Friday, July 20, 2012

Downhill rides

I've made a couple of field trips this month to sporting locations this month. Buffalo Raceway and Coca-Cola Field have something in common: they aren't what they used to be in terms of attendance.

The racetrack probably is the more interesting of the two places from an observer's standpoint. The issues surrounding horse racing have been quite well documented. The Sport of Kings, whatever that means, was big news back through the 1960's or so. Heck, the local sportscasters used to give the daily double on their late night television shows every night, even though there was no off-track betting and in theory the only people who would be interested were at the track and thus knew how it came out. I guess the key words there are "in theory."

But horse racing has had some problems since then. Other entertainment options have multiplied. The industry was ill-equipped to embrace television when it arrived in full force around that times. Racing officials thought opening the doors would always be enough, and it didn't take long to disprove that theory. For most people, horse racing devolved down to the Triple Crown races unless you lived near Saratoga in August, which had a unique county fair atmosphere that pulls in thousands of fans a day.

Around that time, governments decided to use other forms of gambling in an effort to raise money. The lotteries cane first, followed in many states by casinos filled with slot machines. Suddenly there were plenty of legal ways to bet and lose their money as racing lost its monopoly. Not only that, but it was much easier to make a wager on some numbers or on the pull of a handle as opposed to trying to figure out which horse might win a race. You had to think, and plenty of people don't want to do that. The result has been predictable. The pot is being split into too many piles so that even the casinos aren't doing as well as they used to do. Racing, at the bottom of the list, is really struggling. Locally, Fort Erie race track may close at the end of the year if it doesn't find a buyer.

A trip to Buffalo Raceway now is an odd experience. The grandstand is as big as it ever was, but it was almost completely empty. That always gives a "what are we doing here?" atmosphere. We hung out in the air conditioned clubhouse this hot summer night, and there were many rows of empty tables there as well. I suppose it could be argued that people had better things to do on July 4, but on the other hand virtually everyone wasn't working and thus had the opportunity to show up if they so chose. With so few people in the building -- it's hard to judge, but couldn't have been more than a couple of hundred -- I swear that a $2 show bet changed the betting odds significantly.

Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, the plight of the Buffalo Bisons recently received some publicity through this article by Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News. While no one expected attendance to stay at the million-per-year levels of the late 1980's when the team moved into the new ballpark, the numbers do keep dropping.

The Bisons put a lot of promotional muscle into their three big events of July - the annual July 3 show with the Buffalo Philharmonic, the AAA Home Run Derby and the AAA All-Star Game. It paid off with big crowds for all of them. But for the most part, the only time that crowds turn is when fireworks are part of the program. As I've said to Mike, the Bisons seem to be more in the fireworks business at times than the baseball business.

I went the other night to a Bisons' game. It was a perfect night for summer baseball. It had the added advantage of having a popular promotion, as the first 4,000 fans received replicas of City Hall. (I even showed up early to make sure I got one.) But there were fewer people than that who actually stuck around to watch the game; some people grabbed the model and then went home. It wasn't a particularly interesting game, but that's the luck of the draw -- the games the night before and the night after had plenty of excitement.

The problem in both cases is that there's no sure cure for either venue's problems. Better horses aren't exactly a lure these days, and the race tracks certainly don't have much money for promotions.

Meanwhile, it doesn't hurt a baseball team to win, but I can't say I've ever heard many people say, "I'm not going to see the Bisons play this week, because they aren't very good right now." A change in team affiliation comes up in such situations. But, it's tough to believe that many teams would be more popular than the Mets as a parent club. Yes, the Yankees are the most popular major-league team in town, but they aren't going anywhere. There is a lot of Mets' clothing that is worn by fans during Bisons' home games, more than I ever saw during the Cleveland and Pittsburgh days. Mets' games are shown on local television, so it's easy to follow ex-Bisons as they move up the ladder. It's difficult to think that a switch to the Blue Jays would do much good for attendance, even if the on-field product was better.

There's no great point to all this. It wouldn't be surprising to see Buffalo Raceway get out of the horse racing business and stick to slot machines. The Bisons aren't going away, but crowds averaging 10,000 a night aren't coming back soon either.Enjoy the present while you can, kids, because the future is more of an unknown that you could ever guess.

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