With the state government about to take control of its operations, the New York Racing Association on June 26 unveiled its new marketing director to a state financial control panel.
Rodnell Workman, a former executive for Madison Square Garden and the New York Giants, was presented to the state’s Franchise Oversight Board--a panel that has shown increasing concerns over NYRA’s ability to market its product.
“We are very fortunate we could attract someone with his experience and talent,” said Ellen McClain, who was recently appointed NYRA president following the firing of Charles Hayward over the racing group’s takeout troubles that cost bettors more than $8.5 million.
The appearance of Workman before the oversight board came a week after state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed on legislation to have the state take over the NYRA board for at least the next three years. The new board--which will be dominated by appointees of Cuomo--has yet to be named, though most observers expect it will be in place before the start of NYRA’s Saratoga meet.
If NYRA executives and the current board are feeling in limbo, they aren’t showing it--with plans moving ahead for $20 million in capital spending, including new dormitories at Belmont, and the development of a new marketing strategy. In a bit of NYRA tradition at the oversight meetings, NYRA executives were also peppered for more specifics on everything from capital construction timetables to a recent sole source contract with an outside public relations firm.
The initial marketing push included a recent television ad campaign--centered around the recent Belmont Stakes (gr. I)--that saw NYRA spend its first dollars on television in years. NYRA officials did not reveal how much two separate ad purchases cost and could not immediately say what company produced the ads.
As track officials around the country have been trying for years, Workman said his goal is to attract new customers--led by women and younger people--to tracks.
“There’s a bright future ahead, both for NYRA and horse racing in the state,” Workman told the state panel charged with overseeing NYRA’s finances.
But members of the oversight panel suggested Workman’s task will not be easy as, say, promoting a National Football League team.
“It seems the principle focus has got to be on the track getting a new generation of fans," Richard Aurelio, an oversight board member, told NYRA officials. "That should be the major priority of any marketing campaign. The sport is dying. Every time you look at the obituary page you’re losing a racing fan.”
“You can’t let the Triple Crown be the only event for the industry for the year,” he added.
NYRA officials did not immediately provide Workman’s salary.
Given the recent move by the Cuomo administration and lawmakers to assume control of the NYRA board, one oversight board member wondered aloud at the beginning of the meeting about NYRA’s state of current operations--and who is in charge.
“I’m president and chief operating officer and I’m running the company at this time,” McClain said. She added that NYRA executives are “ready to go” with a number of marketing and other ideas to present to the new state-dominated board when it is formed. The state board takes over when a majority of its government-appointed members are selected; the new 17-member board, down from the current 25 members, will include five members selected by the existing NYRA board.
Whether the new panel will keep on the current NYRA executive team, or come in with a new slate, remains uncertain. (NYRA had drawn the anger of the oversight panel when it appointed McClain before the state Inspector General’s office completed its probe of the takeout scandal, including which NYRA executives may have known about that the takeout levels on exotic bets were being overcharged).
Following the meeting, McClain declined to discuss the complications of running a company in a limbo status, or to say if any major decisions are being put on hold until the state takes over NYRA’s operations.
But in the oversight meeting, McClain outlined a number of projects moving ahead, including the $20 million in capital spending and efforts to negotiate several new contracts, including NYRA’s existing tote contract that expires in the fall. She did say NYRA is awaiting the new board’s selection before deciding on major capital projects beyond this year.
McClain said the recent Aqueduct meet saw the daily average handle rise 14% over the previous year and average field size grow by a half horse per race. In the 37 days of the current Belmont meet, she said handle has totaled $145 million, which she described as “on track” to help NYRA achieve its budget numbers.
McClain said a task force appointed to look into the high number of equine deaths during the winter at Aqueduct is also nearing completion of its report.
“They’re not at an above average level, not like we saw at Aqueduct, so things seem to be at a good place,” McClain told the board of equine injuries in the current Belmont meet.