New York Racing’s Fan Advisory Council

Last summer, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board announced the formation of a Fan Advisory Council to “provide input and advice to the Board on horse racing and wagering matters in New York state” (sic). According to its website, the Council will examine the “total racing experience” and report its findings to the board.

The Council currently comprises four members–chair Patrick Connors, Michael Amo, Allan Carter, and M. Kelly Young (bios here)—and held an open meeting on Saturday at Aqueduct. The two-hour agenda included a presentation by the New York Racing Association, an extended Q&A, and a tour of Aqueduct.

The Council’s mission, according to Connors, is to promote the sport of horse racing in the state and to improve the fan experience, the “big reason,” he said, for Saturday’s meeting.  “We want to hear from fans about what can be done to improve their experience at this track and others in the state, both Thoroughbred and harness,” he declared.

The New York Racing Association was well-represented; president Charlie Hayward and COO Ellen McClain sat on the panel, while at least a dozen—one observer put the number at 20–other NYRA employees attended. Also present were representatives from the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and several media members; a conservative estimate of the ratio of industry reps to fans is about 5-1.

The NYRA presentation by Hayward and McClain included an overview of the history and mission of the organization; its television programming and social media initiatives; and its plans for its share of the revenue from the Genting casino. Plans for Aqueduct in the near-term include construction of a “21st century sports betting facility” called Longshots and wireless internet access throughout the racing side of the building. The target audience for Longshots, said McClain, is “serious bettors.” Both initiatives are scheduled to be operational when racing returns to Aqueduct next November.  Hayward also said that wireless access should be available throughout Saratoga this summer and at Belmont this year.

McClain and Hayward both spoke at length about Racequest, available at home and at on-track terminals and designed to introduce people new to the game to the elements of handicapping. According to Hayward, it helps people conceptualize handicapping and learn what can help to determine the outcome of a race, such as surface preferences, trainer stats, pace, etc.  Said McClain, “Its appeal is to new racing fans, to take the mystery out of handicapping, and it’s targeted to the new bettor.”

Connors introduced several topics for consideration during the Q&A: the experience of getting to and from Aqueduct; signage in and around the casino and the track; and the quality of racing at Aqueduct. He also asked those assemebled what might be done to encourage people to come to Aqueduct.

Perhaps due to the dearth of fans, perhaps due to lack of interest in these particular issues, silence generally greeted Connors’ initial questions. People did eventually speak up, though not, perhaps, in response to the topics introduced, and many of the queries revealed confusion about the relationship between NYRA and Genting, with people exhorting NYRA to make Genting accommodate the racing crowd. Loud and clear: the few racing patrons in attendance said that they want to be able to sit in the casino and watch and bet racing, because it’s a nicer place to hang out than the clubhouse is. According to Connors, representatives of Genting were invited to attend but either declined or were unable to.

[If I might editorialize for a moment: there’s nothing in it for Genting to accommodate the horseplayer. In fact, if I were them, and I were already giving a share of my profits to the racing side, I’d be pretty stubborn about installing Wi-Fi and televisions so that the horseplayers could come over and hang out in my space while betting on their mobile devices and not spending money on my product.

The answer, it seems evident, is for NYRA to create spaces on its side of the fence that are pleasant places to hang out. Equestris is great and more affordable than ever, but not everyone wants a big meal at the track. The Manhattan Terrace is a shadow of its former self, and the Man o’War Room is too small to accommodate everyone.  Longshots, slated for that space, will help, but if we want people to come to Aqueduct, they need a decent place to sit, handicap, watch races, and have a beer. That space currently doesn’t exist, and it’s why people want to head from the monochromatic Kansas of the clubhouse to the Technicolor Oz of the casino.]

Amo spoke at length about an initiative that he considered “top of the plate,” which is a state-wide I Love New York Racing ad campaign, coordinated with racing and breeding operations around the state that would host farm tours to introduce people to racing; McClain referred to the national NBC contract that will also bring more attention to the sport.

The beauty of racing was discussed as a key element in bringing people to the races; virtually every panelist spoke of using the game’s aesthetics to draw people in, and Hayward and McClain indicated that by the summer of 2013, a public area with a viewing stand will be built at East Avenue end of the Oklahoma track…not that drawing people to Saratoga is quite the skullbuster that drawing people to Aqueduct is.

