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Pizza Holes
Monday, July 21, 2014 - by Bob Carson

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Editor's Note: The USTA website is pleased to present freelance writer Bob Carson and his popular "Outside the Box" features. This monthly series is a menu of outlandish proposals presented with a wink -- but the purpose behind them is serious. The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” -- Steve Jobs

Bob Carson
Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose recently played a controversial round of golf at Reynolds Plantation Resort in Greensboro, N.C. The holes carved into the beautifully manicured greens were no longer the diameter of soup cans, 4.25 inches, they were the size of large pizzas, 15 inches. Now why in the world would such a strange concept creep into an ultra traditional sport? You know the answer, an attempt to create new revenue.

Golf, like harness racing, is in a downward cycle. The demographics are aging. Television ratings are sagging. New players are hard to recruit. The game is slow, expensive and difficult. Some of us enjoy the maddening challenge of golf, but there is a scarcity of new recreational players. The large-hole concept is one of several efforts to keep up with the ever-evolving market. There are others. Last month, for the first time, the PGA sanctioned an official tournament to be played on a par three course.

Autumn Ryan graphic

At this juncture, many are rolling eyes and harrumphing at the stupidity of extra large holes or ultra short courses. We like the sport of golf that Bobby Jones played. Most of us will be extremely reluctant to adapt to such nonsense. Our perceptions are not the point. New alterations to old sports are not for us, they are for the present and the future.

Jack Nicklaus, as traditional as they come, is on board.

“I hope my friends and fellow pros will find this to be an enjoyable test of golf, while showcasing the benefits of par-3 golf. We're at an important juncture in the evolution of our game. It is time we need to embrace innovation, new ideas and out-of-the-box thinking that inspires people to get off the couch and play this great game. As an industry, we need to come up with new golf experiences, whether that is 60 minutes or 90 minutes, whether it's six holes, 12 holes, a par-3 course. We need to think in terms of shorter, faster and more fun."

Do you think that quote is applicable to harness racing? If your answer is yes, be heartened. Innovation in harness racing is probably easier than golf because our changes will be less radical on the course, our changes will more likely be gambling centered.

Change sneaks up on us like an ocean tide -- even in our sports and games. Some of the changes are imperceptible, others more dynamic, but behind each change is a rationale. The smart money, and money always drives the bus, is on reconfiguration in the direction of simplicity and convenience for the customer.

Should you have played tennis in the wooden racquet era, you know that topspin was a very difficult feat. Should you have been a golf fan 30 years ago, persimmon drivers rarely sent the liquid core golf ball over 250 yards. Viewers of football and baseball in the 1960s did not watch 15 slow motion replays with a pulse pounding sound track analyzed by experts. Should you have desired information on any sport, it took effort to unearth complex data. Should you have decided to take up the game of chess in the Bobby Fischer era, you did not have access to computer avatars or online competitors at your fingertips.

Revenue is at the core of each of these modifications. Large graphite racquets are expensive and make the game easier. Manufacturers make money and more customers are grown. The latest new “longer than ever” golf clubs are released each season for the same reasons. Televised and computer games use advertising to clinically extract revenue from mesmerized viewers. Even chess now squeezes out a few bucks from related products and is scraping up a few new participants via the Internet.

Like everyone else, harness racing needs revenue via new audiences. Finding these folks has always been, and always will be, difficult. As we search for new faces, new gamblers, new viewers and new owners in the world of trotting and pacing horses, the trend should be in the direction of simplicity.

What does that mean?

It means that if new customers bet on a race, it should be simple to play and simple to win. We need to eliminate that black hole of high takeout and offer players a more than competitive rate of return on their gambling dollars. Let’s make a sport where players get much more of their money back and they have fun trying to do so.

Simplicity means that if you take a look at our races on any platform -- computer, television, phone, I-pad, or at the racetrack -- what you see should be dynamic and riveting. It means if you are trying to learn our sport it should be simple to access. It means if you want to purchase a yearling or a racehorse you should have a decent chance to make back some of your investment.

New ideas are not presented to annoy traditionalists, they are meant to challenge innovators. They are not intended to detonate existing players; traditionalists and new participants can exist side by side. We need to construct a clearinghouse and launching pad for efforts in these directions.

Speaking of simple, how about a panel that selects one initiative every six months, an idea that has little upfront cost and is easy to implement, and then try it in a test market.

Quickly reaching into the hat of possible ideas, let's pull out an odd or even wager. This is one of many experiments that always appealed to me. Players simply pick two, four, six and eight, or one, three, five and seven. For a new player, rooting for an odd or even number is infinitely less intimidating. The takeout is in single digits, we look for revenue in churn. Promote the new wager in a local market. Offer it on one digital wagering platform. Give the new idea a reasonable effort and test the results. If it shows promise, continue. If it’s a dud, scrap it. But we need to get new ideas in play.

Pizza-sized golf holes or par three tournaments may or may not be in the best interests for the future of golf. No matter what the success of the experiments, one must salute the PGA for trying and not just holding the course of a downward trajectory. Harness racing needs to follow this model; remodeling and experimentation are needed if we are to bring in new participants and new revenue.

And we can -- if we keep things simple.

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