonist. I know this concept sounds very strange, but if you want to climb the attention ladder, conflict is the gospel.”
Turning off the exit ramp, I said, “I know a dude who would be perfect, a pal of mine from theSore Elbow Tavern.His name is Roger Plunket. He’s a fire hydrant of a guy in his 40s who wears a Yankee cap. He has squinty eyes that never look you in the face. Everyone calls him Roger Yeahbut, no matter what you say to him, he goes the opposite way, always interrupting you with, ‘Yeah, but..’ and then he is off and running with a hair-brained theory that he makes up as he goes along. Did you ever see a character like that?
“A scientist could discover a free, fast vaccine for Corona tomorrow. Roger would go ‘yeah but’ and head to China, or some conspiracy downer, or anything he can think of to keep the floor for five minutes. It’s weird, at first Roger annoyed the hell out of the boys at the bar, but for some reason, perhaps related to alcohol consumption, we get a big kick out of his nonsense.”
“Put this contrary, argumentative guy in the announcer’s booth with a foe, and it would be a start for eventually filling dead air with something useful. Does Roger know about harness racing?
“Nope, but not knowing much wouldn’t handicap Roger. I once heard him interrupt a discussion of Bobby Fisher, the chess champion. Roger went on for a windy, self- assured five minutes about chess psychology without knowing a rook from a bishop.”
David nodded. “We all think we are immune to the entrancing lure of conflict. Think again. The heart is never neutral.”
“Who is going to fill THAT role? Actors? Do you expect the racetracks to hire people to be obnoxious?”
“Well then, who?”
“Clever, entrepreneurial, individuals could piggyback off racing and use something like Periscope, Vimeo, YouTubeLive, or Twitch.”
“One of the streaming platforms for content. Anyone can have one, a gamer, an athlete, a chess player, a sports fan, a horse handicapper, or a poet. You could have one up and running next week.”
I snorted, “Running to where? For who to watch?”
“Ah, that’s the problem. Commanding attention and standing out. When you roll along and don’t make waves, very little will happen.”
“Like harness racing.”
“How does this work for a Twitchy person.”
“Perfect example. Blake Snell a baseball pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, he has a Twitch channel. Even though he is a famous athlete, not much happened, he was another pebble on the social media beach. In May, during the virus, he went on a Livestream rant,“Y’all gotta understand, man, for me to go, for me to take a pay cut is not happening, because the risk is through the roof, it’s a shorter season, less pay. I gotta get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine.”
“Yeah, I heard about that, pretty harsh when people are reporting to soup kitchens.”
“See, you’re not a big-time social media person, but you heard about this incident. You probably even watched a clip of his rant.”
“If someone had a harness racing stream of this sort and picked a huge perfecta ticket that one of his viewers wagered, or had a hilarious viral moment with a guest, or did something to stand out, they are off and running. Standing out is never easy, but intentional or accidental, it happens. If someone in the small racing sphere put up a channel and found a way to lure viewers, if they could pull some numbers with gamblers or racing fans, the product would be valuable. The audience and potential gamblers could skew younger. The great thing about a platform along these lines is that it doesn’t take anything but time and effort to try.”
“I said, “I might mention this to Roger Yeahbut, he lost his International Travel Agent job to the virus, he has some time to kill, and there are a lot of people he could aggravate.”
David smiled, “I’d Livestream Roger to watch him pick horses and argue.”