Perhaps because it’s called the Fan Advisory Council and not the Gambler’s Advisory Council, none of the topics put forth for discussion focused on how to increase handle, so I asked how the proposals might turn the casual fan into a bettor that would support racing. Hayward pointed to Racequest as an initiative that can help the novice bettor get involved; a separate discussion hinged on how to support those new to the track as they navigated betting machines, and on how to ensure that bettors don’t get shut out, which has apparently been a concern at both Aqueduct and the Belmont Café.

Throughout the program, Connors repeatedly urged people to e-mail the Council (scroll down for the address) with concerns, questions, and agenda items for discussion and future meetings.

Hayward and McClain expressed their desire and willingness to work with the Council on initiatives to expand racing’s popularity and improve customers’ experiences as its tracks. It’s impossible to tell whether the Council, yet another state-run organization with its eye on racing, will be able to effect any change for the racing fan, but with no shortage of complaints out there about racing’s product and the track experience, I imagine that the Council will have plenty of agenda items for its next meeting. All they need now are for the fans to show up.

[Full disclosure: I was told last summer that my name had been put forward as a possible member of the Council; my connection with NYRA through its ad on this site and the freelancing writing I do for its stakes programs and BelmontStakes.com eliminated me in short order from consideration.]

15 thoughts on “New York Racing’s Fan Advisory Council

  1. Teresa,

    You said, “[If I might editorialize for a moment: there’s nothing in it for Genting to accommodate the horseplayer.”

    If I might editorialize, it would be more correct to say it is your opinion there isn’t anything in it for Genting.

    Many businesses (Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, many Malls) provide wi-fi and other accommodations for the public, some of whom may have no interest whatsoever on the provider’s product. These businesses hope and expect some of the people who take advantage of these amenities will spend money, but they have no certain knowledge that any particular individual will.

    There is no reason for me to believe Genting should be any different. People who come into their space for whatever reason might be inclined to become paying patrons, just as they might buy a latte at Starbucks.

    • I don’t know about where you live, but here, businesses are already taking steps to stop the practices you describe because of the financial implications. Coffee shops and cafes talk about charging a “table fee” to cover the cost of electricity people use to charge their devices; putting hourly minimums on purchases; banning laptops during busy hours; and putting a limit on how long people can occupy a table. The parasitical nature of the behavior has resulted in more a loss of business because paying customers don’t have anywhere to sit–it’s a regular conversation in my neighborhood that people who want to meet a friend for coffee avoid many of these places because of the people using the space as a free office.

  2. Thanks, Teresa, for providing info on the Council’s first public meeting at Aqueduct. I also see the merits in both Nick’s and your comments about Genting’s priorities. I don’t know enough about the details of their relationship to make specific suggestions, but, as a marketer, I can’t believe there isn’t some opportunity for cross-promotion that would be in both NYRA and Genting’s interests to consider. Either way, some racing fans seem to be saying they’re not getting what they’d like from Genting in the way of racing info/access. Indeed, maybe Genting doesn’t need to accommodate them, but I’m sure there’s a way to do it and, in the process, create an incentive for the racing fan to spend money in their venue, as well. By the same token, NYRA clearly is being told their facility doesn’t measure up with respect to fan comfort. That sounds like a pretty straightforward mandate to me for them to explore ways to create spaces that are much more inviting and appealing to fans to spend time there. Aqueduct wasn’t called the “Big A&P” for nothing decades ago after it was rebuilt. That day should have been long gone. It’s clearly time for some decidedly fan-centric initiatives at the facility now, for sure.

  3. I knew you’d get a good writeup about this and you definitely summed it up better than my attempts at a well known racing forum. One thing about Genting, and don’t know if you caught it or not, but Mr. Hayward mentioned that Genting was given an opportunity to run NYCOTB and they turned it down. Simply not interested in racing/not worth their while, who knows, but I found that a telling point.

