Tuesday, December 11, 2007

NASCAR & Harness Racing

I work in marketing. It is one tough business. Jack Trout, one of the foremost marketing gurus, is one of my favourite writers. His book, Differentiate or Die, is one of the best, in my opinion, marketing books ever written. In it, the general thesis is, if you have a product that is different, you are ahead of the game and you should market those differences.

The people who run NASCAR have read that book. They are different. They are not Formula One - and they do not try to be. In many ways, they are harness racing.

Greg Reinhart of Lucoullette.com wrote an interesting opinion column on NASCAR and harness racing. He is a fan of both. He's under 30, too. Right in our theme lately. His thoughts are reprinted below.

I could not agree with him more:

In this month’s Trot Magazine, editor Darryl Kaplan writes a letter stating that harness racing, specifically Canadian harness racing, can compete with stock car racing if it is given a chance to.

Being a fan of both of harness racing and NASCAR, I thought we could take a look and see if Kaplan’s hypothesis really is valid and what would need to happen.

NASCAR is full of marketing geniuses, something that harness racing sorely lacks. Think about it folks, NASCAR was able to go from a regional venture, in this case the Southeastern United States, to a world-wide mega-power.

What has NASCAR done well? First, they market their stars well. Top guys like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are the faces of national advertising campaigns and the reason companies put up multi-million dollar sponsorship packages to be connected with them. They are professional, well-spoken, and rarely embarrass themselves, the companies they represent, or the sport.

In harness racing, Tom Haughton tried to put together a package with harness drivers and SSG driving gloves. One of my friends was part of this deal, and the only thing I ever heard about it was an owner complaining to me that he wasn’t getting paid for the driver wearing a patch while driving his horse. Yikes.

Furthermore, far too often, interviews with harness drivers are exactly the opposite of NASCAR drivers. Many harness drivers don’t take the time to explain to the public why a horse they bet last week may not have been any good, or changes they made, and how they helped, etc. This is especially glaring at Woodbine or Mohawk, where some drivers seem more concerned with self-promotion.

Harness racing doesn’t do an adequate job of marketing its equine stars either. Outside of a big name like Admirals Express, you don’t hear much about these horses, and if you do, it’s a situation where a horse like Donato Hanover is retiring and not coming back to race. A horse like Sea King, who won six races in a row after coming back from a serious suspensory injury, is a perfect story for someone to pick up on, yet only The Harness Edge has even touched it.

That’s not to say NASCAR is squeaky clean. They had have several instances where crew chiefs, who are in charge of setting up the race car for the drivers, have been caught cheating. Just this year, the crew chiefs for Johnson, Gordon, and Earnhardt, Jr. were all suspended for several races.

Now, a big problem NASCAR has there, is that they don’t limit communication between the suspended crew chief and their team. The suspended guy can even be on the grounds, maybe in the grandstands, instant messaging his team with suggestions and set-up tips. That would be akin to letting a suspended harness racing trainer claim horses, train them and then just enter them with another trainer.

There are plenty of similarities between the two sports, though. NASCAR has owners, crew chiefs, and drivers, and harness racing has owners, trainers, and drivers, and they all share similar roles and responsibilities.

The racing is actually sort of similar as well. NASCAR has the “draft,” where a car gets right in behind another one, which takes the flow of air off the trailing car, enabling it to go faster. It’s the same principle with a horse getting a pocket-trip or a second-over trip.

Now, what can harness racing do to maybe get a surge like NASCAR did?

First, I would take a portion of the slots revenue and put it directly into a marketing fund and then hit up every newspaper, internet site, radio, etc with commercials. Show people that harness racing is just like NASCAR. It’s fun, exciting, and takes a heck of a lot less time than 500 laps.

Second, I would make trainers and drivers take at least one class in how to give a proper interview, maybe when they first apply for a license.

Third, you need to market the game as clean. NASCAR does this well by immediately suspending or fining owners, crew chiefs, and drivers, and if they appeal, it’s heard right away, not dragged on for years.

Fourth, you need to treat your betting customer with way more respect than they get now. Like Dana Parham said, harness racing is the only venture which treats its best customer worse than its worst customer.

Now, one final thing NASCAR does exceedingly well and quite deceptively, is market the violent nature of their business, whether it’s wrecks, fights between drivers, and the like. This is something harness racing probably can’t do, nor should they, but if they market the game as clean, fan friendly, and bettor friendly, maybe the future will be a little bit brighter for the game we all love.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am not sure why racing (harness) has not done a study on NASCAR and what they did. There are parallels between the two which are quite obvious.

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