Awhile back, I, like many of you, opened up the email to find the Battle Royale between Jeff Gural and Joe Faraldo.
Gural, as we all know, wants a portion of purse money (some of it to be matched by tracks) to be used to grow the sport, and he commissioned a poll showing over 80% of responders agreed. Faraldo generally believes the participants have done enough.
It seems, like most things in racing, we have the dreaded status-quo stalemate.
It’s no secret where I stand. I believe all of us have a stake in harness racing, whether we train, own, drive, groom or bet. So I am certainly biased towards Mr. Gural’s point of view.
However, I think it’s more than just a bias. I think its good business.
In late 2010 the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) was severely on the ropes. Television ratings were down, sponsorship money was fading, and tournaments – which were already at an all-time low number - were being canceled for 2011. LPGA players, upset with the direction of the Tour, called for the resignation of then Commissioner Carolyn Bevins, with two years left on her contract. Tournament directors, long dismayed with her abrasive management style agreed, and she was relieved of her duties.
Stepping into the job was a former executive with Proctor & Gamble, Michael Whan. Immediately things started to change. His management style was different, yes, but he also brought along a change in the culture of women’s golf. It stemmed from his belief that the players needed to take ownership for the growth of their game.
In fact, the letters of the word “growth” made up the bulk of his 2011 strategy.
“G” was for getting involved. “R” was for reaching out to fans to make their day. “O” was for being open and honest to the fans and media. “W” was for “worldwide”, where he sees the Tour going. “T” was for thank you’s. “H” was for having fun, because when you’re having fun, the fans are having fun.
Corny? Perhaps, but it was a big part of the battle plan moving forward.
Last year, the new commissioner ensured the participants followed these rules, gave them the tools, and they took up the challenge with a smile. For example, when perennial money leader Paula Creamer struck a fan with an errant drive at a tournament recently, she did not give out a customary signed ball, she gave the spectator her watch. On Tuesday’s before an event, a “cheat sheet” is handed out to players, with bullet points about the sponsors complete with pictures of key personnel. They are then prepared what to say and do in front of a microphone, just like a NASCAR driver is. At the end of an event, players personally pen and sign thank you notes to the organizers.
And guess what? Shudder the thought - they gave up some purse money.
A tournament was created called the “Founders Cup” in 2011. The purse money for the inaugural event was nothing; zip, nada, zero. Yet golfers, from the stars to the journey-women, played. Any meager sponsorship money the event made went to LPGA junior golf and the rest went to charities chosen by the top ten finishers. It was a way to give something back to the greats of the game, while giving up something for the future of golf. In addition, the players taking ownership of the event hoped they’d spark some interest in the event itself.
In 2012 it was announced this new tournament gained a sponsor, and gone are the days of no purse. It currently stands at $1.5M, thanks to the Donnelly Group.
Give a little up, get a whole lot back.
This new professionalism and leadership with a vision has infected the tour with a huge dose of optimism. Golfer Christina Kim told the Wall Street Journal this weekend, “Everyone is very excited. It's been a roller-coaster ride, but we're past the dark chasm.”
With optimism and growth, comes dollars. Two years ago tournament sponsors were dropping like flies. This season there will be over 20% more events than last year, and they all have good purses.
The players in the LPGA took ownership and pride in their game. They hired a true professional and did not dictate to him, but listened. They gave their time, patience and purse money. In the process they may have saved women’s golf.
For those who say it’s impossible for harness racing to achieve similar, I respectfully disagree. It can be done. We need a budget, a leader, a new vision, and most of all, participants willing to take a leap of faith.
This article recently appeared in Harness Racing Update. You can sign up for Harness Racing Update - Bill Finley's weekly paper - for Free here.