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The Price of Free

The View

Last month, it was announced that beginning this year, the Woodbine Entertainment Group will begin charging a $10 admission to attend the Pepsi North America Cup.

I, for one, applaud them for the decision.

Among the harness racing community, it’s fair to say however, that the reaction was mixed. On social media, I have read a fair bit of cynicism. The tone being, “Just when we need fans the most, we turn them away,” and “Free admission is the best thing we have going for our sport.”

The problem with free is that it’s not just a price - it’s a statement. In a world where we’re required to pay $20 to watch 17-year-olds play Junior hockey, $12.95 to watch Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa 2, and $10 for an eight-year-old to play a 20 minute game of glow-in-the-dark mini golf, we have an expectation to pay for our entertainment products. And we expect to be entertained.

We have also been taught, consciously or subconsciously, that price correlates to quality.

If I tell you there’s a restaurant that serves $2 steaks and 99 cent lobster, is your first impression that it’s a place where you’ll receive a fantastic meal? Or have you allowed your mind to immediately be wary about what you’ll get in return for that price?

Libraries provide practically every book ever written, 100% free of charge. Yet, as millions of books collect dust on library shelves, Amazon, has become the world’s leading retailer with more than $5 billion in book revenues annually.

Public parks sit empty while shopping malls are full. Paid parking lots are bustling even though free street parking is located just steps away. And free art galleries and museums struggle to convince people to walk through the doors. There are numerous reasons why we make these choices, but it has a lot to do with perception of quality, and the idea that “free” is synonymous with “worthless.”

Over the past decade, racetracks have provided admission and parking free of charge and the resulting influx of big crowds has never happened. The sport’s biggest and most attended events like the Gold Cup and Saucer, Little Brown Jug, Kentucky Derby and The Preakness already have some form of admission price. And they are generally heralded as success stories.

I recently learned that for $27 per person, with a minimum of two people, I can be locked in a room and be provided clues to attempt to get out of that room in 45 minutes. Yes, “escape rooms” are a multi-million dollar business, with numerous locations around the world. And we can’t charge $10 for our biggest racing day of the year?

The North America Cup is a four-hour event, outdoors, at one of the nicest racetracks in Canada. The best horses and drivers, lots of entertainment and food options, and the chance to watch and wager on a full card of races. If 3,000 people pay $10 per person, that $30,000 in revenue is equivalent to the revenues generated (based on a 3% return back to the track) by increasing the simulcast handle on that night by $1 million. Something we know is a difficult task.

As tracks build out their entertainment offerings, and create events that offer real value to customers, admission charges, reserved seats, and special VIP paid experiences at the track are all needed to elevate what we offer. Converting from free to paid will undoubtedly be a rocky transition, and it should only happen on days when we’re sure the entertainment offering is worth the price of admission. But on this one, perseverance is key.

If we charge $10 for our biggest events, can we compete with awful movies, glow-in-the-dark mini-golf and being imprisoned in a room for three-quarters of an hour? I’ll let you answer that question.

Darryl Kaplan

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