The New York Racing Association claimed that the attendance for the 2014 Saratoga meet was 174,422 greater than it actually was. This discrepancy is based on a comparison of NYRA’s announced attendance with the turnstile counts.
For 2014, NYRA promoted season passes in conjunction with a local retailer. It sold 6,373 such passes when they announced the $50 clubhouse pass was sold out, and they would stop selling the $30 grandstand pass in 10 days.
After the meet began with actual attendance figures similar to those for the 2013 meet, it started adding the number of unused passes to the turnstile count on the seventh day of the meet. On the preceding two days (Wednesday and Thursday of the first full week), attendance was below the comparable days in 2013. With their new way of counting, NYRA announced Friday attendance of 22,425, even though only 17,506 actually showed up.
By comparing the actual turnstile counts with NYRA’s announced attendance, we come to that figure of 174,422. The day-to-day comparisons are staggering. On August 13, NYRA had to add in 6,258 unused passes so they would not have to announce actual attendance of 8,989 – a number that is not even the worst one for last year. That was the only day to break the 6,000 barrier, but on many other days the unused passes added to the attendance was in the high 5’s.
When Paul Post of The Saratogian caught on to NYRA’s duplicity, spokesperson John Durso offered the following explanation: “This policy is not new and was in place last year. It is also the same policy used by professional sports such as Major League Baseball and the NFL.” Of course, neither part of that statement is true. It was not even the policy in place for the first six days of the meet when reported attendance and the turnstile counts were identical. And if you think the last part is true, go to Fenway Park or Giants Stadium and ask for the low-cost season pass that gives you admission to every game. Be sure to not pay more than the 75 cents per day that the grandstand pass at Saratoga costs.
NYRA has also attempted to explain the padding of attendance by comparing figures from prior years when the turnstile accounts on the “giveaway” days was inflated by counting spinners – those who paid additional admissions to acquire more of the free stuff such as hats or umbrellas that the track was passing out. The decision by NYRA to stop that practice was commendable. But they are using that straw man – presumably constructed from the product of mucked all stalls – to justify both their new practice, or, as CEO Chris Kay is now saying, attendance is not important.
It is simple enough to compare the attendance on non-giveaway days as a way of measuring changes year-to-year. And this year, with a consistent policy on counting the attendance on the giveaway days, one can measure this year’s attendance with that of last year. NYRA, however, has stopped releasing attendance figures.
NYRA thought attendance was an important metric at the conclusion of the 2014 Belmont meet when they touted the increase over the figure from 2013. Kay, however, has come up with a much more reliable indicator of the health of the racing industry – at least in Saratoga. That would be the increase in hotel room tax receipts.
If he had not actually said this in a piece published in The Saratogian, folks might think I was now the racing reporter for The Onion. The NYRA CEO cites a report by the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency for his data and, of course, attributes the increase to his leadership at NYRA. He neglects to mention, however, that one reason for the increase in the tax receipts is that average room rates increased by ten per cent from 2012 to 2014. Kay also cites the construction of new hotel rooms as a further indicator of his success, as if sensible business people will build a hotel for an increased demand for less than two months of the year.
If attendance figures are not really important, then why not publish the real numbers? If they are important, of course, it is imperative that the actual numbers be announced. What is not acceptable is propagating a falsehood that continues to undermine the credibility of New York racing. There is much positive about the state of racing in New York, including the increasingly impressive figures for the New York-bred breeding program. We can hope that, at some point, NYRA’s leadership realizes that their endless self-promotion at the expense of credibility works neither to their advantage nor that of New York racing.
UPDATE: I missed a day in my calculations. The inflated attendance is 179.345.