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Park the Myth
Monday, June 16, 2014 - by Bob Carson

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Editor's Note: The USTA website is pleased to present freelance writer Bob Carson and his popular "Outside the Box" features. This monthly series is a menu of outlandish proposals presented with a wink -- but the purpose behind them is serious. The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.

Places matter. Their rules, their scale and their design include or exclude civil society…they map our lives.” -- Rebecca Solnit

Bob Carson

One warm summer evening, in 2005, the owner of the Chillicothe Paints professional baseball team nodded in the direction of the few hundred fans smattered throughout quaint V. A. Memorial Stadium. He spoke softly.

“It’s not easy to get people to leave their homes to attend live events, it gets harder every year.”

He was prophetic; after 15 seasons, the Paints relinquished the franchise in 2008. To those of us who paid attention, the ballgames were a great product, fun and affordable. The staff tried hard to fill those yellow seats, but the few hundred hardy souls who regularly trudged out to the ballpark were not enough to pay the bills.

Empty racetrack grandstands always make me feel gloomy. I think of the Paints and a hundred similar businesses that live off gate receipts. We all know that live attendance for live horse racing has been in a long freefall. Nobody seems to have a parachute. If it is true that misery loves company, then we have company.

There is a myth that Americans attend sporting events and entertainment venues in droves. People believe that large crowds are itching to line up and purchase tickets. The “packed house” myth is perpetuated by television presentations. This is ironic because television has played a key role in the decrease in live attendance at sporting events.

Autumn Ryan graphic

My alleged work allows me to wander the country and sample sporting and entertainment events. My main beat has been minor league baseball. For two decades, minor league baseball has had an attendance upswing and is still chugging along. As soon as a few teams showed they could grind out a profit, ballparks sprang up like tattoos in prison yards. A few teams, like the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs or the Dayton Dragons find the magic and do a great business; more common are teams like the Tampa Yankees playing before a few hundred fans in an 11,000 seat stadium.

Stories of success at the box office are usually a bit of an exaggeration or an aberration. Plenty of cities that opened new ballparks lost buckets of money. I have visited countless minor league ballparks, hockey arenas, auto races and college stadiums that are often every bit as empty as the grandstands at the horse racetracks.

Live attendance has always been a tough sell. The public has changed dramatically since the days when 50,000 fans in fedoras stormed the turnstiles to watch Dan Patch or Albatross circle the field. Today, it is hard to get people out of their lazy boy recliners, get in their cars, pay admission, and face the elements to see anything. Television has hurt attendance. The computer may mortally wound the box office. How many live sporting events or entertainment events have you attended in the last year? The answer is usually a handful -- or less.

Outdoor events, like horse racing, face a gauntlet of possible gate killers; bad weather is always a threat, weekday or weeknights are difficult sells, a poor product dulls the appetite, repeat customers are very rare, few will travel more than a half hour to a venue -- and on and on.

Attendance figures tell the sad tale, and often the numbers on paper are inflated. Usually the empty seats outnumber the occupied by multiples of double digits. Compounding the problems is that it is very difficult to infuse a special event mentality into events like horse racing, films or baseball where fans have access to the product on a daily basis -- in their pocket.

Here are a few notes on my live attendance experiences from recent live events:

  • Harness racetrack grandstand -- 34 people (several of who appeared to be comatose).
  • Movie theater -- for a stunningly loud action film with scantily clad people, the total was 15 (several were teenagers who attempted to provide their own soundtrack).
  • Professional (minor league) hockey game -- announced crowd of 1,200 -- real crowd, maybe 500, of which a healthy number enjoyed smashing their hands against plexiglas and bellowing.
  • Community theater production -- 65 people (probably all close relatives to the performers).
  • Concert, with Bruce Cockburn, an absolutely outstanding singer/guitarist/musician, at a theater which holds 642; it was about half full.

Every one of these sparsely attended venues gave off a troubling aura. Poor attendance affects those who do make the scene. Customers sit there feeling bad for the performers, sad for the operators, wondering why the place is empty. The deflating feeling is not just in the optics, it is in the sound level. An empty facility affects everyone in a negative manner. Baseball players have told me, “The only time playing ball feels like work is when it is so quiet in the stands that you can hear individual conversations; when the place is loud, it’s a lot more fun.”

We are extremely fortunate in horse racing. Unlike most of the events above, in our sport, our box office receipts are a perk. We do not require people in the stands for our revenue, we require people to wager. This is huge.

This column is not a suggestion that we give up on getting people to attend races. It is our responsibility as fans, owners and trainers to convert the non-horse race crowd to the wisdom of our ways. Getting close to the horses and the action should always be part of the plan. The tactile experiences of touching, smelling and seeing the animals will always be a great selling point as we try to seal the deal with a potential fan.

When we do bring a new person to the live portion of our show -- let’s make sure there are no empty grandstands.

Here is a simple plan that would easily accomplish that goal.

Let’s bulldoze those cavernous, mocking relics from another era. Let’s replace our gigantic pigeon roosts with small, tasteful, friends and family areas. Design small indoor facilities that can quickly spill into the fresh air on nice days. Forget about tiered seating in rows. Our endless supply of devices for wagering will soon make standing in line to wager a distant memory.

In lieu of the concrete and steel that have been carted away, the old grandstand footprint should be replaced with grass, flowers, trees and benches. Create welcoming green spaces where a few of our best representatives, the horses, are stabled and safely graze. What about making these park-like areas open to the public every day, so that curious folks or families can stroll around and watch the horses work their magic? Our live attendance should be for ambiance rather than short term profit.

Tearing down stuff is easy. I once watched my entire cape cod bungalow leveled for development; the whole procedure took less than an hour to wipe away any trace of the place and turn it into a smooth patch of dirt. Modern designers can do wonders with compact spaces and compelling landscapes. If you attend live races these days, ask yourself if you would rather walk into an echoing mausoleum or stroll past a few horses and a park-like setting to the racetrack apron. If the weather is ugly, would you rather be inside with friends and fellow fans in relatively close proximity or would you rather roost with the pigeons.

Redevelopment of this ilk is not just ambiance and esthetics, it is good business. Strong psychological cues are sent when you are congregated in smaller spaces; these same signals are sent when a handful of lonely bodies are scattered in massive tombs.

The positive and negative cues also play out on video feeds. When video feeds of other sports are sent into the world, directors and producers go to great lengths to disguise the fact that the grandstands are under populated. They focus on closes ups of clusters while they deep six wide pans of empty chairs.

Worrying about flash crowds who would not have seats on race day is like worrying that the framed Picasso you found at a flea market won’t fit in your trunk. A sell out is one of the few problems promoters of live events long for. A baseball GM once said to me, “The day I can possibly think about turning a customer away will be the best day of my career.” Besides, temporary seats and temporary workers could fill the breach. Should we ever find seating trouble -- the buzz of a sellout, any sellout would be marketing nirvana.

Obviously we have exceptions to the proposed deconstruction; racetracks like the Meadowlands that have fantastic demographics and can support live crowds or the Delaware Fairgrounds for the Little Brown Jug that is close to Historic Landmark status should be left alone. One size does not fit all. However, we have plenty of tracks where the grandstands are financial, aesthetic and psychological liabilities. Several of our tracks already cordon off vast sections of the grandstands, so why keep them around as fortresses of futility.

Send in the bulldozers. Send in the architects and landscapers. Let’s make our sparse crowds feel like they are winners; let’s create places and spaces where good vibes are the only echoes.

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