THE PRESENTATION OF THE HARNESS RACING PRODUCT
SUNDAY, 21ST NOVEMBER 1999
Good afternoon everybody and welcome to Sydney.
I'd like to cover several key areas today, which either directly or indirectly relate to my topic, The Presentation of the Harness Racing Product.
I'm currently reading the biography of the late actor, River Phoenix, and in the book his mother is quoted as saying, "Life is all about finding reasons. All you have to do is open your heart".
And up here today, that's what I plan to do.
Harness Racing in Australia is driven by wagering turnover, and as a result, enhancements to the presentation, predominantly, must centre on this fact.
Without the turnover, without the punter, there would be no show.
Throughout my speech this afternoon I'll be making numerous references to Harold Park, Sydney's premier Harness Racing venue.
Allow me to explain the reasons for this.
Firstly, it is the track that I frequent at least once a week, and more often than any other.
Secondly, over the next fortnight, a visit to the complex is highly likely and this will allow you to directly relate my ideas while fresh in your mind.
Please don't consider my comments as an endorsement or criticism of the track itself - but merely as a type of case study.
I believe that the industry must strive in its efforts to broaden the fan base of both on and off course consumers.
This can ideally be achieved by lifting the sport's profile via the media, and as live entertainment in its own right, to the younger generations which are usually sold on the glitz and glamour not always associated with Harness Racing.
It needs to be brighter, it needs to be fresher, faster, and more professional and this holds true as either a live or broadcasted product.
Sometimes those of us who work within an industry become blind to the most obvious shortcomings - we have a passion for it regardless.
I can honestly stand up in front of you today and say that if the presentation of Harness Racing never changed, I'd still be going or watching the sport in 20 years time.
But likewise, a radical change in look is unlikely to deflate my enthusiasm.
So shouldn't we then be prepared to experiment with the presentation of the sport in the hope of attracting new clients?
If I'm right, the old ones will stay regardless.
It can also pay to take a step back from the industry and ask a friend or acquaintance that is not an avid Harness Racing follower what changes they would like to make to the presentation of the sport.
You'll be surprised by the answers, I know I was, and some such concepts actually appear in this paper.
Cross promotion of Harness Racing is very important.
For example the success of Thoroughbred night racing in Australia has relied heavily on rock bands and other various forms of on-track entertainment.
In fact the racing industry has almost taken a back seat.
I became a regular Harold Park patron in 1984 at a tender age.
My father would take me along, place my $2 bets for me, and I'd wander down directly in front of the winning post to watch the action.
Every week, every race the same spot.
As I mentioned earlier I'm still a Harold Park regular (most times now as a result of work), but I still watch the races from virtually the same position.
And in 1999 so do most people - through the lens of a camera.
Sky Channel Overview
As a starting point I thought it might interest our international delegates and observers to learn a little more about the organisation that I work for.
Sky Channel was launched in 1986 and is now transmitted into 5,800 venues throughout Australia, covering approximately 90 meetings per week (26 of them Harness), with more than two million viewers at bars, hotels, clubs and off course wagering venues throughout Australia.
Additionally more than one million households have access to Sky Racing via cable and satellite Pay-TV networks, but I'll touch more on that a little later.
Sky Channel has also developed export products for the Australian racing industry, with services into Asia, the Middle East, Italy, Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Islands, New Zealand and North America.
Live television, by its nature, can be a technical nightmare.
Yet at Sky Channel it is not uncommon for us to be covering up to 16 or 17 meetings on any given day.
This involves recovering pictures from racetracks around Australia (sometimes the world), into our studios via fibre optic cable, links and bearers and even SNG for transmission.
There is also the intrinsic task of working out race times, with the optimisation of re-investment and reduction in the likelihood of a clash between two venues, being the primary motivation.
As Racing Manager, that is actually one of my responsibilities.
Perception of Sky Channel changed markedly when TAB Limited, the world's fifth largest wagering organisation purchased the broadcaster in April 1998 prior to its float on the Stock Exchange.
From its birth Sky Channel heightened awareness of racing and sparked a massive increase in off-course turnover through the country's pari-mutual organisations.
Nevertheless, despite this revolution, the competition for the entertainment dollar has become increasingly intense.
This transcends to the three individual codes of racing as well.
Thoroughbred, Greyhound and Harness Racing are in some ways competing with each other on Sky Channel.
In fact most of the business indicators from the mid-seventies seem to suggest that, in Australia, Harness and Thoroughbred Racing were pretty much on par.
