In an effort to secure a nearly-half-billion-dollar bond package from the state to rebuild Belmont Park – a debt that would be repaid with already-existing subsidies – the New York Racing Association (NYRA) has launched a new PR campaign, complete with a glossy power point. Amid a swarm of impressive numbers – the usual suspects: jobs, tax revenue, economic activity – that are all sourceless projections, is this laughable promise under the heading “Diversified Audiences”:
“New programming, modern concessions and facilities, and enhanced transit accessibility will attract a younger, more diverse generation of race-goers.”
To quote a colleague here in NY, “If you rebuild it, they still won’t come.” Saratoga excepted, attendance at NYS Thoroughbred tracks has been in steep, steady decline for decades. (Obviously, what applies to the flats goes in spades for harness.) According to official data from the NYS Gaming Commission, the attendance figures at the three other state tracks in 1978 were as follows:
Finger Lakes: 651,853
Finger Lakes (this is for 2018, as, surprise, FL no longer reports attendance): 111,318
The change in 40 years:
Aqueduct: down 94%
Belmont: down 87%
Finger Lakes: down 83%
On second thought, perhaps “steep and steady” doesn’t quite capture it. Furthermore, in a 2021 Marist Poll, when asked, “In a typical year, how often do you visit any of the racetracks in NYS for the purpose of betting on horse races held within the state,” 91% of NY adults said “never”; 5% said “once”; 1% said “twice”; and only 3% said “more than two times in a typical year.” Again, only 3% of New Yorkers visit a track more than twice a year, and it’s not for lack of opportunities: NY has about 1,200 racedays/year.
There are two primary reasons for the above: First, there is far more competition today: expanded lottery, casinos, and now, mobile sports-betting (MSB) – that’s betting on real sports played by autonomous human beings. On that, in its first year of existence (Jan ’22-Jan ’23), MSB generated over $16 billion in handle, dwarfing the $2.3 billion recently reported, and celebrated, by NYRA. Crucially, however, the MSB companies (FanDuel, DraftKings, et al.) pay 51% tax on wagers; in 2019, the last pre-covid year for which we have data, horseracing paid a microscopic 1.3%. So, this past year, MSB sent $709 million in handle tax to the state; horseracing (that’s all 11 tracks) sends in roughly $10 million a year. But, of course, it’s far worse, with Racing receiving $230M in subsidies – an annual net drain on NYS of $220 million. Insane.
But just as important, sensibilities regarding animal exploitation are simply different – more evolved – today, most especially among the younger generations. Why, they ask, should we bet on fully sentient beings who are being whipped to run and who often die in the process when we can just as easily – and more to the point, harmlessly – bet on basketball or visit a casino? So dream all you want, NYRA. Those fans aren’t coming back, no matter how many millions – in, I remind, taxpayer money – you sink in the place. You’ve lost that battle. Now, about that welfare spigot.