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The Roar of the Crowd

The View

There’s one thing that all of the top sporting events in the world have in common, regardless of the sport and regardless of where it takes place, and that is a large, and usually very loud, crowd of fans in attendance. 2020/21 has changed that.

Crowds will return however - the survival of sports depends on them, right? Some people believe that thanks to the Internet, with live streaming and online wagering options, that Standardbred racing doesn’t necessarily need crowds on-site any longer. Handles were excel-lent during COVID, right? Fans weren’t allowed to attend then! People who believe that couldn’t be more wrong.

In my experience, in most cases of live sports, the crowd makes the event memorable just as much, if not more, than the product does. And the key to a memorable experience at a sporting event is that it brings the customer back again, and hopefully again and again. The very future of each sport depends on it.

Watching sports on TV the past year, with no one or very few in the crowd, does nothing but confirm this to me. For the most part, it’s been awful. No roars at Augusta, no fight songs after touchdowns - it just isn’t the same.

For years now I’ve been calling the NHL the ‘No Hitting League’. To me, the on-ice product is often quite boring compared to years ago. The talent level is high, but for a contact sport there’s very little hitting left in the game, and fighting is almost a thing of the past. Whether you approve of fighting in hockey or not though, one cannot deny that when attending a game, a fight is the only thing that ignites the crowd more than a goal. But even when the product is lacking, it’s the crowd - the sights, the sounds and the electricity it brings - that usually makes the live experience enjoyable nonetheless. Watching on TV without a crowd present has often been like watching paint dry. But even though I’m not crazy about the product, would I attend an NHL game in-person again? Yes! It’s the experience of the event.

I’ve half-jokingly called the NFL the ‘No Fun League’ the past few years. When playing the sport you’re taught that special teams are one-third of the game (along with offense and defense), but with the fair-catch rule that makes punt returns rare in the NFL, and kickoffs moved up so far that balls are often just booted right through the end zone, special teams - where a lot of excitement used to come from - have al-most been dumbed down to a footnote. But if you’ve ever been to an NFL game, and I have, between the tail-gaiting, the walk to the stadium, and the crowd noise (and often the post-game tail-gating) the game itself, boring or not, often becomes inconsequential to the experience. Most NFL games I’ve been to have been bad ones on the field of play - the experience nonetheless has always been awesome. Would I go back? Yes!

Standardbred horse racing is a spectator sport - period. I understand and acknowledge that our ability to stream our product worldwide in HD, and make it available to be bet on, is imperative. The exposure and recognition, not to mention the handle that this brings us is cru-cial to moving forward as a 21st century entertainment and wagering option. But if we let this technology make the importance of the in-person experience take a back seat, we’ll all pay for it forever.

Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to attend many prominent sporting events. I sat in the Sydney Olympic Stadium as one of 120,000 fans for seven nights of Track & Field during the 2000 Summer Olympics; I’ve been one of 145,000 people at the Kentucky Derby; I’ve been to the Breeders Cup at Woodbine, multiple Little Brown Jugs, and Toronto Blue Jays playoff games. Every single one of these were made memo-rable by the atmosphere of the crowd. Sometimes the product lived up to the billing and sometimes it didn’t, but the electricity of the crowd never let me down.

Even after attending all those however, the one event I’ve attended that I would call the most memorable and enjoyable, was a basically meaningless Premier League soccer match that I went to with my son and my niece a few years back. Sunderland vs. Southampton at the Stadium of Light in England, with a paltry 39,613 in attendance was something I will never forget. I’m not even a real ‘soccer guy’ and I don’t recall a lot about the match itself, but the pure energy of that crowd sent tingles down my spine for over two hours that day, and I would go back to a Premier League match, and pay good money to do so, any day of the week.

Our grandstands will sit empty for a while longer, until this pandemic is under control, but when we are allowed back I believe that we all, tracks, horsepeople and associations alike, have to make it our goal to get crowds back to the track. I’m as guilty as anyone, watching Mohawk races nightly from the comfort of my home when I live just 15 minutes away, but if we don’t attend our tracks, why would anyone else? And if people do go, and there’s nobody there, and therefore no atmosphere, why would they ever go back? The answer to that is an easy one - they won’t.

Dan Fisher
[email protected]

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