Admission to the Saratoga Race Course will cost more next summer if the New York Racing Association board approves a proposed 2014 budget at its meeting in New York City today.
The proposed budget calls for a number of changes next year that would increase revenues or cut costs at NYRA, which has faced criticism for its over reliance on video lottery terminal revenue to cover operating deficits. Chief among them is a plan to increase the cost of general admission at Saratoga and Belmont Park from $3 to $5 and clubhouse admission from $5 to $8. Admission to Aqueduct Racetrack would remain free.
NYRA spokesman Eric Wing said the last time admission fees were increased was 2005.
“We’re hopeful that people will still find Saratoga to be very good value for the entertainment dollar,” he said. “If the increases do take effect, it will only bring Saratoga and Belmont even with what other top race tracks charge.”
NYRA, which is facing a $10.5 million loss from racing operations this year, is projecting an operating profit of $250,000 next year, exclusive of VLT operating funds.
It also has other plans to increase revenues, such as higher fees for parking and NYRA’s simulcast signal.
Plans to reduce operating expenses include closing Aqueduct’s training center during non-racing months, reducing legal expenses and costs related to NYRA’s phone wagering operation, reducing overall labor expenses and improving efficiency throughout the organization.
A hike in admission could have a negative impact on track attendance, though, at a time when attendance is already on the decline, said Patrick Connors, chairman of the New York State Racing Fan Advisory Council, a group formed two years ago to come up with ideas to enhance the “total racing experience” for fans.
“It’s concerning that prices could go up and cause attendance to further decline,” Connors said.
Wing said that even with the proposed admission hike, the admission fee is still less than what fans would pay for entry to other sporting venues and would simply bring Saratoga and Belmont more in line with the entry prices of other tracks across the country. For instance, Del Mar in California charges $6 for general admission and $10 for clubhouse admission.
“We think fans will still find a day at Saratoga or Belmont a good value for the money,” Wing said.
The price may not deter fans, said Connors, if they feel it’s paying for a better day at the races and not just closing a budget gap.
“The fans want to feel like they’re appreciated,” he said. “If there are steps taken, in addition to the hike, to make the regular fans feel appreciated in the way that, let’s say, a loyal customer to a casino feels appreciated, I think it would go a long way. Just a price increase alone doesn’t demonstrate any commitment to the fan.”
In 2014, NYRA plans to invest $23.2 million in capital improvements that would enhance the customer experience, upgrade conditions within the barn area and increase its operational efficiency.
At Saratoga, NYRA has budgeted $4.17 million for patron-area improvements, $1.81 million for barn-area construction and upgrades, $800,000 for track and infield upgrades, $575,000 for other front-side improvements and $175,000 for group sales and dining. Some of these improvements include the permanent installation of video walls, replacing the outdated tube-style televisions with new HD flat-screen models, overhauling the sound system to improve the public address system and installing new dispensers and fixtures in the bathrooms.
“As we look forward to NYRA’s future, we intend to operate our business more efficiently and effectively,” reads an executive summary of the 2014 Operating and Capital Budget on NYRA’s website. “We intend to use VLT operating monies to invest in revenue-generating initiatives rather than using those funds to pay for operating deficits. For 2014, we will examine each area of business, have a disciplined focus on cost reduction and proactively manage our allocation of revenue, aligned with the commitment to generate a fiscally viable foundation.”