Mark Hetherman's Blog
Promote the Drivers
Published: October 27, 2009 1:55 pm ET
Last Comment: November 3, 2009 10:58 am ET | 13 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments
It is time to reward our drivers and make them the marquee athletes that can attract the public.
In the never ending discussion about who is more important in our sport, the horse or the driver, that answer is irrelevant.
Although we can never stop promoting horses like Somebeachsomewhere they are usually only around for 2 years and race in Ontario only a few of times. Our drivers are racing 8 to 10 times per night, they control everything that happens in the race, and they are true physical and mentally strong athletes.
Race Car drivers who are the closest comparison to our drivers take the power of a car of which they are in total control and require only the nerve to go fast and pass other cars. These are great skills for sure but compare that to what a Harness Driver has to do; I think our Drivers are much more of an athlete.
A Harness Driver must be able to get the most out of a independent thinking animal, that cannot voice its feelings, coax them to their best performance, weave them through tight openings, strategize in a split second what other drivers are going to do, (no time outs like football, basketball, hockey to figure out the strategy in the middle of the game) expose their bodies to unprotected danger (no roll cage and safety devices like cars have) and do all this while stressing that they are the 4-5 favourite and if they do not do all of this right to win the race fans will be cursing them. I can’t think of another sport with so much pressure.
F1 or NASCAR are heralded as athletes and paid millions of dollars to perform. We need to analyze how those sports have made superstars of their drivers and our drivers go unnoticed.
We must examine why the general public will flock to Maple Leaf games at the rate of 18,000 per night, Blue Jay games 25,000 per game etc. The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs for 3 years and the last Stanley Cup was 1967. The Blue Jays are technically playing exhibition games from around July 15 when they typically drop 10 games out of first place.
Maybe it is the spirit of cheering Toronto Teams or Players...wait a minute the Blue Jays do not have one player who was born in Ontario, the Maple Leafs only 6 players, the Raptors none...
One last thought... I think another appeal of those sports is the fact that athletes make millions of dollars and that creates intrigue. Wouldn’t Harness Racing love to have the press hockey received last year over the Mats Sundin retirement/non-retirement, come back for $20 million etc.,
As humans we idolize people who rise to the top and make more money than we could ever imagine. Our top driver Jody Jamieson has made approx. $270,000 (5% of $5,400,000) at Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) to September 21, 2009. Although this would seem like a lot of money to many of us it is nothing in the world of sports for a top athlete. I know he goes off and makes more money in stake races and driving at other tracks etc. but the point is still relevant.
How do we create this hype around our drivers? I would propose that the top 15 drivers be employed by WEG and paid a salary with some bonuses clauses built in for handle increases. Let’s say Jody would be signed to a one year contract for $2,000,000 per year. Other drivers would be paid according to their success just like all other sports. So let’s say that WEG would have a payroll of something like $15,000,000. I know that the history of paying drivers 5% was to ensure they were always trying to win to earn a living and provide the fans the best integrity for their wagering dollar.
We know that this does not guarantee anything to the wagering public.
I would suggest that we have a General Manager for all the WEG drivers. The GM would be someone like Ron Waples or equivalent legend driver who really knows what is happening on the track. The GM’s job would be to watch the races, council drivers and impose fines or penalties on drivers anytime he felt we were not giving honest and quality drives.
Any trainer/owner racing at WEG would have to use one of these 15 star drivers so all customers would be assured of getting a quality drive and we could build stardom amongst this driver group. The only exception would be stake races where outside drivers could drive for their normal trainer.
If a driver wants to join the WEG group then they would have prove themselves at a B track and would require approval by the General Manager.
The GM would allow them to drive some races at WEG to see if they can fit in. If the GM feels the new driver could be a new star for WEG then he must cut a driver from WEG and back to B tracks. Sorry if this sounds tough but we must think of the fans and all sports teams cut players if they can no longer perform at the same level as the past.
Let’s face it... what sport just allows anyone to come to their sports building or field to play and perform with the superstars. Can you imagine how you would feel as a fan if the Blue Jays would just allow anyone whether they have the required skills or not to play with the Jays for a game? Well our fans feel the same way when they have to decide whether they should bet some driver they have never heard of coming in from a B track for one race on the card. We want to know we have the best drivers sitting behind the horses every race when we are laying down our money.
If we are going to be in the big time we need to act like it.
To get the 18 to 35 year old demographic we need stars and future stars through rookies on the main stage every night. Let’s examine the amount of press the Leafs got when they were negotiating to sign Luke Schenn a rookie star in the making. Right now we have two or three exceptional young drivers coming up the ranks and they should be given the chance to replace the regulars if they are good enough. Imagine the press we would receive if WEG announces that they are signing the hottest young Harness Driver to a 3 year $2,000,000 contract.
WEG drivers would only be allowed to race away from WEG for stake races. As much as Jody Jamieson is a great driver and ambassador for the sport he is a superstar and should not be driving at B tracks. Do we think the Leafs would allow Tomas Kaberle go play for the Marlies a couple of times per week? Plus it takes money out of the pockets of local drivers.
Drivers would also have to make themselves available for any media/advertising/marketing/charity activities requested by WEG.
They would visit schools for career day presentation to build our future fans; they would host school trips to the paddock on qualifying days at Mohawk.
The drivers would have to make a commitment of a minimum numbers of hours in the public eye.
They should be on TV and Radio constantly building star personality. I think Bob McCown at Fan 590 would love to interview a driver every week. After all he did own a Harness Racehorse.
Etc. Etc. the mind runs wild with promotional ideas...
WEG would pay for the drivers salaries by taking in the 5% the drivers would normally get from driving and they would direct money from the marketing budget. They would receive revenue by the handle increases based on the new stardom we create with the drivers. WEG would also look to get many sponsors for the drivers and WEG would retain any sponsorship money. We have to think like NASCAR where there are sponsors logo’s all over their racing colours.
This new found stardom, along with success with new fans would allow drivers to renegotiate contracts annually and find themselves among the top paid sports stars in our city over time.
Obviously this is a simplistic view and many details have to be worked out but there is no denying that star athletes can sell a sport!