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Director's Chair: Changes to Occur
Wednesday, January 25, 2017 - by Ivan Axelrod, USTA Chairman of the Board

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I have entered the New Year with my feet on the ground and optimism for the future. 

Before I get into my column, I want to go back to 2003 when Phil Langley stepped up to run for president of the USTA.  This would be the first time since I was a director that Corwin Nixon would not be our president. 

Questions surrounded Phil, a “track man,” and whether he could ctually be independent in overseeing the USTA and represent all the various groups and individuals within our industry. Phil had strong credentials, being a Dartmouth College graduate and having a harness racing career that brought him in touch with our industry from every angle. 

Phil was elected and during the years I have worked with him, he always had the best interests of the industry as a whole when making suggestions or decisions affecting our members. Phil guided the USTA management team to update, develop and bring expanded services to our membership. That is the mission of the organization and Phil has led us to accomplish those goals. I want to personally thank him for his years of service and the professional manner in which he has handled himself when dealing with all the various elements and personalities within our industry. I am a better man having known and worked with Phil. 

Later this month, we will have our annual USTA board of directors meeting, where we will elect officers for the year. For the first time in many years, we will have contested positions for president, chairman, and vice chairman. This is good for our industry as we will hear different views from the candidates on their priorities for managing the USTA and its priorities. 

While only the directors vote for these positions, you as USTA members have a voice in our future. We still have several weeks before the election so you can e-mail or telephone your district representatives and give them your input. Find your directors at www.ustrotting.com/directors.cfm.  So don’t tell me later that you have no say in what goes on at the USTA. Make your voice heard.

During the many years I have provided periodic columns in Hoof Beats, my topics and views usually have to do with ideas for change, the great industry that we all love and how we tackle our competition and become a stronger industry. There are many who believe the USTA should be taking the lead in these areas. While I may agree with some of this, it is too easy to say the heavy work is someone else’s responsibility to make us better, stronger and more competitive.  Since harness racing does not have any other organizations with as broad a membership as the USTA, then by default the USTA is sometimes looked at as the organization that should be leading the effort.  

The USTA and our industry receive hundreds of ideas and suggestions on the path we should take to enhance our image and  develop new fans, owners, gamblers and others to make our industry strong and vibrant.  I find a lot of thought goes into many of these ideas and are worthy of consideration.  However, the next steps have been our biggest stumbling blocks:

  1. Which parties in our industry have to agree on the actions to be taken?

  2. Where will the funding come from?

  3. Who will be responsible for implementation of any significant project? 

  4. Does everyone have input into the process?

I could go on and on. In my column in the November 2016 Hoof Beats, I listed nine items from an earlier study on harness racing that need addressing if we were to make the necessary impact into our competition.  Some of these certainly do need addressing and some of our individual tracks are making inroads in these areas; however, on a national level, all of this is difficult to achieve.

In concluding my thoughts today, we can all describe how we got started in this business and why we think it is so terrific. When we list those reasons, we cannot understand why the younger people today don’t see this as we did.

I think that is part of our problem.

We think everyone else should see all this greatness we have found in harness racing.  However, they are a different generation and have many more choices than we had in our youthful years. What excited us about harness racing 20-40 years ago may not interest those today in their 20s, 30s or 40s.

The long-term successful sports groups have done that research and made significant changes in their business model to adapt to the changing interests of their fan base. Baseball, football and hockey are significantly different today than they were 30 years ago. In most cases, they went through periods when fans lost some interest and the leagues moved to make changes.

So I ask you, what is different about harness racing today compared to 30 years ago? I can mention a few: expanded betting options, horses go faster today, betting from home. You can fill in the blanks with other changes and enhancements we have added or changed to attract newcomers. Has this been enough to attract new customers? Maybe our fans or potential new fans want something different. Have we really asked that question and are we prepared to make the changes necessary to attract the next generation into our sport?

Until next time, good luck and good racing,

Ivan L. Axelrod

Your Chairman

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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.