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Sunday, August 03, 2014

NYRA's Padding of Attendance Figures is Surely "Consistent." But, "Accurate??"

I had heard from more than just a couple of seasoned Saratoga horseplayers that they were skeptical of the announced crowds there this season.  So, the front page headline news in the Saratogian that NYRA is padding the figures - while still a surprise just for its sheer audacity and scale - is hardly a shock.

The New York Racing Association counts its more than 6,370 season pass holders in its paid attendance each day at Saratoga Race Course, regardless of whether those pass holders actually show up. [Saratogian
The Troy Record's Nick Kling figured on Twitter that, based on an assumption that a season pass holder is likely to average around ten visits a meet, "total reported attendance for meet will need to be reduced by about 4700/day or 188,000 for entire 40 days to reflect an accurate picture." Even if Nick is underestimating the average amount of visits, the announced figures are surely exaggerated to a sufficient degree to affect year-to-year comparisons that generally only vary by a few points at most.

NYRA's Director of Communications and Media Relations John Durso Jr., responding via email to Saratogian reporter Paul Post, responded:
“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.”
“Our paid attendance figures are consistent, accurate and — as opposed to the past where spinners were counted in attendance figures — fully transparent.”
Yeah, this guy Durso, formerly the Senior Director and Chief Spokesperson for NJ Transit, is a piece of work.  We discussed his Super experience for this job in this post; wherein we also showed how he tried to fool us into thinking he knew something about racing by telling us that he was a "a longtime Capital District resident who spent numerous summers at Saratoga" (without specifying whether he was ever at the track; chances are he was probably just hanging out at The Rafters).

Where do we start with his disingenuous response to this article?  The policy may have indeed been in place last year, but the season passes were only 1,402 as opposed to this year's figure.  (Though that still raises questions as to when exactly this method of counting came to be, and how much it has distorted the already declining crowd figures from over the years.)  Pro sports teams do count season tickets whether people show up or not.  But that is a bogus comparison.  Those are "tickets sold" numbers; the fans have already paid the full price of the ticket for the game so it's perfectly fair that they are counted.  A $50 clubhouse pass is around 15% of the cost of individual admissions.

By referring to the new policy of not counting spinners, Durso changes the topic to something completely unrelated in order to obfuscate the accusation, a common tactic of PR.  However - while they are surely being "consistent" by adding on 6,370 people every day - by claiming that the method is "accurate," he injects an interesting approach to the art of public relations - an absolute and outright falsehood.  You can spin this thing a thousand different ways and it will never come out as "accurate."  You want to be accurate?  Tell us how many people come in through the turnstile whether they pay or present a pass.  Period.  And the idea that NYRA is being "transparent" is also a joke, and an insult to our intelligence.  It was only due to Paul Post's reporting that we know of this policy - I'm assuming that NYRA was otherwise not going to let us in on the secret.  What's more, the attendance figures are, for the first time in my memory, not included in the Equibase result charts because, I can only assume, they are not provided in time for publication.  I wouldn't think that it takes that much time to add 6,370 to the turnstile count. [UPDATE: I see that they've now been added to the charts.]

This revelation may also shed more light on NYRA's decision to abruptly pull the plug on pass sales, declaring them "sold out."  The padding had already led some to grow suspicious of the attendance figures.  Had the sales continued, and continued to grow, they could very well have reached the point when, on certain slow days, the number of phantom attendees would exceed the number of those actually there!

Of course, handle figures, total and per capita, are the money shot - the bottom line of how on-track business is faring.  But inflating the attendance figures in this way also skews the per capita, and this represents a contradiction of NYRA's citing of the negative skewing of those numbers as one of the stated reasons why they changed their policy on spinners.  Besides, as we've seen, handle numbers can be manipulated too.  I'm not at all suggesting that NYRA is currently, or has any intentions of, doing so. However, when you deceive the public in one area, it is never unfair for someone to suspect that you're being dishonest in others as well.

 - I wrote about the weak edition of the Whitney, and more about Saturday's card, on the TimeformUS blog here.


jk said...

We need to hear from the multiple entities overseeing NYRA including the NYRA Board, the Franchise Oversight Board, the NYS Gaming Commission and the NYS Controller.

Is part of the CEO's bonus based on attendance?

Very weak performance by NYRA management and the regulators.

Figless said...

JK excellent points all around, the oversight committees need to dig into this.

And great job by Nick Kling, I have more confidence that he will keep digging.

I defend New NYRA as much by anyone but this really rubs me the wrong way.

IF OLD NYRA did this it would be considered scandalous.

