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Long-Term Planning
Friday, July 18, 2014 - Ivan Axelrod

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At this year’s USTA annual meeting, we had another opportunity to address the USTA’s direct involvement in a marketing and television promotion for our industry.  The Meadowlands brought a proposal to the USTA Finance Committee to fund some of the costs associated with a series of races during the year. 


I was one of the Executive Committee members that ultimately voted no on the proposal.  The vote was 14-1 against providing the requested funding. I was asked why I voted against the Meadowlands proposal.  I liked what the Meadowlands outlined; however, I had difficulty as a USTA director in approving funding for a particular racetrack unless I could see the long-term benefit for the industry.  In this case, we were looking at three of our most prestigious races and that was a big plus for me. However, what would be the next project?  How could we build from these three races into 2015 and forward?  I was not provided with the information that would answer these questions and so I voted no on the proposal. One of my concerns was what happens when another track wants to promote and televise some of their races and comes to the USTA for the funding. 


As I have outlined and stated many times, our industry needs a long-term plan for marketing our industry and we must address this issue first before we allocate financial resources for specific projects that do not have a direct connection with an overall plan. 


USTA President Phil Langley has recently appointed an ad hoc committee to examine the benefits and costs of expanded television coverage for harness racing in 2015.  I am hopeful that this committee will also address the various means by which we must raise the needed capital required for such an effort. 


As your chairman and a longtime director, I view the USTA’s primary role to provide guidance for the growth of our industry and a forum to discuss and develop long-term strategies and work for the industry as a whole.  We certainly have our regular registry responsibilities and everything related to our day-to-day racing and support of our racetracks, owners, breeders, trainers and others.  I believe we should be working on more global projects; the ones that can assist our industry as a whole rather than a particular project or set of projects that one track or another wants to promote.  From our leadership role in social media to addressing the cobalt issue to our Back to the Track promotions, the USTA should be and is an integral part of overall industry issues and the marketing and televising of our sport is another area that needs our focus.


The USTA directors believed that social media has strong potential as a means to promote our sport and authorized funding for an initial project.  The intent is for many of our racetracks to develop skills in this area and develop programs for their individual tracks.  In this way, the USTA funds are used for national projects and I believe this is the best way to use our financial resources. 


Our organization does not have a pot of excess cash just looking for a place to go. So how will we ever locate the funding for a major step forward in marketing our industry?  Much of our resources will continue to be driven toward the grassroots level and this is harness racing.  We do not want to lose touch with our local racetracks and local events focused on the local population.  So what can we do?


During the last several years I have had conversations with many individuals within and outside our industry on how to best develop a strong marketing program.  I received input from both inside and outside our industry and I am sure you have read ideas suggested in our various industry publications.  I spoke with owner Jimmy Bernstein quite some time ago, who has many ideas on marketing and funding sources.  One area we discussed was having the horsemen and tracks provide much of the funding.  He believed then and probably believes now that if the USTA approached all of the horsemen’s organizations in our various racing jurisdictions with a real plan for marketing the sport, the horsemen would step up and work toward a plan for money to be withheld from purses and used for this purpose.


Maybe it is time to reach out to this group, as well as track management and all of our other industry groups, and see what we could accomplish with his idea. I know there are issues to overcome with this plan as many of our horsemen organizations already devote substantial funds for marketing in their jurisdictions and have control of how the money is spent. In some racing jurisdictions, current regulations may not allow for purse funds to be used in this manner.  I also know there is distrust in our industry at times between management and horsemen. 


I have heard all of these issues before and I know this is a real issue.  However, until we attack the issues head-on, we will never really know what our industry is prepared to do.  First we need a realistic plan that people will accept as reasonable if we are going to be successful. 


Ivan Axelrod

USTA Chairman of the Board


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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.