  4. I have to say the on-track experience at AQU this winter has not been for the better. I just wasn’t prepared to fight these huge crowds that go out for the casino only and I quickly got over they are charging $2 for Parking, but now it’s a huge hassle to drive out there and you have to plan on a 15 minute wait from the time you get in line until the time you park and start to walk to the Clubhouse entrance. It makes me crazy to see the Port Authority parking spaces all roped off during the weekends when they are not being used for JFK people and I have to park beyond that section, closer to the barns than anything else. And once you are in the plant, you can’t even get a drink! I see all the old consession stands shuttered and you end up over at Bar 360 to get something, and then pay a very high price. The bar at Man o War Room was overwhelmed this past Sat with only 2 people serving, and I’m sorry I just don’t like paying +$7 for a 12 oz bottle of Millers Lite. Where is our beloved Paddock Bar w/$3 drafts when we need it! Not to mention I miss all the folks who worked the bars and concession stands out there.

  5. Hi, Teresa.

    A few things: I’m glad to learn of the New York Racing’s Fan Advisory Council, and the opportunity it provides for public comment to NYRA and the state of New York. This is one very needed public relations avenue that we can only benefit from — we, the NYRA. Three cheers to Misters Connors, Amo, Carter and Young!

    I am confused by Hayward and McClain’s indication “a public area with a viewing stand will be built at East Avenue end of the Oklahoma track.” To view what? The morning workouts, or the arriving/departing crowds that normally jam that stretch of Saratoga Springs real estate? Unless I misunderstand, and I probably do, the “on-track experience” is barely enhanced with such an improvement on the wrong side of Union Avenue. Besides, that area constitutes valuable parking space for automobiles.

    As to the Man o’War Room, I didn’t realize it had been reduced in size; had many a great lunch there for many years. I hope Longshots winds up serving that important comfortable-environment purpose NYRA seeks.

    Had no idea New York City businesses were unhappy offering Wi-Fi, but I do understand their position as you describe. By extension I guess Genting could be fairly cautious about its own contrived, electric ambience, but I am disappointed to learn they shied from the grittier Racing experience of NYC-OTB. Perhaps Leslie (above) would agree: As great a marketing arm as OTB provided NYRA in theory, Genting could have grown its local products and world reputation exponentially with a little more investment… Oh well.

    Life is so much simpler in retirement, here in upstate New York….

  6. I believe Genting knows the data that horse players are less likely to play VLTs and therefore any type of osmosis between facilities would more likely take away VLT players and clutter the casino with horse bettors and that is why they are reluctant to accommodate the horse player. This was a poorly arranged marriage by the state, it is obvious that this faux casino could have been placed anywhere with part of the profits still “subsidizing” NYRA. Since Hayward doesn’t like using the word subsidy, but rather calls it a contractual agreement, this contract definitely did not benefit the horse player at Aqu. Thank you for providing this report of the Fan Council, it is the first and only detailed explanation (new report) of it I have seen anywhere and it’s good to see what the topics are. As with the oversight board, if there isn’t any real accountability or consequence to NYRA then Hayward will just “yes” these forums during these panel discussion, mainly handwaving goals and ideas without delving into any specifics and then continue on doing what he wants. I would suggest the Fan Council in their next meetings, offer 2 or 3 concrete specific plans to NYRA on what they would like to see accomplished in the short term and demand NYRA specifically show how they are meeting these goals. Small and accountable steps should be the strategy, not large grand marketing ideas which have been discussed over and over for years.

  7. While I think KOW makes some good points, I think it’s important to point out that it’s not implicit in the Racing & Wagering Board’s resolution establishing the Fan Advisory Council and its mission that the burden for implementation of the initiatives described in the resolution necessarily rests with NYRA. Certainly, NYRA is an important partner as the provider of the state’s top-notch thoroughbred racing product and has the greatest potential to assist with facilitation of fan development as a result, but the Fan Advisory Council has a mandate greater than just thoroughbred racing and broader geographically than just NYRA-operated tracks. This meeting at Aqueduct on Saturday was just the first of several meetings to be held by the Fan Advisory Council at thoroughbred and harness tracks around the state. Information gathering from racing fans themselves is their immediate goal. What eventually emerges as recommendations from the FAC to the Racing & Wagering Board, and what the next steps should be to implement those recommendations, and where any funding required for their implementation would come from, all remain to be seen. I’m optimistic that the “I Love NY Racing” promotion identified in the resolution could be a very exciting and effective promotional initiative to attract new fans and recapture others, but there need to be other partners beyond the racing industry included in the promotional initiative to ensure its successful implementation. To that end, I see the Racing & Wagering Board, as the entity to develop and drive implementation of that initiative, not NYRA.

