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Face lift
Tuesday, October 26, 2010 - by Jason Turner

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There was a time, as recently as the turn of the century, when having 1,500 friends might have seemed totally implausible, not to mention unquantifiable. But that was before a group of computer science geeks from Harvard (and consequent billionaires) launched what has become the most popular social networking site in the world: Facebook.

With more than 50 million accounts, and fan pages belonging to the most prestigious companies in the world, Facebook is the most visible and recognizable incarnation of social media. From monasteries and Martha Stewart to bikers and Boy Scouts and everything in between, industries are finding social media to be an increasingly effective way to reach people and harness racing is no exception.

As the co-host of two harness racing television programs, PA Harness Weekly and the Post Time Show, Heather Moffett is easily one of the most recognizable faces in harness racing, but with 1,600 friends and counting, she’s also one of the most prolific Facebook users in the industry.

USTA/Ed Keys Photo
Catch-driver Aaron Merriman said he uses Facebook to pick up drives and introduce people to harness racing.

Moffett joined Facebook about two years ago, at the prompting of a close friend. And while the impetus for her to join was personal, she quickly came to realize its professional potential as well.

“I love Facebook,” Moffett said. “I mainly use it to promote my two shows. I’ve gotten more hits on my YouTube site because of Facebook and I’ve met people from across the entire country because of my videos on there.

“This past weekend I had three different people come up to me and say, ‘You don’t know me, but I’m one of your friends on Facebook and I love watching your videos.’ The fact that Facebook is out there has been my avenue for reaching those people.”

Also among Moffett’s Facebook friends are many of the industry’s biggest movers and shakers, including USTA directors Mark Ford and Jason Settlemoir, trainers Blair Burgess and Bob McIntosh, and drivers Tim Tetrick, Yannick Gingras and Aaron Merriman, who is also a Facebook fan.

Like Moffett, Merriman was coerced into joining Facebook by friends, but has since come to embrace it as an opportunity to promote harness racing and reach new fans.

“I really like having it,” he said. “I thought it was kind of ridiculous at first, but a lot of my friends were on there and then I started getting requests from people, saying they watched me race.”

In the 18 months he’s been on Facebook, Merriman has also been solicited for advice by other drivers, complimented by fans all over the country and has found himself “tagged” in more than 100 photos taken by others, but never of his own volition, he pointed out.

“I’ve never put a picture online in my life,” he said.

Merriman has, however, as a result of Facebook, picked up drives, answered questions from fans and prospective owners and even referred several people to the USTA Driving School.

Photo courtesy of Team JC Stable
Jonas Czernyson's Team JC Stable Facebook page features photo galleries and racing updates.

“I’ve definitely met a lot of people that I never would have met without Facebook,” Merriman said, “and it’s helped me open a few people’s eyes about harness racing. But I think we could do a lot more.”

Like drivers, many trainers are also climbing aboard the social media bandwagon.

“Most of our friends on Facebook kind of already know the industry,” said trainer Jonas Czernyson. “But there are definitely people that check us out that are not in the business, and that’s good.”

Czernyson credits his wife, Christine, for building the majority of their 640-person Facebook following, which he says has been great for their stable, but more importantly he added, is the opportunity for harness racing to gain even greater exposure.

“The industry needs to be more visible so we can get new fans and owners, and I think Facebook is an important part of that,” he said.

Czernyson’s sentiment is one shared by many folks throughout harness racing, but none more so than Lindy Farm’s Frank M. Antonacci.

“I don’t think we really have a choice,” he said. “My feeling is that as an industry our game has been stuck in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Internet gives us a whole new opportunity to reinvent ourselves and I think we better take advantage of that.”

For their part, Lindy Farms’ Facebook page, which is primarily maintained by Frank’s younger brother, Philip, and caretaker and multimedia freelancer Cynthia Hitson, has been a great way for people who are connected to the farm to stay connected, said Frank.

The page is updated regularly with race results, photos and videos, and according to Antonacci, has even led to the hiring of several Lindy Farms employees.

For better or worse, social media is a major marketing and promotional force in the 21st century, and harness racing needs to continue to build upon its social media efforts said Joe Scurto, president and co-founder of Horseshoe Marketing.

“We’re doing a good job,” he said. “We’re certainly ahead of a lot of other industries, but I don’t know that we’ve really tapped the true potential of what’s out there. The Meadowlands, Vernon, Tioga, they do a really nice job; the drivers and trainers have been terrific at communicating with the public, but we really need to have everybody involved.”

“Social media is a part of our lives,” said Moffett. “Every major sport uses social media, every business. Every time I turn around there’s a sign somewhere that says, ‘Follow us on Facebook.’ You just have to be a part of social media these days.”

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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.