It isn’t just us that has problems drawing fans

The constant battle to get fans in the racetrack stands.

by Trey Nosrac

There is understandable lament concerning miserable attendance numbers at live racing programs. It shames me when The Meadowlands offers a boffo card, and the attendance is spotty. I have some plausible deniability because I live several hundred miles away, have only been to New Jersey once and have never visited The Big M. However, I don’t have total deniability because I have a racetrack 35 minutes from home and rarely physically attend.

It ain’t us. It isn’t the racetracks. It isn’t the staff, it isn’t the food, and it isn’t even the sport we love. I never heard a bad word about the operation or dedication at The Meadowlands. My local track also does a fine job onsite. The problem is the era in which we live. As Yogi once said, “If the fans don’t want to come, you can’t stop them.”

Every sport has a problem with fans not coming to the fields, stadiums, or arenas like they used to. Sporting venues, despite massive accessibility and comfort investments, are facing dwindling attendance.

Subtract the people on various sporting premises looking for an excuse to get drunk, then subtract those who show up occasionally to preen as hip and rich or those who manage to wrangle the impossible vanity tickets for the rare super contest. Then, factor in bad weather that can ruin the best-laid plans. The number of people left over who regularly attend our arenas, playing fields and racetracks are shrinking.

These trends stink. As a mere lad, the racetrack grandstands vibrated with sights, sounds and smells. The entire crowd rose as the horses turned for home. There was camaraderie, quirky characters and a pleasant buzz at a sporting event. Even as children, those who got a taste of magic now attend the races or ballparks and find themselves looking and listening for ghosts, wondering where everyone went.

Watching sports on television or streaming makes everything appear okay. Looks can be misleading, though. Good producers can make six people dressed in weird clothing and face paint look like the siege of the Bastille. Case in point, last summer, I was on television. When the show aired, it appeared to be a bit of an audience and was fast-paced. In the real world, the audience was less than 30 people. There were almost more production people than in the audience. Showbiz magic does not reflect the falling onsite attendance for sports and other entertainment venues.

Not being in the building does not mean sports fans are disappearing. They are just a different breed of fan. Many of them are statistical fans and gambling fans. The problem at the root of their remaining at home is that they prefer convivence over sociability, not to mention that watching from a device is free. Fans can engage in their sports unlike ever before in history.

Think of a phenomenal race program like the Meadowlands Pace.

Joe Smith asks himself whether he fights traffic or stays home and boots up his six-foot flatscreen in spectacular, high definition, for the livestream feed in his living room or specially designed media room. Joe Smith, who used to be in the harness racing grandstand, can pump up his surround sound, order Uber eats, and boot up his second device or screen with the racing program. Joe can fire up his third device, recline in his lazy boy massage chair, place his wagers, and do heaven knows what else while waiting for the big race.

How can a racetrack compete with that? How can you compete with home and free or a specially designed and equipped media room?

Even troglodytes like me watch sports on two devices, one for the contest and another that allows searches for player stats and visualizations. We can get live scores, follow the action on social media, and fetch related videos. Getting fans out of their massage chair, navigating to a strange place, subjecting themselves to viruses, and socializing is like asking a 14-year-old kid to join a Boy Scout troop. The activity may benefit the kid but rarely happens in 2023.

I know you know all this. We all know the empty grandstands are troubling and that new digital fans are missing a cool thing being in a crowd as the trotter pulls and moves up on the backstretch, the smell of popcorn, and slapping backs with your pals. But it is not 1967, and it is what it is.

Live attendance? A tough nut to crack. Another mountain to climb. The wintertime and overnight racing are especially dreadful. When I check in on a few racetracks via video stream in what I call the racing off-season, usually nary a soul is on those dark and windy aprons. If there were any live customers, they were inside because, at 10:30 on a winter evening, it would be hard to arrange poker games on the premises.

Perhaps we should take a cue from that TV show. Forget about grandstands. Make that territory into greenspaces. Close our symbols of emptiness or put dummies in the seats, whatever. For production purposes, herd the small group who attend the harness races together, entice a studio-type audience with gimmicks, and even pay participants to be part of the produced show. The perception of people who visit the racetrack should never be: “Where is everybody?”

Increasing live attendance at the racetrack is a game of pushing a heavy stone up a steep slope. There are always a few happy exceptions, and we should take these opportunities to grab them when possible. If you believe a night at the racetrack will have a buzz, that’s the night to invite friends.

Nobody is to blame for empty grandstands, but it hurts. Putting our efforts behind new initiatives that present our sport with a digital buzz is where the smart money should go.