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Television to the Front?
Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - by F. Phillip Langley, USTA President

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One thing that is always irritating to me is when second-guessers don’t like a decision made by the USTA directors and the first thing out of their mouth is something like “they just don’t care about harness racing.”


If the directors didn’t care, why would they spend hours giving tests, holding hearings, attending district meetings and the USTA annual meeting? All volunteered time serving the members. If you don’t think all are interested and involved, just ask Mike Tanner how many calls and e-mails he gets from the directors.


Equally disturbing is the fact that most of the critics took about two seconds to make up their minds while the directors spent hours debating the TV issue. It sounds good to say “we have to be on television.” In this case, the original proposal was for the USTA to put up $100,000 to partially pay for some five or so nights of racing. The cost of each event was to be $25,000 for television time plus $90,000 in production costs. A total of more than $500,000 to be paid for by the USTA, sponsors, track management and the horsemen. Nothing was said about the advertising costs that would be needed to make people aware of the races.


We received the initial proposal in late February. The first reaction was if it can all come together, it might be a good idea. It would have helped if USTA was involved from the beginning not just shortly before our annual meeting in late March.


The first hiccup came about a week after the annual meeting when we found out only the Meadowlands Pace and the Little Brown Jug were still in play. The USTA was then asked for $75,000 instead of $100,000. One of the major concerns was there is “television” and then there is the “other television.” In this case, we were talking about CBS Sports Network--a premium cable channel--not CBS itself. Another problem was the lack of sponsors other than Fazoli's becoming the lead sponsor only for the Jug.


After extensive discussions with the Little Brown Jug officers and Sam McKee at Meadowlands Racetrack, the USTA directors thought partnering with the Jug and a strong regional sponsor such as Fazoli's, where we could coordinate advertising and our social media program, might set a precedent for future television. So the USTA, along with the Ohio horsemen, agreed to contribute substantial funding for this effort. Let’s hope it works.


In an interesting and welcome development shortly after, a voluntary fund for televising a race or program from the Meadowlands was started by well-known and respected trainer Jack Darling. At the time this is written, the fund has raised approximately $100,000 and is now in the hands of Sam McKee. A lot has been said about the horsemen helping with the cost of promoting the sport and this is a good example of what can be done at a grassroots level.


Which races or race will be televised is not presently known, but the suggestions I have seen include the Meadowlands Pace or the Breeders Crown. In addition to the Jug and the Meadowlands Pace, the Hambletonian Society and the Meadowlands--along with some industry sponsors--will again televise the Hambletonian on the same CBS Sports Network. So, for now, harness racing will be seen at least three times on national cable TV.


Television is one of those topics that creates arguments, both pro and con. The cost is substantial. In the present case, the cost is estimated as $25,000 for TV time and $95,000 for production costs. In addition, advertising costs to let people know about the show might add another $25,000.  So a single show would require about $145,000 on a secondary national network such as CBS Sports Network. The question is: how often must racing be televised to be effective, either to attract new fans or maintain the interest of the present ones? Can we attract enough viewers on a secondary sports channel? We could easily need several million dollars. Where will funding come from? At the moment, attracting sponsorship outside the industry is elusive. We are pretty much a regional sport. Can we get five or six tracks involved? Can we find some kind of hook to attract viewers?


Like it or not, racing itself won’t be enough. We need some kind of weekly prize with an end-of-season large payoff.


This can’t be an overnight effort. It must be planned well in advance. The USTA staff will be working with Sam McKee and others to figure this out for 2015. As one pundit said, “Being on television can’t hurt.”

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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.