SBJ/December 17 - 23, 2001/Opinion

Veeck’s stunts may be worth a wager

In search of ways to reverse an eons-long attendance decline, the horse-racing people the other day turned to Mike Veeck for advice. He made them laugh some, which always is good, and gave them ideas that might entice a few more customers.

Longer-term solutions, however, remain elusive.

I say that sadly, because I like going to the races. It's the one sport the spectator truly participates in by backing, with cash, the objects of his or her affections. Sure, people bet on other sports, like football and basketball, but those games would continue if there were no gambling on them. Without the betting, the horses, trainers, jockeys, ticket takers and everyone else involved in the enterprise would have to pack up and go home.

Picking winners at the track is a challenging task, requiring something akin to scholarship. Therein lies the rub, because scholarship-as-recreation has been out of fashion for some time. What people want these days is action, and you can pull a slot-machine handle five times in the 75 seconds or so it takes to run the typical horse race, not to mention the 20 or 30 minutes between races. Plus, you don't have to prepare for your pull by poring over a page of small-print numbers in the Daily Racing Form.

Nonetheless, Veeck went ahead with his speech, even though his Tucson, Ariz., forum, the University of Arizona's annual Symposium on Racing, reinforced the sport's unfortunate academic association.

He qualified to be heard partly by reason of birth, because his father, Bill Veeck, was the fellow who, as the owner of the woebegone St. Louis Browns, sent a midget to the plate in a Major League Baseball game. Mike has proved to be a chip off the old block as president of a company that has improved the box-office performance of the seven minor league baseball teams it owns.

Veeck gave the assembled race trackers such common-sense tips as picking up cigarette butts on their premises and listening respectfully to customer complaints. Mostly, though, he told them that folks just wanna have fun and will flock through the gates of any attraction that provides it.

"People go out for a good time, and it doesn't really matter how," he averred. "Never underestimate the power of laughter."

He went on to say that a connection with the sport at hand isn't necessary for the fun to proceed. Neither is an aversion to silliness, as witnessed by the "Chia Pet Demolition Night" promotion he cited approvingly. Most of his other examples showed that good taste is no asset in the good-times trade. For instance, he said that a mini-bat giveaway featuring Tonya Harding sold lots of tickets for one of his baseball clubs, as did having a man wearing a dress drag the infield for another ("drag queen," get it?).

Even events that don't come off can be successful if they get enough publicity, he said. "Once, we announced we'd raffle off a free vasectomy during a Father's Day game. We canceled it after religious groups objected, but it still made newspapers all over the country. One headline read 'Promotion Snipped.'"

It all sounded great until one recalled that none of Veeck's stunts would improve the bettor's ability to show a profit for the day, the one thing that makes a person eager to return to a horse track. Just one come-on that he noted almost in passing — a pregame story hour for kids that one of his teams had offered — addressed that point.

It'll take nothing less than an increase in literacy to get the line on racing's attendance graph to move up again.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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