USTA Focus: Media Blitz

USTA’s 2019 Board of Directors meeting demonstrates the power of social media
story by Kimberly French

The first-ever meeting of the Youth Delegate Committee kicked off the 2019 edition of the USTA Board of Directors’ annual meeting at the Hilton Columbus in Ohio.

Meetings of the Executive Committee, Communications and Marketing Committee, Amateur Driving Committee, the Harness Racing Medication Committee, and Fair Committee were conducted in the March 9 session.

In the Communications and Marketing Committee, Jason Turner, the USTA’s digital brand strategist, revealed the results of a rejuvenated social media agenda. According to Turner’s data, the so-cial media team (composed of Turner and social media and publicity coordinators Michael Carter and Wendy Ross) generated five million impressions on Facebook compared to 973,000 in 2017. The statistics for Twitter and Instagram were just as impressive, with 3.4 million impressions on Twitter collected in 2018 versus 1.5 million in 2017. For Instagram, there were 139 posts gener-ated in 2018 compared to 69 posts in 2017.

“We can use the talents of our people and the capabilities of technology to produce first-class social media content,” said Dan Leary, the USTA’s director of marketing and communications. “Our monitoring and analytic software allows us to track results and determine what’s working and what we need to adjust. But most importantly, with good communication and collaboration, the USTA can help each of you amplify your messages and promote your important races and events on social media.”

Turner’s presentation highlighted that the 2018 results, which include two separate brand entities in USTA and Harness Racing FanZone, were achieved primarily in the seven months since Carter and Ross were brought into the USTA fold.

That achievement was emphasized by director Jim Miller, who is also the vice chair of the com-mittee and director of publicity at Hawthorne Race Course.

“More than 10 million impressions in seven months is incredible,” he said.

Ross and Carter’s presentations delineated their specific roles, as Ross operates Harness Racing FanZone, while Carter is responsible for the USTA social media vehicles. Ross discussed how the goal of Harness Racing FanZone is to make harness racing appealing by “making it fun.”

Her presentation illustrated the new ideas and approaches the social media team has employed that were extremely successful. For instance, she revealed that the Lip Synch Battle video, which was modeled after the popular television reality series, gained more than 150,000 views on YouTube.

Created in conjunction with Stacy Cahill and Eldorado Scioto Downs, the video went “viral” and four tracks decided to “battle” back with reproductions of their own.

Ross also reviewed the Carpool Karaoke video with Corey Callahan that proved to be very successful. Modeled after the version popularized on James Corden’s Late Late Show, this component of the social program will be continued with a new production unveiled in the very near future. Ross’ main point was that tying harness racing to situations in pop culture, or mainstream life, could yield tremendous rewards.

Carter focused on explaining how the incorporation of a social media monitoring service such as Sprout Social can vastly enhance the USTA’s outreach efforts through that medium. He also emphasized the USTA’s social media program will continue to improve, and the team is dedicated to diligently promote the sport in all facets, as well as in any capacity.

Technology Steals the Show
One of the primary themes of the USTA Board of Directors’ meeting was the importance of technology. On March 10, in the general session, USTA President Russell Williams’ pre-recorded TED Talk-style presentation—utilizing green room technology with an impressive array of video, photos and graphics—was the highlight of the day.

Williams began by giving a brief historical perspective on the organization’s business model, how it compiled the rules of harness racing and grew to be able to accommodate the large amount of data that pari-mutuel wagering generated.

He discussed the difference between “action”-based gaming, like slots, and “decision”- based gambling, like handicapping, and noted that some decision-based games have wide exposure online.

“Even though online gamers and horseplayers enjoy similar forms of decision-based play, online gamers do not come to racetracks to seek recreation,” said Williams. “They must be reached online and presented with racing-based products that will attract them.

“As an industry, we should determine the characteristics of these games that attract internet consumers and emulate those characteristics in new racing-based products that can be offered on the internet. That’s where our future horseplayers and fans reside. To find them, we will have to use marketing.”

Williams explained that shifting to a marketing orientation would fit well with the USTA business model, but posed the question to the directors as to whether the organization needs to do more.
“Does the USTA have a role to play as a center for planning a unified strategic effort that would attain these goals?” he asked.

He cited the wealth of talent and experience on the USTA Board of Directors and called on its members to work together cooperatively to maximize the benefit of all that talent.

Williams concluded by urging the board to address the issues facing harness racing with a uni-fied approach.

“All we have to do is check our competitive tendencies at the front desk, and cooperate in using the USTA’s time-honored business model,” Williams explained. “Identify a significant need within the industry, assemble best practices for addressing that need, formulate a plan at the association level, and execute the plan industry-wide. If we use these skills to adapt to changes that are inevi-table, we will survive and prosper.”

Big Irons in the Fire
During the same session, USTA Chairman Ivan Axelrod emphasized the need to attract more interest in wagering on harness racing—especially with all of the ongoing changes in gaming and sports betting—that would, in turn, result in bringing more owners into the sport.

“We need to attract more gamblers as a way to attract new owners,” he said. “That’s how I became an owner.”

Axelrod also noted the trends of increasing purses and smaller fields and explained that while these trends allow racing participants to race for more money, the sport is losing bettors due to the lack of value in mutuel payouts.

He urged directors to be leaders, to encourage tracks in their districts to put on a better show, and to find out what their customers want.

USTA Executive Vice President and CEO Mike Tanner yielded most of his time to USTA Vice Chairman Don Marean from District 9, who gave a detailed account of how he worked in his role as a legislator to defeat legislation that would have revised the law to divert significant funds away from the harness racing industry in Maine.

Subcommittee reports were given by directors Steve McCoy (Board Protocol), Joe Faraldo (Harness Racing Medication Collaborative), Mark Loewe (Call to Action) and Gabe Wand (Youth Leadership Development).

David Reid, president of the Standardbred Transition Alliance (STA), gave an informative presentation on the mission, goals and next steps for the independent 501c(3) organization, which is designed to raise and disburse funds to approved, accredited Standardbred aftercare organiza-tions.

Five new directors were welcomed to the board: Casey Leonard (District 5), Chris Antonacci (District 6), Tom Leasure (District 7), Robert “Cammie” Haughton (District 8A) and Lenny Calde-rone (District 9).

With all running unopposed, the currently serving USTA officers were re-elected to new terms.

Looking Ahead
The annual meeting concluded March 11 with approval of the 2019 budget that includes funding for the STA, two bylaw changes regarding board governance, and approval of new rules as rec-ommended by the Rules Committee.

Prior to the second general session, the Finance Committee approved the 2019 budget, which projects a surplus of about $500,000 over projected expenses, and it was passed by the full board.
The board approved $75,000 in seed money for the STA.

“The USTA Executive Committee discussed such funding at its meeting in November and had requested from the STA a business plan, which was detailed in a presentation to the full board (at Sunday’s general session) by David Reid, the alliance’s president,” said Tanner.

In his closing remarks, Axelrod noted that he had received positive comments about the meeting.
“Several people said this is the best meeting we’ve had in a long time; I agree,” said Axelrod. “There was positive interaction.”

Williams echoed those sentiments, citing former USTA president Corwin Nixon’s standard clos-ing remarks that “this was the best meeting ever.”

“I’ll take responsibility for continuing the tradition,” said Williams. “This was the best meeting we’ve ever had.”

Williams closed the meeting by announcing that the 2020 annual meeting will be held in the same location, the Hilton Columbus, March 13-16. HB

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