While OLD NYRA did pad the attendance figs by including season passes, they didn't decrease the cost of a season to ridiculous levels to create a run on those passes, fully knowing they would be skewing attendance.

Where there is smoke there is fire and as JK implies it is fair to wonder if attendance factors into bonus calculations.

IF so we have the first full fledged scandal of the NEW NYRA era.

Figless said...

Pardon me for commenting about TFUSA at this site, but after a shaky beginning when he seemed to be picking the same horse as Serling every race, Mike Beer has done a great job at NYRA.

The TFSUSA race analysis is a must read even if you do your own handicapping (as you should), it serves as a terrific fact check.

Nick Kling said...


Thanks for the compliment, but Paul Post of the Saratogian did the work. He deserves the credit.

Unknown said...

We actually like to think that it was Serling who was picking the same horses as Mike! :-)

SaratogaSpa said...

If NYRA insists on counting the paid passes every day, how about 2 attendance figures announced each racing day, the Paid admissions included paid passes and the actual amount of total folks who showed up. (I believe the MLB used to do this 2 figure reporting for awhile)

El Angelo said...

The comparison to the NFL and MLB is completely wrong. The correct comparison would be to say that all of the reserved seats that were purchased count, no matter whether or not those people show up. And I actually wouldn't have a problem with that position *if* they could figure out how to not double-count people who buy seats, which I think is impossible.

I think we're seeing that the 40-day meet is in fact too much Saratoga.

jk said...

>I think we're seeing that the 40-day meet is in fact too much Saratoga

Attendance is in decline and managements response was to raise admission prices. Econ 101 fail.

Purses are thru the roof and attendance is thru the floor. A wake up call perhaps?

El Angelo said...

It depends how much stock they put in attendance. I would think the numbers that really matter are handle, but if that's the case, then why are they inflating the attendance? I suppose Saratoga is the one track that attendance does actually matter to the bottom line because the people there actually spend money on concessions, etc.

Personally, I would just cut all the Wednesday cards. You'd shed about 55 races a meet in total that nobody would miss.

NYBredfilly96 said...

Yes agreed El Angelo you can't compare to the MLB, NFL, NBA or any type of professional sporting event that does not have general admission. If a specific ticket for specific event is a no show then yes that still counts. It's all a game to make it seem that people are actually going to (and staying for) the races. The past few years with the extended with the extended meet and extended number of races each day is actually driving down attendees...I used to work for NYRA and saw it for myself.. by the last race tumbleweeds would be going by.

Anonymous said...

NYRA's Saratoga attendance has always been an interesting topic. Mostly because the inexperienced racing executives doesn't understand admissions. "Spinning" occurs at the turnstiles during every giveaway and is included in the daily attendance. The more desirable the item, the more an individual is enticed to pay for multiple entries or "spinning". Also, children who are admitted "free" and not included in the daily attendance on non-giveaway days regularly pay on give-away days and become part of the daily attendance. "Multi-purchase" sales locations are used to reduce the lines at the turnstiles, making it more convenient for ingress into the facility for all. The "multi-purchase" sales are included in the attendance because the "spin" still occurs just at a different location. If you make it more difficult to buy multi-purchase coupons, you just move the "spinning" back to the turnstiles. BTW, through the end of the 2013 racing season, the daily attendance included only the seasonal passes / badges USED for entry that day and NOT the total number of seasonal passes sold for the entire meeting. There is a lot of smoke here.

Teresa said...

Anonymous 1:48: Multiple giveaway purchases are not included in admission this year. The only spinners included are those that actually go through the turnstile multiple times.

Anonymous said...

While it is reported that the season pass figures are added to the daily paid attendance figure, I do not believe it has been emphasized that they are not counting those with owners/horseman licenses.

My guess would be that the total attendance this past Saturday far exceeded the 36,000 announced paid attendance figure.

Chris Kay indicated a revamping of the seating sales next year. I assume the price of the seat will include admission therefore the paid admission figure will be accurately reflected.

Of course all of this could be avoided if they just counted the actual attendance as Doc Fonda suggested.

Anonymous said...

Yes, NOT including the "Multiple-Purchase" sales in the daily attendance was an announced change from last year. Including the full sale of seasonal passes in the attendance is a NEW policy. Horsemen and anyone else with a badge / credential / pin / pass / etc... who enters during the admission hours ARE included in the daily attendance (the vast majority of horsemen are counted).

Figless said...

Wouldn't "Admission Revenue" be the most reliable measure? But the NYRA CFO wouldn't know what that is since its not included on the Equibase Charts that she kept referring to at the meeting.