You’re getting ready for the day at Saratoga. You have your cooler packed with some beers, maybe a sandwich and a soda or two. Now, you head up the Northway for some fun and hopefully, a big winner or two. You get to the gate, pay your $3 admission and go look for a place to plant for the next few hours. That $3 gets you into the grounds. For another $5, you can buy a seat in the clubhouse, or for $2, you can enter the clubhouse and walk around.
Last week, NYRA announced that they are considering price increases for the 2014 season at both Saratoga and Belmont. General admission would rise from $3 to $5 and clubhouse would go from $5 to $8. Is that really a big deal? The answer: YES.
The cost of attending sporting events continues to rise, but obviously, we haven’t reached the tipping point because at most venues, the seats are full. But, how much longer can this last? For no particular reason, I looked into the cost of tickets for the Capital One Bowl, a college football game on New Year’s Day in Orlando between Wisconsin and South Carolina. They were priced at $77, which doesn’t seem outrageous, but when you include parking, food, and drinks, the cost adds up quickly.
There is a difference between a college bowl game and horse racing. Once in the stadium, your costs can be minimized; at the race track, they increase. At the track, 99 percent of those there are going to wager something on at least a race or two if not the entire card. For that, you need a program or the Daily Racing Form, which is about $8. At Saratoga, the percentage is lower because of the old college crew that’s really there to drink and flirt with others. The 2,624 at Belmont on a dreary Thursday in May; they’re there to bet. So, between gas, parking, the form, you’re up to $20 to $25 just to get into the Spa. And, even if you bet just $2 on each race (say 11 races), that’s another $22. If you buy one beer there, it’s another $7 and so on and so forth. In sum, it adds up and adds up quickly.
Part of Saratoga’s charm is that for $3, you could enter and walk the hallowed grounds, and for that price, the folks at NYRA are betting that you would make more than one trip to the track because it was so much fun that you couldn’t stay away. Horse racing is different than going to a Yankees game. The persons who attend Yankee games are for the most part, Yankee fans. They want to see their Yankees win, and because they’re fans, they’ll make the pilgrimage and shell out mortgage like costs to get there. They have a real vested interest in being there. If Jeter homers, they’ll remember that. If you bet Frosty to win race five and he does and pays $75.00, you’ll remember the payoff, but never the horse.
Horse racing doesn’t have a lot of diehard fans. Look at the attendance figures at Aqueduct. On their best day, they’ll get 8,000 fans at the track. The Wood Memorial is the Big A’s signature race, contested on the second Saturday each April. Many of the runners there will be in the Kentucky Derby a few weeks later. Last year, Wood Memorial day drew less than 8,000 people. The point is, the racing is not really the draw, the experience is. Aqueduct is a racing fan’s track plain and simple. Belmont is a little bit of both. It’s great for the racing fan, but has enough charm and prestige to lure the casual fan.
Saratoga is Saratoga. It’s in a small collegiate type town. It sits on the main road where traffic has to be halted for horses to cross the street. It’s a place where alumni gather for a day, or old high school friends, many home for summer break meet to hang out. It’s a place where Mom and Dad can bring their two or three kids and not break the bank while providing something fun and tradition laden as well.
This is a tough country, a perplexing country. This is a country where people will pay $5 or more for a cup of coffee rather than make it at home or buy the 99 cent cup that is available on the road. But, for some reason, asking for another $2 to $5 will sting and will draw complaints. For some things, Americans don’t blink at, ala the coffee, but for others, it will rankle their ire. I believe that this will indeed rankle the ire of the patrons. They see 20,000 people at the track and they’re thinking is that NYRA is doing well. They also know that as soon as the price increase becomes official (March), it would surprise no one if the CEO received a pay increase or that some new executive is hired at a six figure salary. A price increase with some layoffs or salary reductions would sit better, but that’s not going to happen.
Attendance is also down at the track, so why increase the admission costs when you’re having trouble drawing more people in the first place? And, if NYRA is thinking that increasing the meet from its current 40 days is good idea, please think again.
The KISS theory (Keep it Simple Stupid) should be at work here. Some tracks offer free admission, the Spa $3. Keep it at three and keep your existing fan base happy, that fan base that goes at least once per year. In fact, find out who these people are and contact them, thanking them for their continued support of the Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct meets. The fan base, as statistics show, is dwindling, why run the risk of it dwindling more? And, we know that there will be those who say, “I’m done with the track, I’m not paying $5 to get in.” With a dwindling fan base, you can’t afford to lose one person and this price increase will do that, even slightly, but it will happen.
NYRA was smart though. They said that the potential price increase is just a recommendation and they will survey many before voting on this in March. That’s a wise move as it gives them time to think it over and ultimately, decide that the price increase is not the right thing to do.
Besides, the $3 that someone saves might help them hit a trifecta in race three on the first Wednesday of the Saratoga meet.