Unfortunately the former lost its place for a number of reasons - the most important being the public perception of the industry.
As a visual medium Harness Racing has the greatest scope for improvement within Australia.
One such concept is not new however most clubs seem reluctant to introduce it - saddle cloths with colours corresponding to numbers such as those used in Greyhound Racing.
This has the potential to capture casual observers as well as assisting the regular viewer recognise certain runners.
The Gold Coast Club in Queensland has adopted this system most successfully.
Officials at Harold Park are on the right wavelength, however there is scope to make them much brighter.
Heighten the excitement of the race by ensuring that every fan and every punter knows where his or her horse is running!
Furthermore there have been suggestions of taking the step even further with drivers silks matching the TAB numbers and even the coloured sulky wheels currently in vogue doing a similar thing.
Use of the Media
Few people would dispute the power of the media however Harness Racing has found it increasingly difficult to obtain mainstream exposure on a regular basis.
Indeed coverage in the print media has been in gradual decline for well over a decade in this country.
This has much to do with the explosion of other sports in Australia such as Basketball and Baseball and the limited space made available to editors.
Also, the image of Harness Racing is such that it is often unfortunate incidents that make news programs.
One such example is the recent New Zealand Cup where a runner somersaulted prior to the start.
Despite the harmless nature of the incident, it did not paint a very pleasant picture of the industry and furthermore the piece didn't even provide a result of probably the 3rd or 4th most significant event on the calendar.
Unless we change the media's perception of the sport, how can we expect the public to alter theirs?
Harness Racing must build on its relationship with all forms of the media and not just with one or two personalities, but the Chief Executives and General Managers they work for.
How do we achieve this?
Off the track via vigorous public relations and on the track, simply, with a better product.
Mobile racing is a far greater spectacle and undoubtedly presents the sport in a more professional manner than stand starts do with less likelihood of the earlier mentioned events occurring.
I assume that it was no coincidence that stand start races were not used during the World Drivers Championship just completed.
Twenty races, all mobiles - Why?
Because on an international level, stand starts are either redundant or deemed unnecessary.
And a second issue arose from the New Zealand incident.
At the turn of the century, it is important to also be aware of the humanitarian responsibilities that Harness Racing has with regard to the horse itself.
We must present the sport in line with logical animal welfare policies because even the slightest indication that the racing animal is under any duress will severely reduce the capability of generating interest in Harness Racing, especially with a younger audience.
I had a female friend, on her first visit to Harold Park recently, innocently ask me if I thought Harness Racing was cruel?
It is a very important misconception to overcome.
Nevertheless the promotion of a fast horse as a hero is clearly the greatest tool available and every avenue must be utilised through the media to present them in such a way.
In recent times Christian Cullen and Courage Under Fire have achieved this end.
Visibility is the greatest tool in driving frequency of visits, and that brings me to my next topic.
Sky Racing Experience
Sky Racing, the Sky Channel home service, hit the airwaves on September 5, 1998.
The introduction of this much-awaited product once again revolutionised the Australian racing industry and indeed opened further opportunities for Harness Racing exposure.
The structural changes with regard to wagering behaviour was virtually instantaneous with telephone betting accounts up by nearly 30% in New South Wales.
Sky Racing carries decidedly less content than Sky Channel with only four meetings telecast at any one time.
This provides opportunities to make the service more attractive and meaningful to both the dedicated fans and potential newcomers to racing.
The live coverage is supported with a great deal of viewer information - betting updates, racings, interviews and expert commentary.
We as the broadcaster have a certain responsibility to present the program in a professional and exciting manner, however, the Harness industry should be aware of their obligation with regard to self-promotion.
Surprisingly I'm yet to see, in the 14 months since the birth of Sky Racing, any attempt to revitalise pre-race parades or starting procedures.
There should be a pre-race structure in place 2-3 minutes before each event.
Instead we see drivers adjusting equipment and horses strewn over 200 metres of the track.
Suggestions include a circle formation, or even a single file from the top of the straight, where viewers can look at drivers' silks and horses just before the race commences.
Albion Park in Brisbane uses the circle formation as well as any club in Australia but there still remains room for improvement.
Either way potential for a fresh approach exists especially when the camera can be sitting on track pictures for an extended period.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Harness Racing crowds have declined since the commencement of Sky Racing.
However, from this apparent negative, has emerged a significant positive.
There has been noticeable shift in interest toward feature nights.
In other words, Harness Racing fans have been happy to watch the product when available on the home service but as a result of the increased exposure, earmark a number of meetings during the year when they will go to the track.
