What harness racing can learn from curling… yes, curling

How a niche sport modernized its game to drive more viewership and purse money.

by Dean Towers

I’m sure many of you are baseball fans, and this spring training you’re seeing some wacky stuff. Major League Baseball — a sport loathe to change rules — has initiated a pitch clock, banned the shift and even increased the size of the bases from 15 to 18 inches. These three changes are supposed to make the game better, more watchable and safer for players.

You might say that’s baseball, a huge league dependent on television revenue in a competitive world of sports broadcasting; it’s not a tiny sport like harness racing. Maybe you have a point, but I’d counter with the fact that even niche sports have embraced change, with hopes to grow.

This past week I watched the Canadian Curling Championships. Don’t chuckle, curling is chess on ice and for a horseplayer like me it’s pretty interesting. But this year what I watched was different.

When curling approaches its last “end” (an inning in baseball parlance), the team with the last rock has a tremendous advantage and it makes coming from behind very difficult. Different international curling federations, along with players, decided they’d have to change this paradigm because you don’t want people turning off the television or live stream when your sport is reaching its climax. To “inject suspense at the end of games” they initiated something called the no tick rule. This rule prohibits a team from removing a center guard and allows for better, more exciting game play.

The results were exactly as hoped. Several games during the event were stolen in the last end. Boring blank ends were at an all-time low and the scoring was up precipitously.

Television ratings again beat the non-Canadian team NHL games and although sports wagering numbers for the event are not released, expanded markets were the norm this season, with three major books taking bets on outrights, sides, spreads and totals. Make no mistake, these changes are not only for eyeballs on television screens, but for bettors as well. My betting handle doubled from last year, in no small part due to the new rules.

Curling has always been much like harness racing, where wait-until-next-week drop downs, the lack of movement and the wire-to-wire game makes the races less and less exciting to watch and wager on. It’s also not unlike this sport, where fiefdoms and disparate associations rule the roost. But they came together, realized they had to do something to grow and through rule changes they’ve begun to make that happen.

Harness racing has tried things — longer races, The Meadowlands’ push regarding the closing of holes and a few others — but it all seems haphazard or track specific. And yes, I am fully aware how difficult it is to change anything in the harness racing rule book from sitting on the rules committee here in Canada.

But a nagging fact does remain: curling is a niche sport that depends on purses just like harness racing does and they have realized that a more exciting sport drives more wagering and eyeballs and in the end more purse money. Isn’t that worth exploring in a professional way for this sport, too?