Power Cap

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25 September 2010

The Attendance Myth

Attendance or lack of it is an issue that is brought up every once in a while when mentioning the Belmont and Aqueduct meet. It will probably be written about again by Bossert or Fountaine sometime next week after the Jockey Club Gold Cup and about 10,000 fans show up to see this high caliber event. After Belmont's opening weekend the NY Daily News' Jerry Bossert mentioned that about 8,000 fans showed up for opening day and 50,000 showed up for the final Sunday at Saratoga, which was a give away day. He bemoaned the fact that there was a lack of people showing up at Belmont compared to an inflated figure from one day at Saratoga. Using Saratoga's attendance figures as a measuring stick is fair, using a figure from a day they were giving something away is absurd. People show up in droves to with shopping carts to buy up whatever NYRA is giving out and leave before the first race starts, it is a nonsense figure. The other point is that Saratoga is upstate and there is less to do up there than downstate, also their meet has a majority of their dates in August and that is a big vacation month so of course there will be more interest in that meet from the weekend warriors and others who can't show up on a daily basis.

Attendance as a measure of how racing is doing is an archaic way of measuring the health of racing, overall handle is a better way to determine how business is going. There are more ways to legally place a bet now than thirty years ago, back in the early 80's in New York City the only two ways to place a bet were get out to the track or go to a brick and mortar OTB location. Now you have phone accounts and Internet wagering to accompany to the brick and mortar locations. Other than the regular daily crowd, people can't make it out to the track because they have work.

Speaking from personal experience, getting out to Belmont and Aqueduct during the weekend by mass transit or car is not a fun experience. It used to be easier to get out to Belmont until the LIRR canceled service to that branch, now you have to take the F train to the last stop (179th st Jamaica) and wait for the Q2 or an overcrowded N6. Aqueduct has two wonderful options to get out there, take the correct A train (there are two of them) through Brooklyn on the weekend when service is drastically cut back or wait at a bus stop in the middle of the winter for upwards of thirty minutes. Getting out to Aqueduct by car is not a good alternative to the MTA either, being near JFK airport makes the traffic worse than it should be and the Interboro Expressway is a traffic jammed nightmare that links up to the pothole laden Van Wyck Expressway. Belmont has the Cross Island Parkway, which is a trafic tangled nightmare after the last race.

Saratoga posted a decline this year and the NYRA executives were happy because they didn't lose as much as they thought they would. When one loses money it is not something to gloat about, you don't see someone leave a casino table game after losing with a smile on their face very often and if they do it probably is due to the fact they are inebriated. Saratoga used to be a meet that showcased the best of racing, in recent years due to added dates the meet has resembled Belmont or Aqueduct north. They had more maiden claiming and basement level claiming races during this meet than any other Saratoga meet in recent years. When you give the public bad races this is what you get, Aqueduct usually is last out of three with daily average handle because of this.

If NYRA really wanted to improve attendance they would be aggressive and promote how they have the cheapest attendance out of all professional sports teams in the area. I'm pretty sure the New York Racing Association has not run an ad on network television since 1998, I have it on tape somewhere. Millions upon millions are bet into New York racing every week even though the cumulative total of people showing at Belmont is somewhere in the 20,000 region. Complaints about people not showing up to the plant are minor in comparison to the fact that a decline in handle is a much more significant sign.


MH said...

It's the same with Del Mar. They're both vacation tracks and social destinations. Handle as you mentioned is a better measure. It's kind of funny that Del Mar gets huge attendance, but a lot of the people there don't bet a cent, and handle has been declining as attendance rises.

NJDerek said...

NYRA should eliminate paying for admission. Casinos don't charge $3 just to walk through the door. In a market where ticket prices to see every other professional sports franchises are insanely high, NYRA could leverage and promote free admission to draw more fans.

I'm no expert, but I have to believe the added number of fans who come to the track and pump money into the handle would offset the income lost from gate admission.

Jason said...

If they lowered made admission free and provided cheaper (reasonable) concession prices...more people would go for the day. The fact of the matter is that they charge Yankee Stadium prices for their food.

Anonymous said...

It's not the prices. It's not the traffic. Fact is, horse racing just isn't relevant for the New York sports fan except for Belmont Stakes Day, and that is largely affected by the chance at a Triple Crown. It's a problem that feeds on itself as the occasional fan lured to the place for the day has to be turned off by the fact that 40,000 people in Belmont still feels like nobody is there. And when your core audience is spread across OTBs and home computers, it contributes to the sparse feeling at the track itself.

You could have a nice picnic in the backyard, but there are dozens of places to have a nice picnic for free. Making admission free isn't going to make picnickers come to the track in droves, either.

New York fans need a reason to go (Big Event) and they will put up with high prices, but Belmont and Aqueduct - outside of Belmont Day or the Breeders' Cup - can't deliver the Big Event. The Wood Memorial and the Jockey Club Gold Cup just aren't relevant alongside NCAA basketball season or NFL football and baseball pennant chases.

So fretting over attendance is indeed overblown, but the low turnout does portend bad things. Namely, the fact that horse racing in the biggest market in the country at the most important racing organization in the country isn't capable of reaching the sports fan most days of the year.