  8. Great comments and conversation, folks — thanks for taking the time to read and weigh in. Couple of thoughts:

    “Mr.” Young is a “Ms.”–nice to see some female representation, given that so many racing panels/committees I’ve seen have been dominated by men.

    Yes, my understanding is that the Oklahoma viewing stand is so that the public can watch the workouts in the morning.

    I’d agree that this panel isn’t in a position to demand anything of NYRA, and that perhaps the best approach is try to work as partners in support of racing fans.

    Genting took over all the concessions on the racing side — given where we are in the racing year it’s probably too late to expect much before we all head back to Belmont, but maybe next year we’ll have some decent places to hang out (and Brooklyn Saint: let me know when you’re out there! Haven’t seen you in ages.)

    Also seriously second the longing for the paddock bar. 🙂

    I didn’t include everything here that was said, so Al, thanks for pointing out Genting’s position on OTB.

  9. I’m glad to see that fan access is being planned for the Oklahoma track in Saratoga. Currently you need a track license to get onto that part of the property. Two years ago I had to sneak in under cover of darkness to watch Rachel Alexandra prep for the Whitney. That will no longer be required.

    I’m disappointed in Genting’s apparent lack of interest in NYRA horse racing. It should be pointed out, however, that NYRA has a fairly prominent co-marketing agreement with Foxwood’s Casino. I can’t imagine that Genting is thrilled with that arrangement.

  10. SARATOGA THE BEST MEET IN AMERICA WHICH RUNS FOR A 6 1/2 WEEK STINT, WHY CAN’T BETTING KISOKS BE PUT UP IN 3 OR 4 SPOTS IN THE CITY TO SHOW THE SARATOGA RACES LIVE? SAY ONE IN MIDTOWN, WALL STREET ETC WHERE THERE ARE ALOT OF PEOPLE TRAFFIC. TRY SHOWING THE RACES LIVE FIRST THEN INTRODUCE BETTING AS THE NEXT STEP. SINCE THE STATE IS INVOLVED WITH THE FAN ADVISORY I DO NOT EXPECT ANY THING GOOD TO COME OUT OF IT. THE PEOPLE IN THE STATE ARE CLUELESS AS FAR AS THE INNER WORKINGS OF RACING. PLEASE LET ME KNOW WHEN THE NEXT MEETING WILL BE HELD. THANKS JOE

  11. I sum it up like this-it is unfathomable to me that the Slots parlor opens up and the racing side of the Big A does not have a decent, semi-comfortable place to watch the races and have a beer/soda/whatever. Yes, we can all stay at home and bet over the net, but what about the times we want to get out to the Big A?

  12. A bit late to this, but some solid points. Very interesting on Genting having no interest to run NYC OTB, which is not really surprising. And yes, I also see why Genting would unless told they had to would not want to “open up” the Casino side to racing patrons.

    What does need to happen, at least from Derby Week-Breeders’ Cup week is that NYRA is allowed to set up temporary outdoor facilities in heavily traveled tourist areas of Manhattan like the South Street Seaport that would be designed to bring in new, casual and more advanced horseplayers alike, at least until more permanent penetration into restaurants as are supposed to happen over the next couple of years are implemented. That can only help with the racing product.

  13. Robert, the casino and track are managed by wholly separate entities, unless where coordination (like concessions) has been designed. Slots revenue for capital improvements didn’t begin to come in until late October/early November. It makes sense to me that no improvements have yet happened, as disappointing as it is for bettors to have fewer places to hang out. Let’s hope that the plans go through for the fall.

    I can’t really comment on betting kiosks elsewhere in the city, without having complete knowledge of the laws that govern such things.

    Interesting point, Bruce, about the Foxwood agreement. I do remember some raised eyebrows when that was announced last spring.

  14. Teresa:

    As noted, NYRA is supposed to get penetration into restaurants in various parts of NYC over the next three years. I believe it’s supposed to eventually be up to 40 such places from what I’ve read. That, plus at least temporary facilities in key tourist destinations in Manhattan tied to the major events and Saratoga to me are the next steps that need to be done.

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