Harness racing needs to adapt to the new world of sports betting
by Trey Nosrac
No matter how hard you squint, this real-life report can’t be good.
A flood of legal sports gambling is cascading across the land. Most of us hope that the new gambling wave will not be terrible for harness racing and these invaders will all disappear.
Every day since the inevitable launch of online sports betting, my phone and iPad keep chiming with offers from gambling apps. Each chime demonstrates that the new battles for gambling dollars are here to stay. A chilling, real-life sample of what we are up against in the brave new gambling world flashed across my screens and among my friends.
I am a paid subscriber to The Athletic, an online sporting publication. I subscribe because they have a staff of terrific baseball writers who feed my appetite for the grand old game. The day that sports betting arrived in Ohio, my iPad flashed an offer from The Athletic that was hard to refuse.
Everyone, everywhere, every team, appears to have a betting partner, and The Athletic is no exception; they have partnered with BetMGM. I was surprised this sports publication was now in the gambling business, but good for them. The economics of supporting any publication is complex, and if this publication finds an additional revenue stream to support great writers and editors, more power to them.
The Atlantic/BetMGM folks found me via my baseball passion and lured me to a detailed sports wagering guide with a glossary of tips, terms, and friendly advice. They also linked me to excellent articles about various sports. Very slick, one of the few internet teasers I did not click off in a nanosecond.
Then, The Athletic sweetened the deal for me: if I chose their sportsbook partner, they would toss in a free year’s subscription. I have been a harness racing gambler for a long time, but here I sit, free subscriptions, bonus bets, a cornucopia of options, links to excellent writing, and free daily research on the sport I choose for my wagering money.
I looked at a section of the introduction to the betting site titled “What Sports You Can Bet.” The list was long, including lacrosse, darts, rugby, and F1, which I googled and learned is car racing. What was not on the list was horse racing or harness racing.
The new sports gambling scene is the wild west. An article in my local newspaper on the early days of the sports gambling explosion ran an expose on questionable lobbying from sports gambling. Ohio representatives were already questioning their percentage of the gambling cut, and they were discovering enforcing the 21-and-up age restriction was problematic. These betting outfits have found a motherlode in young men, a group especially susceptible to sports gambling, and are lurking on campuses because these gambling entities plan. They know that hooking customers young can and does establish life-long patterns.
When horse racing gambling was king, we set similar patterns. How many of you found the lure of the trotters and pacers at a young age and remain today? How many young people will find a harness race as their passion in the blizzard of sports that blink across their screens?
To emphasize this point, I have been subtly recruiting a 30-ish fellow to join the harness racing gambling ranks for a few years. My progress in bringing him into the harness racing flock was between glacial and non-existent. Sitting next to him yesterday, I watched this guy gleefully wager on the point total over/under at 35 points for Luka Doncic, a Slovenian basketball player on the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.
For an eternal optimist, this little report on sports wagering is a total bummer. When a harness racing lifer like myself is wavering on his sports wagering options, we’ve got trouble in River City. From a macro view, this invasion into our territory should be unnerving for every harness racing fan. It makes our sport seem almost ridiculous, like an accordion player wearing a bow tie at a Super Bowl half-time bonanza.
A sharp kick in the rear end is likely if your head is in the sand.
All our lives, horse racing has been a gambling game, the only game in town. Maybe the new sports gambling menu will not hold much appeal to many of our current players and perhaps harness racing can hang on to them for a while longer. Still, the future will come and the new gambling world will be challenging for our sport.
Never shy about suggesting ridiculous solutions under a pseudonym; allow this proposal. If our gambling money is going south, why not investigate going north while we still have time? Going north will involve recreating our sport into more of an “ownership” sport, a sport where individuals or groups owning the franchise instead of betting on someone else’s franchise is the focus.
Would a path like this be complicated and challenging? Obviously, but going north is better than going under.