The Miracle Mile at Harold Park twelve months ago was a perfect case in point.
The massive exposure of Christian Cullen generated on Sky Racing assisted in attracting the largest Sydney crowd for many years.
Clubs, therefore, should channel their energies into strongly promoting a limited number of meetings per year.
Perception (18-24 Year Olds)
It would be unwise and indeed counterproductive not to recognise the connection between the sport of Harness Racing and wagering.
Because of this a 1997 survey conducted in NSW by TAB Ltd of 18-24 year olds reveals some interesting and useful facts.
Not surprisingly 24% of males of this age group are regular customers while only 7% of females are.
In order to increase the latter category the profile of women participants in the industry must be lifted.
Promotion with other female sporting stars is a useful idea.
The Australian Netball team at Harold Park or Kerryn Manning, Australian leading female driver, a guest at the Australian Open.
Kerryn is of course just an example, but she would take the sport of Harness Racing to an untapped market.
Furthermore the industry would be seen as youthful, hip, equal opportunity, and probably more importantly, as a sport in its own right.
The survey also found that 58% of 18-24 year olds frequented clubs and pubs but less than half of these have never bet in their lives despite infrastructure for doing so being present in nearly all such establishments.
Psychographic profiles indicate that "adrenalin" is of far more significance than "tradition".
This finding, combined with the revelation that 18-24 year olds who never bet at the TAB are more frequent users of Poker Machines than occasional TAB bettors and that 20% of never TAB users play Poker Machines, indicates that the younger generation prefer the quick fix associated with modern day gambling.
If this trend continues then Harness Racing Authorities must look at the current curriculum of events staged.
If the notion holds true that this age group finds racing boring, then Harness Racing will ultimately suffer the most, with races normally taking 3-4 minutes to complete.
In 30 years time when the current 18-24 year old age bracket is 48-54, and if the generations that follow have a similar perception of the sport, then how will Harness Racing survive?
Should we be following the US model of all mile racing to inject some spark into the sport?
Sooner rather than later according to the TAB survey.
And while this suggestion may be met with a great deal of resistance from participants themselves (trainers, drivers and owners), one only has to think back to the unbelievable transformation of cricket in the late seventies with the introduction of the one-day competition.
It was faster, more exciting and seen as a far greater live spectacle.
Remember we're trying to present the product of a new generation of supporters who have a myriad of choices when deciding on how to spend their leisure time.
Possibly the most promising finding however is that all groups identified the TAB strongly with sociability ('friends like to do this').
Promotion to build on these perceptions will be important in attracting the participation of new customers.
Broadening the Fan Base
The greatest challenge facing Harness Racing Clubs is the broadening of the fan base.
More emphasis is being placed on the entertainment value of racing and theme meetings should be utilised in an attempt to attract new participants.
Furthermore, the horses, trainers and drivers must be promoted as stars in a similar vein to footballers and other athletes.
The thoroughbred industry in Australia achieves this with far more success.
Their parade rings are lined with fans, especially on feature days, where high profile personnel are recognisable.
I was once told that this concept was "an old chestnut" and indeed it may be, however the relevance has not diminished.
The introduction of drivers to the crowd before each race or at least the feature event each meeting, is a possible approach.
And what about breaking down the barriers?
Why do we still have segregated areas at Australian racetracks?
Great effort goes into attracting on-course crowds and then they're told "sorry you can't go in there" because it's reserved for members or you need a certain item of clothing.
I'm not saying that you should remove dress codes altogether, but even the classiest night club in town doesn't require a tie and jacket for entry.
Ironically, on course patrons are required to meet a certain dress standard in order to watch trainers and drivers who are often found in the horse stall wearing a t-shirt.
The Way Ahead
Harness Racing must present itself in far more professional manner than it has in the past.
This holds true more than ever before with the advent of Sky Racing into the lounge room.
The general appearance of strappers, and indeed trainers and drivers, must be improved with at least a minimum dress standard, put into place.
Such code of conduct is not unusual in other sports like the AFL.
Obviously all people sitting in this room today are passionate Harness Racing supporters and at the end of the day, if you participate in an industry, you most likely love it.
Unfortunately it is easy to become blind to the economic realities of the 21st Century and remain stagnant.
The way we envisage Harness Racing may vary significantly from those we are attempting to present the product to.
Thank you for listening this afternoon.
Sky Channel wishes to extend the arm of friendship to all delegates and visitors to the World Trotting Conference and reinforce our commitment to the long-term growth, as a business partner, to the Australian Racing Industry.